Although electric cars were popular with wealthy private individuals, as the twentieth century dawned they enjoyed their greatest sales success as electric cabs. Electric ‘horseless carriages’ plied for trade in major cities across the world – and America in particular. For a time, their advantages of smooth running, reliability and simplicity appeared to be a winning combination and led to the first attempt to creation a truly nationwide personal transport infrastructure.
In America, the story really began in 1894 when business associates Henry Morris and Pedro Salom designed and built an electric vehicle in a mere two months. Morris, who was a mechanical engineer, based the design on lessons he had learned while working on battery-powered trams. He used a modified motor taken from a ship, a lead-acid battery slung as low as possible and carriage-style wheels.
The vehicle, which was completely open rather like a wagon, had plenty of room for Morris and Salom and was steered via a tiller arrangement that controlled the rear wheels. It had carriage-style spoked wheels and side-mounted lamps. The first stunned pedestrians who saw it bouncing down the road in Morris’s home city of Philadelphia must have though it looked like a runaway crate on four wheels. It certainly didn’t have the attractive lines of a horse-drawn carriage.
Morris was the first to admit that his first electric carriage had allowed form to follow function – making the vehicle more attractive to prospective customers would come later. Instead, the duo’s first electric vehicle was a proof-of-concept lash-up – a way of refining the mechanical design before moving on to more ambitious things.
Altogether, the car weighed a hefty 4,250lb (1,927 kg), including the 1,600lb (725kg) battery pack. The claimed performance was 15mph (24km/h) and it had a scarcely believable 50-mile (80km) touring range.
For the first test ride on 31 August 1894, the two business partners had to apply for a special permit from City Hall and, rather like the red flag act in England, a policeman was detailed to walk in front of the whirring vehicle to warn horse-drawn carriages and pedestrians of what was coming their way.
Morris and Salom patented their idea the same day they took to the Philadelphia streets and their vehicle went into production the following year. Each vehicle was hand-built, rather like a horse-drawn carriage, and the partners were continually refining their ideas with the result that no two Electrobats were exactly the same (automobile mass production was still some way off). Later Electrobats used two 1.5bhp motors that were good for a 25-mile (40km) range and a top speed of 20mph (32km/h), which was plenty fast enough on the roads of the day.
They were considerably lighter, too, thanks to a significant reduction in the weight of the battery from 1,600lb (725kg) to 640lb (290kg) – the fourth, and final, Electrobat ran on a battery that weighed a ‘mere’ 350lb (158kg).
The reduction in weight meant the Electrobats were able to run on pneumatic tyres, rather than steel, for a more comfortable ride. The bodywork was built by the Charles Caffrey Carriage Company, in Camden, New Jersey, just across the Delaware River. The Caffrey Carriageworks also built steam vehicles including, in 1895, an intriguing four-wheel drive version with steam motors on each wheel. The motors could be selected together or individually via a lever.
The Electrobat was a modest success – despite not finishing, the second-generation Electrobat took the judges’ medal at the Chicago Times-Herald Chicago-to-Evanston race in 1895 – but Morris and Salom had bigger plans for it. In 1896, they founded the Morris and Salom Electric Carriage and Wagon Company and continued to refine their design. They reckoned their invention would be the perfect inner-city hansom cab and set out to corner the market. By early 1897, a small fleet of Electrobat cabs were competing for business on the streets of New York.
The passenger sat at the front, accessed via two outward swinging doors, and the driver sat on top and behind rather like his predecessor, the coachman. New Yorkers came to know the drivers as ‘lightning cabbies’ denoting the fact that their vehicles were powered by electricity.
The novelty factor alone made battery-powered cabs popular with trendy travellers and they could be hired for a single trip, a day or even (if you really wanted to show off to your friends) an entire month. By June 1897, the Electrobats were doing steady business – making 632 journeys carrying 1,580 passengers and covering an impressive 4,603 miles (7,406km) in a single month.
The charges were the same as for a horse-drawn carriage: a dollar for the first two miles and fifty cents for each subsequent mile. If hired by the hour, a cab cost $1 per 60min. Soon electric cabs built by Morris and Salom were operating on the streets of London and Paris, too.
Maximizing operational time was vitally important for a cab – lengthy recharge times would have made them financial non-starters – so the battery box was fitted to a roller tray. Entrepreneur Issac L. Rice, who took over in September 1897, refined the system. When the batteries ran low, the driver simply called into a charging station where it was removed and replaced in one smooth operation. The cab backed into a charging dock.
Hydraulic rams lifted it up and held it in position with a loading table while the battery pack was rolled out. At the same time, an overhead crane swung a fresh battery pack into place on the table directly behind the cab. When everything was ready, a hydraulic ram pushed the 1,250lb (567kg) battery pack into the cab, where it automatically connected. A maintenance operator slammed the doors of the battery compartment closed before waving the cabbie on his way.
If the operation went smoothly, an electric cab could be turned around and back on the streets in a few minutes. The contacts were made automatically as the tray locked into place and the circuit was completed by the driver turning a switch. A hand lever governed the top speed, which was a maximum of 15mph (24km/h). A conventional plug socket was also provided for recharging in an emergency or overnight.
A feature in American Machinist on 8 July 1897, claimed:
The electric hansoms, offered for public use only since March 15th of this year, are meeting with public favour to the extent it is claimed of paying current expenses and leaving an actual profit, the rates of hire being the same as those of horse-drawn hansom cabs in New York City.
Four months after they first took to the streets of New York, the business was already making money. Electric cabs were a hit.