The first electric car in America

In America, the famous inventor Thomas Edison was working on a new type of battery – which used nickel-iron and promised even greater gains – specifically for electric vehicles.

According to an article in Electric World magazine, published in 1925, between 1910 and 1925 battery technology progressed in leaps and bounds. Storage capacity increased by 35 per cent, service life by an impressive 300 per cent and maintenance costs fell by 63 per cent.

A century before the Toyota Prius and the Nissan Leaf became the poster boys for supporters of a sustainable green method of transport, electric vehicles were advertised as the environmentally friendly alternative to traditional transportation. Horse-drawn carriages and wagons were sturdy and dependable but the accumulation of horse manure and urine in large towns and cities was a serious problem.

The electric vehicle was clean technology with none of the smell and mess associated with horse-drawn carriages. Not only that, but the electric car produced far less noise than an internal combustion engine, started more easily and had no need of a complex crash gearbox. It was also more convenient than steam, which needed time to light up and build a head of steam.

At the Chicago World’s Fair, held in 1893, six electric vehicles vied for the public’s attention. Interestingly, the only American exhibit was a twelve-seater designed by William Morrison of Des Moines, Iowa, the rest being European in origin. The Morrison machine used twenty-four cells to power a 4bhp motor – enough for a top speed of 14mph (22km/h). The battery charging time was around ten hours.

The American Battery Company of Chicago had bought the rights to the fringe-topped contraption in the hopes of manufacturing it. At the World’s Fair, company president George Burroughs gave his youngest son, Edgar Rice Burroughs, the job of ferrying potential customers around the grounds. Edgar, of course, would go on to become a famous novelist and the creator of Tarzan. The vehicle certainly wowed the crowds who gathered to watch its progress.

On 28 November 1895, company secretary Harold Sturges entered a modified electric in a race organised by the Chicago Times Herald. Unfortunately, the combination of a 54-mile route (87km), from Chicago to Evanston and back again, and terrible weather, conspired against him. Despite having extra batteries, his vehicle was ill-prepared for several inches of fresh snow and drifts. It came to a halt in the slush and ice having covered less than a quarter of the route.

Another electric car – the Electrobat made by Henry Morris and Pedro Salom from Philadelphia – fell victim to the same malady and the race was won by a petrol-powered Duryea. The first automobile race had laid down an ominous marker: for all their smoothness and refinement, only an internal combustion engine could be relied upon to battle through to the end.

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