Sunday, September 18, 2011

The Electric Car: Technological Blast From the Past

I decided to be instep with the rest of the blogging world and stop talking about the past (kinda) and talk about the present (sorta). In the last decade there has been the birth and growth of the going green movement. Everyone and their grandmother has tried to be more "green." People recycle more, use those reusable shopping bags, changing over to energy efficient light bulbs, all that small scale stuff you can do on your own and then there are those that go the extra mile. You know, the house in the neighborhood covered in solar panels, house completely converted to use solar energy and with the electric car parked in front, that house that never gets a gas or electric bill and is in the process of figuring out how to get rid of the water bill too. But little does that family, or mostly everyone, know that the use of electric cars is well over 100 years in the making, therefore making it, by our modern standards of technology, a dead technology.


Ok, so the image above is no Chevy Volt, but it was the first electric vehicle. That fine piece of machinery that combines class and performance was created by Anyos Jedlik. Jedlik, a Hungarian inventor, is best known in the scientific community for his experiments with electromagnetic self-rotors (1827). In plain English it means that he created the first electric motor...IN THE HISTORY OF THE WORLD. That makes Jedlik the Great-Grandfather of the electric car. However, American inventor Thomas Davenport took Jedlik's motor on a skateboard and went one step further. He took the motor and hooked it up to a separate battery and TADAH! The electric car had been officially born...kind of. Thomas's motor was put into a model car and ran along a electric track, so it was the first race car set but still electric cars in 1833, who cares about what size they were. From then up until the Civil War several advancements were made on electric motors, around the globe. In 1835, Sibrandus Stratingh and Christoper Becker, of the Netherlands, created a child size electric powered car, I guess that would make them the Fathers of Power Wheels. In 1838, an electric train motor was created by Scottish inventor Robert Davidson and topped out at an amazing break neck speed of 4 mph (or 6.4 km for my non American readers). By 1839, another Scotsman, Robert Anderson, put the first electric powered carriage on the road. However, all these early models ran of one use batteries. It wasn't until the late 1840s that rechargeable batteries were used. Now, the work on an electric vehicle took a dive for about 7 years as the Civil War tensions grew and exploded in the U.S. and economic downfall was running rapid around the globe. It wouldn't be until after the Civil War that we see more steps taking in advancing electric vehicle technologies.


 After the Civil War, in America, and the revolutions across Europe the world got back to the normal day to day stuff. In the late 1860s electric vehicle technology picked up right were it left off. Again the Europeans took the lead. Frenchmen, Gaston Plante and Camille Faure, improved battery life and Austrian inventor Franz Kravogl made the first electric powered cycle and showed it off to the world at the 1867 World Exposition. After that Europe had electric fever. France and England began nation wide funding for electric vehicle production. Switzerland wasn't far behind and actually had the first nation to have a fully function electric powered railway. Then London went completely electric in its subway system by 1884. The ironic thing about electric powered trains is that they were then used to transport coal from the mines to the city, I guess they didn't see the value in electric power for cities just yet. The electric vehicle was used for recreation too. It was used by many trill seekers and and people trying to make a name for themselves. the most notable two would be Jamais Contente and Ferdinand Porsche. Contente set the first land speed record for a motor vehicle. That's right the O.G. Evil Knievel Contente held the record for going the fastest, and how fast you may be wondering, well it was a break neck speed of 66 mph (1899). As for Porsche, the man made the first AWD vehicle (1899), so your welcome Subaru. But this was just the beginning for the electric vehicle, after the turn of the 20th century the electric car would take off for what looked like to be a world changing invention and started right here in the good ole USA.

                                                              National Archives

So when we think of Iowa we don't think of the car industry, but that is where America's first electric car rolled out of. William Morrison developed not just the first electric car but perhaps the first station wagon (1891). His vehicle broke the speed of...well it was faster then a mild wind gust, able to top out at 14 mph. After Morrison's work Americans turned their attention to developing this new electric technology. However, the technology was not fully understood so they started out small. Now, by small I mean, well small by our modern standards. Electric tricycles had been  manufactured by several companies for well over a decade. The first real milestone in the History of the American Electric Car comes form 1897. The year 1897 is perhaps a date for US automakers to look back on and see the success of electric car in a major US city. Ok, so enough build up, basically what happened was the Electric Carriage and Wagon Company filled an order for a electric taxis to operate in...New York City. After that the electric craze was on. Every major American car company and every mechanic with a dream of getting rich created the next and best electric car. Now why and how did this cars dominate the American car market? Well there are a few reasons. First, they were a smooth ride on every road, city or county. Second, they lacked the noise of a gasoline powered engine, which made driving a better experience. Third, and most importantly they were easy to fix, they, like electric models today, lacked the complexity of combustion engines. Fourth, you didn't look like a clown every time you wanted to start it, you know that crank in the front of the car to get the engine to turn over. Also, the electric car because of its simplicity, was marketed towards women. Another jolt to the popularity was  the ability to recharge right at home, that's right I mean what did you think Chevy invented that? And how much you may be wondering, well the basic models cost under $1000  and up to $3000 for the more luxurious models. By 1912 some 33000 electric cars were used in America, that was almost 40% of the car market and in 1912! But that was the peak and things began to change in the post WWI America.


The end for the electric car came in the 1920s. The reasons? Well its thing we all take for granted today. Mainly the two big factors are were the growth of a national interstate system and the finding of oil in the American west. The interstate systems made long distance travel easier and the electric car technology could not keep up with how fast the system grew. Also electric cars could not keep a speed high enough for highway driving. The oil, in states like Texas, was in such great supply it made gasoline so cheap and affordable that it just seemed silly to buy an electric car. Another factor was that the design of gasoline cars took a page out of the electric car's book by installing the electric starter, which we all enjoy today. And as crazy as this is going to sound but the muffler lead to the end of the electric car. How? Well it made combustion engine cars quieter. But the real nail in the coffin came from Henry Ford. Mass production allowed Ford to sell his cars for cheaper, every year he produced a new model. How cheap? Well by 1916 you could buy a Ford for around $350 bucks. After this the decline was on, I guess you can say the electric car lost its charge. There was attempts to revive the electric car scene but all met limited success. The biggest achievement of the electric car in the modern era would be an event in 1971. NASA's Lunar Rover, or better known as the moon buggy, used in the Apollo missions was 100% electric powered. It wouldn't be until the mid 1990s that the electric car would be jumped back to life.


Ok, so not everyone is parking and charging a Tesla Roadster in their garage but it is a sign of change. That change started really after the Oil Crisis of the 1970s. I mean green energy really got a push especially after President Jimmy Carter put solar panels on the roof of the White House. But the electric car would make a comeback until the Los Angeles Auto Show (1990) and GM was leading the way. People began to push, indirectly, for an electric car. There were clean air acts passed, moves for clean energy and search for a zero emission vehicle. It was then that every major American auto company jumped on the electric bandwagon. But after some protests and protests supported by...well it is pretty obvious that is way the oil companies. So again the electric car was dead, well not dead like last time maybe more like on life support. It was kept alive by smaller companies and general do gooders in search of ways to clean up the earth. One company was the Tesla Motors which now corners the market on high end electric sport cars. Again, other countries then took the lead in the development of electric cars (Honda, Toyota, Nissan, Mini, Peugeot). However, with the exception of Mini and Peugeot, these cars were only Hybrids and still dependent on gasoline. It wasn't until recent when Chevy really set the bar with the Volt. And now with the Volt being manufactured it seems every car company on the planet in now producing electric cars to some extent. The only negative to them is the price. The car companies are riding the trend of going green to earn some green. However, with the current production rate it is only a matter of time the prices are lowered by the companies themselves, or by governments passing laws in the promotion of electric car.



 We have come along way in the field of electric cars. Above we can see 100 years of progress, from the a Detroit manufactured 1912 model to the  Detroit manufactured 2011 Chevy Volt. But why has it taken us so long? We could easily blame it on the government or big oil companies, but I think it falls more on us as Americans. We should have never let the technology gp away like we did. We should have encouraged it in a post WWI America. The development age was perfect but we went for the easy road and took the combustion engine and kicked the electric engine to the curb. Perhaps reading this will show us that some technologies we have today could be even better if they were nurtured in their developments. Perhaps today we would not be paying $5 a gallon for gas. Perhaps we wouldn't be involved in wars that threaten us domestic and abroad. Perhaps we wouldn't be in the environmental state we are in now. But that was me just thinking out load. What I'd really like is just to show how valuable the past is and that things that seem so modern and life changing just didn't happen over night. The electric car has always been the wave of the future. It has always seem to be on the brink of being the vehicle of Americans. I think it is finally time we take that step and make over 100 years of development a success. 


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