Warehouse K
Running On Batteries
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Electric Cars Almost Changed History

By James Donahue

Believe it or not, electric cars were invented and in use in Europe as early as 1840, they were gaining popularity after advanced storage batteries were developed in 1881, and a Belgian-built electric race car set a world record of 68 miles per hour for land speed in 1899.

Imagine what a different world this would be if the world had gone with the electric car instead of the eternal combustion engine, which also was being developed in Europe at about the same time.

While the electric car was showing a lot of promise at the turn of the century, they were costly. Such a car would cost its owner something around $2,000, which was a lot of money in those times. It was after Charles and Frank Duryea began producing the first gasoline-powered car for sale in 1893 at Springfield, Massachusetts that the automobile began being seen in America. And it was Henry Ford’s invention of the assembly line method of production that produced a Model T that sold for $575 that kick-started the nation’s love for the gasoline powered car.

Among the early competitors in the automobile market at that time was the Stanley Steamer, produced from 1902 to 1924 by the Stanley Motor Carriage Company of Newton, Mass. The cars operated on steam engines that were, unfortunately, powered by a gasoline powered burner.

The Baker Motor Vehicle Company of Cleveland, Ohio, was the primary maker of electric automobiles during about that same time. The Baker Electric was first produced in 1899 and continued until 1916.  In 1906, with over 800 cars manufactured, the company was rated as the largest electric car maker in the world.

With three different types of powered cars in competition, it was inevitable that the cheapest to buy and cheapest car to run would win out. After Ford began mass producing the Model T, his car, powered by an internal combustion engine fed by very inexpensive gasoline was the winner, purely for financial reasons. It was a car that the average worker could afford.

Tragically, development of the electric car came to a halt after Ford’s Model T came on the scene. There were, at one time, well over 100 different companies experimenting with electric powered automobiles. They included General Electric, Oldsmobile and Studebaker.

Incredibly, the Woods Motor Vehicle Company of Chicago, by 1916, developed a hybrid car that had both an electric motor and an internal combustion engine that ran on gasoline. They were on the right track, but the company went out of business three years later.

The biggest drawback to the electric car was the need for better and more powerful batteries that held enough energy for long trips and speed. The electric cars of that era operated at speeds of up to 20 miles an hour on the average, and the batteries, which were large and difficult to handle, had too short a life-span to permit long drives.

Because of the advent of the automobile, better roads were being built, so they soon connected cities. And this called for longer-range vehicles. Also the discovery of oil in Texas brought down the price of gasoline, making it affordable to people with internal combustion engine powered cars.

Other factors included the invention of the electric starter in 1912, which eliminated the need to crank the gas engine to make it run. And Ford’s cars sold for about $650 compared to the electric roadster, which was marketed for about $2,000.

The gasoline car in those days was the better buy. Nobody was thinking about the environmental impact of burning carbon fuels, or the possibility that the world’s oil supply would someday be used up. In fact, we never dreamed of the impact those inventions were about to have on the world as we once knew it.