Believe it or not, there was a time over 100 years ago when EVs dominated the market. Steam power, while very problematic, accounted for around 40% of cars, 20% were gasoline, and the remaining 40% were electric. Electric vehicles had a lot of limitations, especially range, because the technology wasn’t nearly as mature as it is now, but the other types of cars were even less mature. Steam engines required hours to heat up before you could drive them, and they were rather bulky. Gas-powered cars required one to manually crank them to get them started, and this led to many injuries and even some deaths, as the crank handle could get stuck and start moving around as fast as an engine.
A post over at Open Culture shows us that the triumph of gasoline over electric that came later wasn’t inevitable. To understand this, we have to go back to the time of the original Tesla, and by that I don’t mean the first-generation Roadster, but Nikola Tesla, a prolific inventor that today’s Tesla company is named after. This was also the time of Henry Ford, and Tesla’s rival, Thomas Edison.
To really understand the rivalry (and do it in a fun way), I’d recommend checking out a comic about it at The Oatmeal. Most of us were told as kids that Edison was the man who used it in the electric age, but in reality, he was just the manager. Nikola Tesla did most of the actual inventing, but wasn’t great at the business side. Tesla ended up dying of poor health (both mental and physical) in a hotel after being scammed and ripped off by a number of American businessmen who took credit for his inventions and improvements to other people’s inventions. Chief among them: Thomas Edison, who became the hero in the eyes of school children who didn’t know better (and didn’t know that Edison liked to electrocute dogs).
But, as Elon Musk shows us, being reasonably good at the business side (or having trustworthy businessmen to help) is essential, and this was true then as it is now. While Edison was a shark, he did have a good portfolio of patents at his disposal and smart people working for him. He was also friends (and neighbors) with Henry Ford — I don’t think I have to explain who he is.
Edison had a good model for a nickel-iron EV battery that would have given electric cars not only more range, but allow them to charge up twice as fast as cars with lead-acid batteries, like you’ll still commonly find under the hood of a gas-powered car today. But, as Elon Musk also shows us, having a good idea and bringing it to mass production are two very separate things. In fact, just building a prototype Edison-Ford automobile that could show these capabilities off was a huge challenge that took years.
While they were working on this, the market went through two very big changes.
First, oil got dirt cheap. Discovery of it in Texas, and the subsequent mass production of gasoline, caused the price of operating a gas-powered car to drop precipitously. At the time, electricity to charge electric cars was largely available in cities unless you did something like my great-great uncle did and built your own wind power plant at the ranch. Gasoline could be put in a Jerry can (back before we called them Jerry cans) and taken along on road trips. Plus, rural gas stations could operate without electricity, and started opening up along highways. It would still be decades before rural electric coops would bring a wire out into the woods, though.
A trip across the country still took weeks and cars weren’t as durable as they are now, so early trips across the continent weren’t without risk, but they were at least possible in a gas-powered car at the time and were getting easier. Here’s something I wrote about these early trips from another article:
In July 1919, the United States Army sent an expedition to see what difficulties they’d face trying to cross the country in mechanized vehicles. At the time, anybody with enough paint and the will to do it could create their own highway system (then called an “auto trail”) over existing roads, with colored stripes on poles marking the route. Nobody was responsible for highway upkeep, even at the local level, so much of a highway route was just an unmaintained dirt road going across the landscape between towns and ranches that would give a modern Jeep or HMMWV a challenge.
The expedition struggled to move. They found rutty roads almost everywhere, and the dirt and sand would clog up their engines. Sometimes, the strain of crossing the land would break crankshafts. Even when things were running fine, they’d encounter a rickety bridge that they didn’t feel was safe to cross with their vehicles. Ultimately, it took over two months to make the trip from Washington, DC to San Francisco.
One young lieutenant who went on the trip started thinking about how nice it would be, both for civilians and the defense of the country, for real highways to be built. He later went on to become one of only five people to ever achieve the rank of five-star general, and later became President of the United States. His name was Dwight D. Eisenhower, and the Interstate Highway System is often named for him on signage.
Needless to say, most people didn’t bother trying to cross the United States by car in those pre-highway days, as it was truly an adventure not for the faint of heart. Even with enough fuel availability, the cars of the day weren’t very good, and neither were the roads. Nobody wanted to get stuck in the middle of nowhere without support.
The second thing that went good for gas-powered cars was the electric starter. By taking an electric motor and a battery and using it to start a car instead of a hand-crank, people could start a gas-powered car without risk or hard work. This made the cars easier for everyone, but made a huge difference for women, making a gas car even possible in a one-car household.
We don’t know whether EVs would have gotten better fast enough if Nikola Tesla had been involved, but it certainly wouldn’t have hurt the effort. Had the progress on a workable electric vehicle for longer ranges come about a little faster, it could have beat cheap oil and the electric starter to market. Had that happened, we might be over 100 years into the EV revolution today.
But EVs eventually managed to gain a foothold. It just took an extra 100 years before the momentum of gas-powered cars could be overcome and allow the industry to start being a thing.
Featured photo: Columbia Electric’s (1896–99) “Victoria” electric cab on Pennsylvania Ave., Washington DC, seen from Lafayette Square in 1905, driving in front of the White House. Photo by HC White (Public Domain Photo).
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