Dieselpunk + Steampunk Culture

Lord K's Garage - #28. Sing the Body Electric

Once upon a time, the internal combustion engine had a powerful rival - the electricity. Since 1865, electric-powered vehicles were designed and built in Europe and America.

An electric car in the conventional sense, Wiki tells us, was not developed until 1890 or 1891, by William Morrison of Des Moines, Iowa; the vehicle was a six-passenger wagon capable of reaching a speed of 14 miles per hour (23 km/h). It was not until 1895 that Americans began to devote attention to electric vehicles, after A.L. Ryker introduced the first electric tricycles to the U.S., by that point, Europeans had been making use of electric tricycles, bicycles, and cars for almost 15 years. Many innovations followed, and interest in motor vehicles increased greatly in the late 1890s and early 1900s. In 1897, electric vehicles found their first commercial application as a fleet of electrical New York City taxis, built by the Electric Carriage and Wagon Company of Philadelphia, was established. Electric cars were produced in the U.S. by Anthony Electric, Baker, Columbia, Anderson, Edison, Studebaker, Riker, and others during the early 20th century. In 1917, the first gasoline-electric hybrid car was released by the Woods Motor Vehicle Company of Chicago. The hybrid was a commercial failure, proving to be too slow for its price, and too difficult to service.

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Due to technological limitations and the lack of transistor-based electric technology, the top speed of these early electric vehicles was limited to about 32 km/h (20 mph). Despite their relatively slow speed, electric vehicles had a number of advantages over their early-1900s competitors. They did not have the vibration, smell, and noise associated with gasoline cars. Changing gears on gasoline cars was the most difficult part of driving, and electric vehicles did not require gear changes. While steam-powered cars also had no gear shifting, they suffered from long start-up times of up to 45 minutes on cold mornings. The steam cars had less range before needing water than an electric car's range on a single charge. Electric cars found popularity among well-heeled customers who used them as city cars, where their limited range proved to be even less of a disadvantage. The cars were also preferred because they did not require a manual effort to start, as did gasoline cars which featured a hand crank to start the engine.

From My Album

Electric cars were often marketed as suitable vehicles for women drivers due to this ease of operation; in fact, early electric cars were stigmatized by the perception that they were "women's cars", leading some companies to affix radiators to the front to disguise the car's propulsion system.

From My Album

Acceptance of electric cars was initially hampered by a lack of power infrastructure, but by 1912, many homes were wired for electricity, enabling a surge in the popularity of the cars. At the turn of the century, 40 percent of American automobiles were powered by steam, 38 percent by electricity, and 22 percent by gasoline. 33,842 electric cars were registered in the United States, and America became the country where electric cars had gained the most acceptance.

From My Album

While basic electric cars cost under $1,000 (in 1900 dollars, roughly $26,000 today), most early electric vehicles were massive, ornate carriages designed for the upper-class customers that made them popular. They featured luxurious interiors, replete with expensive materials, and averaged $3,000 by 1900 (roughly $78,000 today). Sales of electric cars peaked in 1912.

From My Album

And now, some cars and ads:

1910 Baker Electric Auto

1910 Waverley Electric

1911 Waverley Commercial

1911 Argo

1912 Detroit Electric Clearvision Brougham

Detroit Electric Charging

1912 Hupp-Yeats Electric Car

1912 Raunch & Lang Electric Coupe

1913 Chicago Electric

1913 Chicago Electric

1916 Atlantic electric truck

1918 Detroit Electric 75 Coupe

Special thanks to aldenjewell @ Flickr and Supercars

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Comment by Larry on March 13, 2010 at 10:52am
Great idea, Sparky. Though EVs aren't perfect. The worn out batteries themselves are a problem. Though with our current level of technical sophistication I see no that couldn't be resolved. Plus, the charge time is a issue but I can't believe with the right R&D we couldn't develop a fast charging system that would equal the refill time on an ICEV. Finally, we need to improve our electrical grid and energy production.

If the greatest generation could produce the A-Bomb with vacuum tube technology in just a few short years I see no reason we couldn't do this. The question is does the current generation have the stones to do what it takes?
Comment by Sparky Gage on March 12, 2010 at 11:04pm
I always thought if some of the companies that convert ICEVs to EVs would do some classic vehicles from the early low power days, that there would be a market with a lot of enthusiasts, they would be great to showcase technologies and the greenies would be happy to see one less ICE and one more EV on the road. Personally I would love to have an electric Model A Truck to "putt" around town in. Or would that be humm around?
Comment by Larry on March 12, 2010 at 9:04pm
That was a great posting lord_k. Wonderful. One can't help but wonder a "What if..." scenario where the electric car became the norm rather than the internal combustion.
Comment by lord_k on March 12, 2010 at 10:27am
Like every other battery - with a cable.
Comment by Tome Wilson on March 12, 2010 at 10:16am
I'm assuming there was a battery, correct? If so, how was it charged?

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