History of the Electric Motor

Automakers unveiled a wide range of Green Vehicles at the Geneva Motor Show. The 2011 International Motor Show, which ran until 13 March at the Geneva Palexpo convention centre, is the 81st edition of an event born more than 100 years ago.

Electric Cars

The huge number of increasingly-innovative and accessible alternative-energy vehicles appearing this year could easily be seen as a revolution in green and electric motoring. In fact, the electric car pre-dates the more popular (for now) internal-combustion driven car by more than half a century.

Electric Cars appeared 200 Years Ago

Few people realise that the first electric cars appeared almost 200 years ago. It was way back in the 1830s when the first electric vehicles were developed at roughly the same time in both the USA and Europe. The first motor vehicles powered by internal combustion engines were not produced until very late in the 19th century, so electric cars actually precede electric cars by more than 50 years. In reality, the ‘revolution’ in green cars is simply an evolution in which environmental pressures combine with high-technology to bring us back to our automotive roots.

However, even a cursory glance at the latest green vehicles will find ample proof that transport technology has come a long way from the early 19th century. Those first electric cars were little more than modified horse carriages.

Electric Cars with Rechargeable Cells

The first electric carriages used non-rechargeable electric cells. It was not until the work of Frenchmen Gaston Plante and Camille Faure that battery technology progressed sufficiently to support the widespread and popular use of electric cars.

Fashions and technologies may have changed dramatically in nearly 200 years but the basic themes remain the same. Whether powered by batteries, hydrogen, bio-fuels or other energy sources, the race to develop technologies that can support clean, long-lasting and flexible transport systems remains the biggest challenge for automakers.

Those early Electric Cars had relatively low top speeds and extremely limited ranges. By the time the first Geneva motor show took place in 1905, some 70 years after the first such cars appeared, you would be hard-pressed to get more than 15 to 20 miles out of an electric car before being stranded if you weren’t near a charging point.

First Electric Cars were New York Taxi’s

Around the turn of the century, motorists had a choice of ‘modern’ internal combustion engines, as well as steam and electric power. The first commercial fleet to operate using electric cars was probably that run by a New York taxi company late in the 19th century.

Hybrid Cars are not NEW

Even Hybrid Vehicles are not new. While WWI was raging across Europe, the first car with both an internal combustion engine and an electric motor appeared in the USA. By this point, however, the writing was already on the wall for steam and electric cars.

Electric cars had at one time been vastly more convenient than steam or petrol-powered cars. Steam was smelly, noisy, dangerous and required lots of attention. Steam vehicles also need regular refreshing with water and fuel.

Early internal combustion engines were also noisy, messy affairs. They needed regular topping up with water to keep them cool. The maintenance and constant adjustment required to keep them going was dirty and inconvenient.

Electric Cars for the Future

Electric vehicles vibrated much less than steam or internal combustion cars and needed no gear changes, which took skilled, highly-physical operation. Finally, you could simply jump into electric cars and go. They needed no hand cranking or lighting of fires to get started.

In 1899 and 1900, electric cars outsold all other kinds of powered vehicles in the USA. However, petrol was at this time a waste by-product of the oil industry, making it cheap and plentiful.

As the various disadvantages of the internal combustion engine were ironed out and supplies of cheap petrol spread around the world, steam and electric cars became far less attractive.

As a network of quality highways connecting American cities spread across the country, the need for vehicles that could reliably cover long distances rapidly increased. Further domestic discoveries of crude oil in the USA led to burgeoning supplies of petrol and diesel.

Modern Manufacturing Processes

When Henry Ford standardised manufacturing processes to create modern automobile assembly methods, the cost of the modern automobile plummeted. This, combined with the cheap cost of petrol, made the electric car an expensive, inefficient option.

More than a century has elapsed since Ford’s Model T revolutionised popular motoring and led to a boom in both mobility and wealth across the USA. The Austin 7 appeared nearly 15 years later in the UK, where it launched a similar motoring revolution.

Electric Cars

Today, both governments and automakers are in a race to produce modern cars that will continue to let us enjoy this heritage of freedom, speed and flexibility, even as supplies of clean air and fossil fuels are shrinking.

The latest environmentally-friendly vehicles presented in Geneva seem to indicate that returning to our automotive roots is putting us back on the right road.

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