BeginningsWho invented the very first EV is uncertain and several inventors have been given credit. In 1828, Hungarian, Ányos Jedlik invented a small-scale model car powered by an electric motor that he designed. Between 1832 and 1839 (the exact year is uncertain), Robert Anderson of Scotland invented a crude electric-powered carriage. In 1835, another small-scale electric car was designed by Professor Stratingh of Groningen, Holland, and built by his assistant Christopher Becker. In 1835, Thomas Davenport, a blacksmith from Brandon, Vermont, built a small-scale electric car. Davenport was also the inventor of the first of the first American-built DC electric motor.
Better BatteriesMore practical and more successful electric road vehicles were invented by both Thomas Davenport and Scotsmen Robert Davidson around 1842. Both inventors were the first to use the newly invented but non-rechargeable electric cells or batteries. Frenchmen Gaston Plante invented a better storage battery in 1865 and his fellow countrymen Camille Faure further improved the storage battery in 1881. Better capacity storage batteries were needed for electric vehicles to become practical.
American DesignsIn the late 1800s, France and Great Britain were the first nations to support the widespread development of electric vehicles. In 1899, a Belgian built electric racing car called "La Jamais Contente" set a world record for land speed - 68 mph - designed by Camille Jénatzy.
It was not until 1895 that Americans began to devote attention to electric vehicles after an electric tricycle was built by A. L. Ryker and William Morrison built a six-passenger wagon both in 1891. Many innovations followed and interest in motor vehicles increased greatly in the late 1890s and early 1900s. In fact, William Morrison's design with a capacity for passenger is often considered the first real and practical EV.
In 1897, the first commercial EV application was established as a fleet of New York City taxis built by the Electric Carriage and Wagon Company of Philadelphia.
Increased PopularityBy the turn of the century, America was prosperous and cars, now available in steam, electric, or gasoline versions, were becoming more popular. The years 1899 and 1900 were the high point of electric cars in America, as they outsold all other types of cars. One example was the 1902 Phaeton built by the Woods Motor Vehicle Company of Chicago, which had a range of 18 miles, a top speed of 14 mph and cost $2,000. Later in 1916, Woods invented a hybrid car that had both an internal combustion engine and an electric motor.
Electric vehicles had many advantages over their competitors in the early 1900s. 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, while 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's range on a single charge. The only good roads of the period were in town, causing most travel to be local commuting, a perfect situation for electric vehicles, since their range was limited. The electric vehicle was the preferred choice of many because it did not require the manual effort to start, as with the hand crank on gasoline vehicles, and there was no wrestling with a gear shifter.
While basic electric cars cost under $1,000, most early electric vehicles were ornate, massive carriages designed for the upper class. They had fancy interiors, with expensive materials, and averaged $3,000 by 1910. Electric vehicles enjoyed success into the 1920s with production peaking in 1912.