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Nothing New Under the Sun Department: Early-1900s Electric Vehicles

The EV (electric vehicle) is in the news today and out on the roadways, and many believe that it is a new form of transport invented in the late-1900s. In actuality, it is reported that the first known EV was constructed by Anyos Jedlik, a Hungarian priest in 1828, a year after he built an electric motor. By the late-1880s in the UK, and Europe electric cars and the storage battery had been developed enough to become useable for short-range trips.

The US Energy Department reported that “William Morrison, from Des Moines, Iowa, created the first successful electric vehicle in the U.S. His car is little more than an electrified wagon, but it sparks an interest in electric vehicles.” The first commercially produced EV’s in the US became available in the late-1890s to 1900 and were popular for short trips up until the 1920s.

“Boss” Kettering had developed the electric starter enough by 1911 that it came as standard equipment on the 1912 Cadillac, and generally acknowledged to be the first American car to be so equipped. At that point, the “writing was on the wall” spelling the end of the EV, although the Detroit Electric Car Company continued on to as late as 1938 when at that time it was rebuilding its earlier machines.

The lead image contains a Cuyahoga EV, and a GE mercury arc rectifier battery charger. It was produced by the Cuyahoga Motorcar Company in Pennsylvania from 1908 to ’09, and 1910 to ’11 by the Cleveland Electric Vehicle Company.

Please share with us what you find of interest in these General Electric Co. images courtesy of New York Heritage.

  • 1900 General Electric EV owned by Jesse Lovejoy the GE Secretary in front of the Schenectady, NY plant.

  • A woman with a runabout (above) and a coupe (below) both with GE chargers made for use in the home garage.

  • 1914: Schenectady Illuminating truck and a GE mercury arc rectifier battery charger.

  • 1916: General Electric EV battery charging set in front of a gas-powered car at the Fitch Electric Garage, located in Fort Wayne, Indiana.

25 responses to “Nothing New Under the Sun Department: Early-1900s Electric Vehicles

  1. Mashable captions your third photo thusly: “c. 1912. A woman uses a hand-cranked battery charger to charge her electric Columbia Mark 68 Victoria automobile. The Pope Manufacturing Company made the car in 1906 and the charger in 1912. Image: Schenectady Museum; Hall of Electrical History Foundation/Corbis.”

    Interestingly, I located four different picture from this photo shoot, all of terrific quality.

    My question is why you feel the cars in pics 3 and 4 are from the same maker. Lots of differences: twin chain vs. non-chain drive, semi-elliptic vs. full-elliptic rear springs, different rear ‘box’ shapes, different hupcaps, not the same charger. Some similarities but more differences to my eye.

  2. In the last pic, that looks like a primitive motor generator on the floor under the electrical gear. Using an A/C motor to create D/C power for the battery. The rest of it looks like a setup for charging the battery one cell at a time. I’m guessing it is a 6 cell battery. I would think you need a degree in electrical engineering or a close friend like Nicola Tesla for help.

  3. The coupe is a 1907/1908 Studebaker model 17B . However the runabout appears to another manufacturer’s machine . Studebaker used full-elliptical rear suspension, but the runabout has semi-elliptical rear suspension coupled to a distinctive frame design. That said, the runabout does utilize left had steering with a folding tiller as did Studebaker who touted it for ease of entry.

    • It turns out I made a mistake, when looking at another photo of the lower front of the coupe it appeared that the bodies shared the same shape. Taking a second look the differences are noticeable now.

  4. EV tech has changed quite a bit in 120+ years.

    But I’m not so sure about electric storage tech. Back then it was mostly lead-acid requiring complex charging equipment. Batteries of that time had relatively short service lives w/lead often recovered but acid dumped in waterways or backyards.

    Now we have ion-based systems requiring rare earth materials and associated environmental problems from mining and refining (same or maybe worse than lead.) I don’t see many materials from these batteries being reused but it’s early days yet.

    Where is the positive benefit? Seems we are just swapping one mess for another.

  5. I’m pretty sure the runabout is a 1906 Pope-Waverly….you can even see their little windows in the folded down top.

  6. Electric vehicle history is fascinating! Modern EV politics is disgusting! (Please pardon the short political rant from this former electronic systems engineer.)
    Many years ago, I read an article in one of the many antique automobile hobby’s magazines about a surviving and in a museum (I wish I could remember which magazine and what museum?) about an electric wagon built (if I recall correctly?) in the late 1860s (in the USA). There was historic record as to who built it and when, and the fact that it did actually work. However, being impractical and inefficient at the time, it wound up spending most of a century sitting in a barn, which did allow for it to survive in rather good condition. If I recall correctly, the caretakers said that it could still run if batteries were connected into the motor.
    In the 1890s, gas, steam, and electric were competing for dominance in automotive design, with electric outpacing both steam and all forms of gas. In a couple of the world’s fairs (1896 I am fairly sure, and I believe at least one other), electrified wicker chairs for one or two people could be rented by the hour or day to cruise around the fair and see it all in comfort! I have seen numerous photographs taken of the chairs running around the fair’s grounds, and I marvel at the notion of such a thing at that time in history!
    In the 1890s and up to 1904, one of the best engineers and greatest proponents for electric vehicles was Andrew L Ryker. However, even he saw that by 1904, gasoline powered automotive technology had left the electric car behind. And even he realized that the electric had hit its peak while the sky was the virtual limit for gasoline powered transportation. So in 1904, he went over to Locomobile, up to that time the leader in steam powered automobiles. The top electric automobile engineer in the world, and the top steam powered automobile manufacturer in the world, together switched to gasoline powered automobiles and the Locomobile we know as one of the best gasoline powered automobiles of its day became a reality.
    About thirty years ago, several historians and electrical engineers concluded that the electric automobile actually hit its final peak about 1910.
    Most of the improvements to now modern electric cars were actually made for improving the gasoline car’s efficiency. Better lighter weight materials and structural designs, lighter and more effective materials for batteries, better wind resistance designs. In the real world today, the electric car still cannot replace the gasoline powered car for more than eighty percent of usage, and isn’t significantly better even for that twenty percent that it can perform.

    Thank you David G for the look at some special early electrics! (And you have my blessing if you wish to delete my last paragraph!)

  7. I believe the 1st pic is where Frankenstein was created,,,I’m sorry, all this electric car nonsense goes back over 100 years, and quite frankly, it doesn’t look much different today. There are certain situations where an electric car may work, but I, like many, live in a very rural area, and with an electric vehicle, I wouldn’t make it over the mountain pass., ANY pass. Until we get past this archaic 14 batteries thing, it will never replace the gas engine. I think these car makers are just dragging their feet until the gas runs out, then they’ll bring out the “miracle” chunk of energy that will power your car for a month,, possibly made from nuclear waste. Wouldn’t that be nice, remember, that electricity has to come from somewhere, and we’re already swimming in nuclear waste.

  8. In the urban centres of the UK electric delivery vehicles were quite common until the late eighties especially for milk rounds.They are not quite extinct and perhaps may even see a revival.

    • One of the manufacturers of the milk trucks, Smith Electric, entered the US in partnership with Exide and Boyertown Body to manufacture the Battronic. Smith pulled out after two years because of difficulties in providing the English chassis and control units to the partnership, and Exide and Boyertown sold around 200 trucks and vans between 1963-83, largely to electric companies. They were slow (25 mph) and short-ranged (62 miles on a charge), but could carry 2,500 pounds for that 62 mile range, so they were useful for moving supplies around at plants. The Boyertown Museum of Historic Vehicles is in the Boyertown Body factory, and they’ve preserved some of the Battronic vehicles. The majority of Boyertown Body’s work was custom coachbuilding – among their products were postal service trucks, the Mister Softee vehicles that Smith eventually produced in England (which was how the two companies were introduced), milk trucks, trolley buses, and bakery vans.

  9. Wayne Sheldon, thanks for sharing this information. Your account of early electrics is well detailed. I can fill in the blanks on your recollections of the earliest electric car. According to most reliable sources, the advent of the electric car took place in 1887 when Scottish-born chemist William Morrison was experimenting with electric storage batteries he created in his basement laboratory under the Hotel Victoria on 5th Avenue in downtown Des Moines, Iowa. He installed eight batteries in a carriage he acquired from the Des Moines Buggy Company. It cost him $21,000 to develop. The car ran well, but he hadn’t developed an adequate steering mechanism, so he removed the motor and installed it in a boat, which he ran up and down the Des Moines River. Morrison then built 12 more 12-horsepower front-wheel-drive electric carriages using bodies from the Shaver Carriage Company in Des Moines. In September 1890, nearly 100,000 people saw him parade around the capital city with eleven passengers in his motorized surrey, traveling at an estimated 20 MPH. In 1893, Morrison patented the idea and sold one of his cars to Harold Sturgis, of the American Battery Company in Chicago, Illinois. Sturgis displayed the car at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Two years later, that car was entered in the first American automobile race, which was 54 miles in length and sponsored by The Chicago Times Herald. Eighty cars entered but only six showed up due to a heavy snowstorm. Half were from Europe. Of the three U.S. entries, two were electric and one was gas-powered. The skinny wheels on the Morrison Electric spun on the deep snow and the motor overheated. The gas-powered car won the race averaging only six miles per hour. It was a Duryea, and the winnings were used to launch the Duryea Motor Wagon Company. I detailed these events and more in my 2008 book, “Orphan Babies: America’s Forgotten Economy Cars”.

    • The half from Europe were three Benz vehicles, one from H. Mueller & Co, one from Macy’s, and one from the De La Vergne Refrigerating Machine Company. The other electric was a Morris & Salom Electrobat, one of which I saw recently in Allentown at the America on Wheels Museum. Five other vehicles had been present for the pre-race testing, but broke down on the way to the starting point. One of them was a Haynes-Apperson that broke a wheel at Indiana and 38th avoiding a streetcar but received a special prize for its anti-vibration gear, while two others also won prize money, a G. W. Lewis for a friction drive and brake and a reduction gear, and George Hertel’s Gasoline Wagon for a starter that could be operated from the driver’s seat.

      It’s also of interest that H. H. Kohlsaat (owner of the Times-Herald) wrote in a 1941 Saturday Evening Post article that the Duryea and the Mueller Benz had raced each other from Chicago to Waukegan and back on November 2nd. The Benz won after the Duryea broke a wheel avoiding a collision with a horse-drawn wagon. I suspect there were plenty of other unofficial races before the first official race was held on Thanksgiving Day of 1895.

  10. The Cuyahoga Motor Car Co is listed as being at 10547 Euclid Avenue, Cleveland, OH in the Cleveland Directory for the year ending in August 1909. There appears to still be a garage there based on a Google Maps drop-in.

    In 1909, people listed as associated with the company are General Manager Clarence A. Green, Vice President O. P. Guldemeister, Secretary-Treasurer Philip J. Minch, Battery Department Manager John L. Smith, and Battery Department Manager Malcolm O. Smith.

    Volume 16 of Motor Age notes that they sold their garage to A. Jacobs who was reorganizing the company as the Cleveland Electric Vehicle Company. They took over facilities from Standard Automobile Company on Huron Road. Given that Cleveland is in Cuyahoga County, I suspect they were always in Cleveland.

  11. Like many current (pun intended) electric cars, the Cuyahoga speedster in the first photo could well be a conversion of an existing internal-combustion car (Mercer, Stutz, or the like?). The radiator (?) even has a cap. The likelihood of a small electric-vehicle company designing and building an entire car seems slim, especially in those days, when so many parts were easily available from outside suppliers.

  12. That Cuyahoga is a startlingly good-looking car for an electric! Hardly any giveaways – only the lack of spark & throttle levers, and an odd little helper spring where the crankhole should be. It even has a “gearshift lever.”

    On Oct. 8, 1907, the Cuyahoga Motor Car Co. of Cleveland was incorporated, with a capitalization of $25,000. They started business with an agency for the National, and provided car storage and repair. Tellingly, they had a “battery department,” under the care of brothers Malcolm O. and John Smith. Construction began in November on their building at 10547 Euclid Av. (A period photo of their dealership shows a building that no longer exists at that address.)

    In March of 1908, they were advertising 4- and 6-cylinder Nationals. That same month, they added livery service, essentially rental cars. In May, they added 8 men to the payroll, and had a step-by-step display of battery construction in their show window.

    On July 20, the Smith brothers applied for a patent on a battery designed for easy servicing in vehicular use. Patent 903,799 was issued to them on Nov. 11. A newspaper article of the time stated that they were able to get twice as many volts from each cell, although it doesn’t say how that may have been accomplished. The patent doesn’t speak of any voltage improvement. This battery probably formed part of the automobile lighting system which Cuyahoga began advertising in October of that year. By January 1909 they were advertising batteries for ignition and lighting use.

    Cleveland was a center of electric car manufacture at the time, with both industry leaders Rauch & Lang and Baker going strongly. The Cuyahoga folks undoubtedly thought that there was room in that market for another manufacturer, especially one which would have been a ready outlet for their patent batteries. In February 1909, the newspaper briefly described a new roadster powered by “ten of the new bi-polar” Smith batteries, with a 122-inch wheelbase and shaft drive, “controlled by a side lever as on a gasoline car.” The company’s February 25 ad showed the roadster, and claimed it would run 150 miles on a charge, at 5 to 35 mph. (It must not have wanted to go slowly.) They had already made several test trips in the car.

    In May, the company’s name was changed to the Cleveland Electric Vehicle Co., and was reorganized with “considerable additional capital.” There was a new sales manager, but most of the principals remained the same. They were reported to be preparing to manufacture electric taxicabs and town cars.

    In August, they were running road tests, but still using the roadster.
    Apparently things weren’t going well, because in September they sold their Euclid Ave. building and began renting space in the bottom of the Standard Automobile Company building, the Packard dealer, at 1206 Huron Rd. (This building has also been replaced.) Coincidentally, this space had been earlier vacated by the Exide battery company’s Cleveland electric car charging station.

    They were still advertising storage batteries from Huron Rd. in November of 1909, but by the following May they reorganized again, reducing their capitalization from $300,000 to $50,000. After that, the Cleveland paper speaks of them no more.

  13. Is it just me or does that bank of equipment behind the vehicle in the first photo look like it cost as much as the auto itself?

    “Just have this charger installed in your garage and you’ll be free of the petro companies forever!”

    “Ummm, I think I’ll just drive down to the gas station.”

  14. Electric cars were rare in Ireland around 1900, the only published photograph of an EV I have found in that period is a Cleveland Sperry Victoria pictured in front of Stormont Castle outside Belfast (Ireland) in 1900. Elmer Sperry won a gold medal in the 1900 Paris Exposition. There appear to be three surviving Sperrys. One runs in the London to Brighton Veteran car run periodically, one an exhibit in the Street life museum Hull (England)and a third in a museum in Italy. None are the Victoria model.
    The photograph can be found online in a book title
    “American Cars in Prewar England” Author Bryan Goodman.
    Any further information appreciated. Survivors in North America ?

  15. I can’t remember if it was Elco or Divco built a series electric Milk Truck it had a little Hercules 4 cylinder that ran continually to charge batteries for a DC motor. This was circa early 1930’s . Forty years ago Indiana Transportation Museum had two in need of restoration. It allowed the milkman to stand and of course no clutch or shifter needed, this was prior to automatic transmissions. Too bad we don’t have milk delivery anymore.

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