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Drivers of change: A Timeline of Electric Vehicles from 1800 to 2023

In the 2020s, electric cars have become more popular across the globe, lauded for their cheaper running costs and lower environmental impact when compared with petrol-fuelled vehicles.

Given their recent hype, you might be surprised to learn that they’re part of a tradition that’s at least two centuries old.  

We often think of the early 20th century as a time period in which electricity attained its supremacy—certainly from a western perspective, this was when the gas-lit charm of the Victorian era transitioned into the sleek art nouveau designs, flattered by ubiquitous electric lighting. But before electricity could be delivered to middle-class homes, electricity had a long way to come. The history of the electric vehicle walks in lockstep with the history of electricity for some time. 

Our story begins in 1800, in Italy. 

1800: An emerging scientific understanding

There were three things necessary for the earliest electric motors to emerge.

  • A battery. 1800, Alessandro Volta invented the earliest battery, which enabled the delivery of continuous current. You might be familiar with the terms “volts” and “voltage,” which take their name from him.
  • Knowing how magnetic fields could interact with, and be generated by, electric currents: In 1820, Hans Christian Ørsted wrote that an electric current could divert a compass needle from magnetic north.
  • The electromagnet: In 1824, William Sturgeon designed the first electromagnet.

The Karlsruhe Institute of Technology maintains a page on Jacobi’s motor, an early electric motor in which all of these puzzle pieces come together. Built by Moritz Hermann Jacobi in 1834, the original no longer exists, but copies in Russia and Germany are available to view.

From the earliest examples of electric motors, it’s not a big leap to the first electric vehicles.

1835: The very first electric vehicle

Educated people in the west, inspired by the same emerging ideas in science and technology but lacking our modern speed of communication and information, often made quite similar discoveries independent of one another. There was much concurrent work on electric motors for locomotion, with notable names like Thomas Davenport, Robert Davidson and Charles G Page all entering the conversation in the decade between 1830 and 1840.  

In the 1830s, the batteries powering these earliest electric vehicles weren’t rechargeable. Electricity itself wasn’t as ubiquitous as it became in the 20th century. Major metropolises like London didn’t really see regular access to electricity until the 1880s, and the UK’s National Grid—the first of its kind in the world—wasn’t established until a century after the earliest electric vehicles, in 1935. Electricity was not a resource to which large numbers of people yet had access. In this context, it’s a challenge to see how an electric vehicle would be more than a parlour trick or a gimmick of the moment.  

Nevertheless, one of the earliest electric cars, designed in 1835 by Professor Sibrandus Stratingh, is now held by the University of Gronigen in the Netherlands. It’s a little thing: it could drive for twenty minutes with its battery fully charged, and it carried 1.5 kilos.  

This machine is a far cry from the flash electric cars of 2023. To find the point at they might meet, we’ll have to jump forward a several decades. 

1899: Off to the races

The very first road vehicle to crack 100 kilometres an hour was built, not in the 21st century, but in the 19th. And it wasn’t run on petrol—it was electric. 

By the 1880s, electric vehicle design was dominated by the manufacturers of western Europe. It was a Belgian, Camille Jenatzy, who drove his specially-designed and bullet-shaped car, La Jamais Contente (French for “The Never Satisfied”) at just over 105 kmph over the kilometre. It was on the 25th of April in 1899.  

Meanwhile, over in the USA, a brief heyday of electric vehicles would emerge in the early 1900s. For a few short years, the inducements of electricity were much preferred over gasoline: electric vehicles vibrated less, stank less, and appeared significantly less dirty than their petrol-fuelled cousins.  

But change was on the horizon. In 1902, just as the future of the electric vehicle had never seemed brighter, more oil was discovered in Texas. 

1902: American oil

There’s a reason we write that more oil was discovered in Texas.  

You see, everybody already knew there was some oil in Texas. Back in the 1500s, the Spanish-born Luis de Moscoso reported the spectacle of oil seeping out onto the waters off the coast.   

By the 1890s commercial oil production had become a significant economic activity for the state. But in 1902, the Spindletop Oilfield was discovered, and from it was drawn such quantities of crude oil that the motor industry was forever altered. In 1902 alone, over 17 million barrels were produced from that single oil field.  

That meant, with such a glut of cheap fuel on the market, and in an enormous country with a growing, long-distance road infrastructure, gasoline became king. 

The disadvantages of noisy, messy, gasoline engines were nothing compared to the tantalising promise of an automobile that could actually be produced and operated for the mass market. Very quickly, producers like Henry Ford were manufacturing internal combustion engines at a ferocious rate and a much cheaper cost.  

Overnight, the electric vehicles virtually vanished, and they stayed that way through two world wars and a global economic crisis.  

1970 and beyond

Where to? The future of electric vehicles

The market for electric vehicles is currently one of the fastest growing markets globally.  

General Motors says it plans to stop selling gas and diesel passenger cars by 2035. Honda wants gas phased out by 2040. Other auto brands are making similarly bold plans that centre on hybrid or electric vehicle designs. 

There’s no doubt that electric vehicles have the potential to have a much lower impact on our environment, and, at least over time, they can also work out cheaper than traditional internal combustion engine vehicles. These grand plans are not without their own potential pitfalls, however. 

Electric vehicles still run on batteries—although certainly not the kind Alessandro Volta made back in the 19th century. But just like combustion engines, the components for making an electric vehicle run still need to be sourced from somewhere. The supply chain for minerals used in rechargeable batteries is less robust than might be hoped at present.  There are also infrastructural challenges for adopters of the technology and there are policy questions about its wider-reaching impacts.  

Nevertheless, with such significant backing from large scale manufacturers, the future of electric vehicles looks brighter than ever.  

Back in the 19th century, Alessandro Volta could not possibly have anticipated the modern complexities of automobile manufacture and the questions of battery supply versus petroleum imports when he invented that very first battery. But it’s interesting to think that, perhaps, in a century’s time, someone else might look back on our 20th century combustion engines and petroleum fuels as a quaint blip in the timeline of the only true automobile: the electric car.