The first successful electric car made its debut around 1890 thanks to William Morrison, a chemist who lived in Des Moines, Iowa. His six-passenger vehicle capable of a top speed of 14 miles per hour was little more than an electrified wagon, but it helped spark interest in electric vehicles.
At the turn of the 20th century, the horse was still the primary mode of transportation. But as Americans became more prosperous, they turned to the newly invented motor vehicle -- available in steam, gasoline, or electric versions -- to get around.
Steam was a tried-and-true energy source, having proved reliable for powering factories and trains. Some of the first self-propelled vehicles in the late 1700s relied on steam, yet it took until the 1870s for the technology to take hold in cars.
Part of this is because steam wasn’t very practical for personal vehicles. Steam vehicles required long startup times -- sometimes up to 45 minutes in the cold -- and would need to be refilled with water, limiting their range.
As electric vehicles came onto the market, so did a new type of vehicle -- the gasoline-powered car -- thanks to improvements to the internal combustion engine in the 1800s. While gasoline cars had promise, they weren’t without their faults.
They required a lot of manual effort to drive -- changing gears was no easy task and they needed to be started with a hand crank, making them difficult for some to operate. They were also noisy, and their exhaust was unpleasant.
Electric cars didn’t have any of the issues associated with steam or gasoline. They were quiet, easy to drive, and didn’t emit smelly pollutants like the other cars of the time. Electric cars quickly became popular with urban residents -- especially women.
They were perfect for short trips around the city, and poor road conditions outside cities meant few cars of any type could venture farther. As more people gained access to electricity in the 1910s, it became easier to charge electric cars, adding to their popularity with all walks of life.
Many innovators at the time took note of the electric vehicle high demand, exploring ways to improve the technology. For example, Ferdinand Porsche, founder of the sports car company of the same name, developed an electric vehicle called P1 in 1898. Around the same time, created the world’s first hybrid electric car -- a vehicle that is powered by electricity and a gas engine.
Thomas Edison, one of the world’s most prolific inventors, thought electric vehicles were the superior technology and worked to build a better electric vehicle battery. Even Henry Ford, who was friends with Edison, partnered with Edison to explore options for a low-cost electric car in 1914.
Yet, it was Henry Ford’s mass-produced Model T that dealt a blow to the electric car.
Introduced in 1908, the Model T made gasoline-powered cars widely available and affordable.
By 1912, the gasoline car cost only $650, while an electric roadster sold for $1,750. That same year, Charles Kettering introduced the electric starter, eliminating the need for the hand crank and giving rise to more gasoline-powered vehicle sales.