Photo: PR/Tesla Inc.
10.01.2020 | 6 minutes

The history of the electric car: It all started in 1832

The very first car was an electric car – and it was not the Patent Motor Car designed by Carl Benz. A short cultural history.

The vehicle softly hums, and the pedestrian does not notice a thing. There is only one thing for Robert Anderson to do: He stomps on the wooden switch on the floor of the vehicle and honks the horn. The pedestrian turns around in wonder, and is amazed by the sight. An electric three-wheeled vehicle passes him by.

The history of the electric car started with British inventor Robert Anderson: He built his electrically powered vehicle in Aberdeen, a port city in northeast Scotland, between 1832 and 1839. He had once presented it at an industry exhibition in 1835. The car could travel around 12 kilometers per hour. It was a bit cumbersome to steer, but the drive unit was almost as quiet as the powertrain in the new Tesla. This pioneer in automotive history used a disposable battery for his vehicle, and crude oil was used to generate the electricity. This is how Anderson managed to get his electric car on the road long before the famous three-wheeled, gas-powered Benz Patent Motor Car from 1886. It stands as proof that cars did not run on gasoline from the beginning.

With a lead battery and 18 kph

There is yet another trailblazer: The Frenchman Gustave Trouvé. In 1881 he designed his Trouvé Tricycle – a three-wheeled and electric vehicle that was powered by two engines, which drew their power from several lead batteries. It was driven through the streets of Paris and could travel around 18 kilometres per hour, with a range of 14 to 26 kilometres.

And what was the first electric car from Germany? The Flocken Elektrowagen from 1888. The four-wheeled electric carriage was manufactured by Maschinenfabrik A. Flocken in Coburg, Germany.

There are more electric vehicles than gasoline cars around 1900

First came the electric engine, then the gasoline engine – and long before those two, the steam engine. The first was an artillery tractor by Nicolas Cugnot in 1769. It used wood, coal, or coke as fuel. Here is the situation around 1900: 40 percent of all automobiles were powered by steam, 38 percent by electricity, and only 22 percent by gasoline. In the U.S., around 1900, there were

  • 1,688 automobiles powered by steam engines

  • 575 electric vehicles
  • 929 vehicles powered by gasoline engines

The electric car was a real competitor to the combustion engine until around 1920. As early as 1898, the La Jamais Contente was the first electric car to achieve over 100 kilometers per hour, briefly holding the record for speed, as well. But what happened? Why did the electric car not prevail?

Illustration of the "La Jamais Contente" with designer Camille. The first electric car with over 62 mph.

Illustration of the “La Jamais Contente” with designer Camille Jenatzy. Photo: Wikipedia

The obstacle for the electric car of the 20th century

The advantages of electricity over steam and gasoline have not changed: easy handling, pleasantly quiet, and clean. Even the fear of limited range that people express today is not the problem.


The decisive factor in the race between the electric engine and gasoline engine is something else: The American Charles F. Kettering designed a starter motor that could be used to start combustion engines without any problems in 1911 – unlike electric cars. They have other disadvantages: Not only are they more expensive, they are also heavier than gasoline engines (due to the batteries). Another obstacle was the complicated and lengthy charging process, which required stationary generators. There is no comparison to today: Modern charging solutions from suppliers such as Vattenfall InCharge guarantee that users can conveniently and quickly charge their vehicles. Added to this is the constant expansion of the charging infrastructure.

In contrast to electricity, crude oil was inexpensive back then, which made gasoline filling stations pop up everywhere. One factor that should not be underestimated, both then and now: advertising. Early on, gasoline engines were marketed as a sign of speed and strength. Today they have lost much of their appeal, and the new electric cars are catching up.



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