The Rise, Fall And Resurgence Of Electric Vehicles In The 20th Century

Hemanth Kumar J
12 min readAug 4, 2021


Electric Vehicles are considered the future of transportation. It's quite fascinating to know that the first electric vehicle was introduced in the year 1828. This marked the beginning of a new era in modern transportation despite the advent of the Internal Combustion Engines. The 19th and 20th Centuries witnessed the rise of electric vehicles. Now let's travel back in time to the 19th Century, to understand the illustrious history of electric vehicles. We will also explore the reasons behind the fall of electric cars in the early 20th century and their resurgence in the late 20th century.

A Woman Charging Her Electric Car (Credits: Corbis/Hall of Electrical History Foundation)

The Rise Of Electric Vehicles

In the year 1828, a Hungarian priest and physicist named Ányos Jedlik invented an early type of electric motor and created the small model car powered by his new motor.

World’s First Electric Motor by Anyos Jedlik

He successfully invented an electromagnetic rotating device in 1827. His device had all the DC motor parts namely stator, rotor, and commutator. Anyos Jedlik had no idea what to do with his invention. Therefore, he used it to propel a model locomotive for fun instead. In 1861, he mentioned in correspondence he had invented a dynamo too at the time.

Robert Anderson And His Electric Powered Carriage

In the year 1832, Robert Anderson developed the world’s first-ever crude electric vehicle. He launched the first-ever prototype of an electric-powered carriage using a non-rechargeable battery. With a motive of eliminating horses from the conventional carriage, he strapped a battery and a motor onto a carriage.

In the year 1834, Vermont blacksmith Thomas Davenport and his wife Emily build a small, model electric car that runs on a circular, electrified track. He used his wife Emily’s wedding dress as wiring for the small model electric car.

Vermont blacksmith Thomas Davenport and his wife Emily

In the year 1835, Professor Sibrandus Stratingh of Groningen, the Netherlands and his assistant Christopher Becker from Germany created a small-scale electric car, powered by non-rechargeable primary cells.

The Small Scale Electric Car was Developed By Professor Sibrandus Stratingh of Groningen, the Netherlands and his assistant Christopher Becker from Germany

In the year 1841, large scale “electric cars” were finally built by chemist Robert Davidson of Aberdeen. They were powered by galvanic cells which could pull 6 tons of load at 4 miles per hour for about 1½ miles. Unfortunately, this innovation was destroyed by the railway workers who see it as a potential threat to their livelihood

In the year 1859, French physicist Gaston Planté invented the lead-acid battery. The invention of lead-acid batteries was a catalyst in the development of electric vehicles. To date, lead-acid batteries are used in electric cars and as a source of electric power in gasoline-based vehicles.

Gaston Planté invented the lead-acid battery
Camille Alphonse Faure

In the year 1881, French scientist Camille Alphonse Faure improved the design of the lead-acid battery by coating lead plates with a paste of lead oxides, sulfuric acid, and water. The above mixture was cured in a humid atmosphere which converted the paste to become a mix of lead sulfates that adhered firmly to the lead plates. Gaston Planté built an electrical tricycle and displayed it at the International Exhibition of Electricity in Paris. Parisian engineer and carriage builder Charles Jeantaud joined hands with Camille Alphonse Faure to built an electric car using a Tilbury-style buggy, a Gramme motor, and the Fulmen battery. In the very same year, Ayrton and Perry from the United Kingdom build an electric tricycle powered by lead-acid cells. The electrical tricycle had a range of 10 to 25 miles and a top speed of 9 mph. It had a simple steering wheel and no control pedals. The electric tricycle also had headlights.

Electric Car Designed By Thomas Parker

English inventor Thomas Parker wanted to make the transportation system fuel-efficient. In the journey of attaining the ambitious goal of making the transportation system fuel-efficient, in the year 1884 he invented an electric vehicle that looked more like a horse-drawn carriage but was powered by an electric motor. This was the first production electric vehicle. Thomas Parker along with Paul Bedford Elwell founded the Elwell-Parker Company. The company ventured into the business of producing electric cars and trams for the city of London. While Thomas Parker was striving to bring the Electric Vehicle revolution in the United Kingdom, a young college dropout Andrew Riker develops an electric trike using lead-sulfuric acid batteries that has 25 miles of range. He established the Riker Electric Motor Company in 1888.

In the year 1890, William Morrison of Des Moines, Iowa built the first American electric car. This electric car was a six-passenger wagon that can travel at a top speed of 23 km/h (14 mph). The vehicle was steered with a wheel.

William Morrison’s Six Passenger Electric Wagon

In the year 1893, William Morrison’s Electrical Wagon was displayed at the prestigious “World’s Colombian Exposition” in Chicago. This event influenced the growth of EVs in the early stages.

Electrobat was built by mechanical engineer Henry G. Morris and chemist Pedro G. Salom

In the year 1894, mechanical engineer Henry G. Morris and chemist Pedro G. Salom developed a small battery streetcar named “Electrobat”. It was the first “successful” electric car. It had a top speed of 15 mph and was powered by a lead-acid battery. In the very next year, the Electrobat goes into production.

In the year 1896, Morris and Salom built a 2-seat “Electric Road Wagon”.They established the “Electric Carriage and Wagon Company,” apparently the first electric car company in the US. In the very same year, battery swapping technology was proposed to overcome range anxiety.

Dr Ferdinand Porsche

Dr Ferdinand Porsche was an Austrian-German automotive engineer. He is the founder of Porsche Car Company. He has been fondly remembered for developing the first-ever gasoline-electric hybrid vehicle (Lohner-Porsche), the Volkswagen Beetle, the Auto Union racing car, the Mercedes-Benz SS/SSK, several other important developments and Porsche automobiles. In the year 1897, he developed the Lohner Electric Chaise. It had a hub motor at each driving wheel. It was the first front-wheel-drive car in the world. In the year 1902, he develops a hybrid electric car with a range of 40 miles. No wonder Dr Ferdinand Porsche is hailed as the Automobile Engineer Of The Century.

By 1899, Electric Cars began to gain popularity in the urban areas. Electric cars were preferred over gas and steam-powered vehicles because of their ease of operation and zero exhaust gas emissions. Women started to use electric cars for travelling in the cities. In the year 1900, the US had 33,842 electric cars.

Back then when electric cars were running on lead-acid batteries, Thomas Alva Edison wanted to replace the cumbersome lead-acid batteries with a new type of battery. He worked on refining the work on Nickel- Iron Batteries by Swedish inventor Ernst Waldemar Jungner to cater to automobiles. In the year 1901, Edison patented the Nickel-Iron battery for automobiles. He claimed the nickel-iron battery was incredibly resilient and could be charged twice as fast as lead-acid batteries. Initially, the nickel-iron battery was neglected because of its large size and expensive price. The hydrogen emitted from these batteries could totally burn the vehicle down. In the year 1907, the Anderson Electric Company produced an electric car named Detroit Electric and 13,000 units were sold between 1907 to 1939. In the year 1908, Thomas Alva Edison improves the design of his Nickel-Iron Battery.

In the year 1912, Charles F.Kettering invented the electric starter which was considered to be a boon in the automotive industry.

Reason Behind The Early Fall of Electric Vehicles

Henry Ford And The Ford Model T

Despite the great innovations in the electric vehicle domain, electric vehicles failed to garner the attention of the customers from 1912 to 1960. The reasons behind the early fall of electric cars in the early 20th Century are as follows:

  1. The Mass Production of Ford Model T: The automotive world witnessed the rise of mass production in the year 1912. Henry Ford introduced the concept of mass production of automobiles. The concept of mass production brought down the price of gasoline-based vehicles. The Ford Model T was widely available at a very affordable price. In 1912, The Ford Model T was priced at US$650 back then while an electric car was priced at US$1,750. This massive price difference caused people to move towards gasoline-based vehicles over electric vehicles.
  2. The Invention of The Electric Starter for Gasoline-Based Vehicles: In the year 1912, Charles F.Kettering invented the electric starter for gasoline-based vehicles. Earlier, the gasoline-based vehicles had to be hand-cranked which was extremely cumbersome. On the other hand, electric cars did not need any hand crank at all. The invention of the electric starter for gasoline-based vehicles and its low cost gave it an edge over electric vehicles.
  3. The Texas Oil Boom: The Texas Oil Boom was the reason behind the rampant economic growth and industrialization in the USA. The oil was found so much in abundance in Texas, it was sold at a very cheap cost. This deteriorated the growth and development of electric vehicles.
  4. Low Travel Range of Electric Cars: Electric cars back then had a very minimal range of 40 to 60 miles. The low range prevented people from buying electric cars as they were only suitable for the intra-city and not for inter-city journeys.
  5. Lack of Charging Infrastructure: During those days, the lack of charging stations and charging infrastructure dented the market for electric vehicles.
  6. Low Speeds of Electric Cars: Electric cars back then had very low speeds as low as 20 mph. No one would really wish to travel at such low speeds.
  7. Tough Economic Times During World War I: World War I (1914–1918) made it difficult for electric vehicle manufacturers to produce new cars with innovative technology.
  8. The Stigma of Electric Cars Are Made For Women: As electric cars are easy to use, they were very much popular in the urban. Women found it very convenient to use the electric car for their daily commute. The electric cars were marketed as “The Electric Car That Meets Every Need of The Society Women”. These marketing gimmicks during the early 20th Century created a stigma in the society that electric cars are only made for women.

The Resurgence of Electric Vehicles

The Enfield 8000 is built by Enfield Automotive in the UK.

Until 1960, there was not much of a predominant development in the domain of electric vehicles. From the 1960s till the end of the 20th century, there was a rampant development in the domain of electric vehicles. These developments weren’t just based out of American and European Countries but even the Asian Countries started showing interest in the electric vehicle manufacturing sector. The reasons behind the resurgence of electric cars are as follows:

  1. The Space Race: Post the Second World War(1939–1945), we witnessed the rise of two superpowers ie the USA and the USSR(Presently The Russian Federation). These two countries were competing with each other in various domains like weapon technology, scientific research, economic growth and so on. One such domain that the USSR and the USA were competing against each other was the “Space Race”. Both these countries were striving to be the first to explore the world beyond planet Earth. In the year 1957, the USSR launched the world’s first-ever satellite “Sputnik” into space. This marked the beginning of the space race. In the year 1971, the USA launched the world’s first manned vehicle to drive on the moon, Lunar Rover. The lunar rover was more or less like an electric car on the surface of the moon. The space race initiated a lot of developments in the battery technology domain. These developments in battery technology started getting attention from automobile manufacturers.
  2. The 1973 Oil Crisis: In October 1973, the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OAPEC) comprising Algeria,
    Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Kuwait, Libya, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, United Arab Emirates and Tunisia
    decided to impose an oil embargo on Canada, Japan, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, the United States, Portugal, Rhodesia and South Africa. The above-cited countries witnessed an acute shortage of oil. This forced these countries to look for newer sources of oil within their country. Countries started to venture towards electric vehicles as a mobility solution.
  3. The Key Decisions Made By The Policy Makers To Promote Electric Vehicles: Post the 1973 Oil Crisis, the US Congress passed the Electric and Hybrid Vehicle Research, Development, and Demonstration Act in 1976. This act was aimed to support the research and development in the research and development of hybrid vehicles and electric vehicles. In the year 1990, The California Air Resources Board (CARB), the government of California’s “clean air agency” urged the automobile manufacturers to manufacture more fuel-efficient, low-emissions vehicles and eventually transition to zero-emissions vehicles (e.g., electric vehicles). In the year 1992, California passes a US$1000 tax credit for electric vehicles.
  4. Keen Interest Towards Electric Vehicles Shown By Leading Automobile Manufacturers: To bring about a change in the market, the leading and existing stakeholders must be ready to embrace the change with open hands. Leading companies like General Motors(GM), Enfield Automotive(UK), AMC & Gulton Industries, Skoda and other leading companies manufactured electric vehicles with a higher travel range in a single charge as compared to the older electric vehicles.
  5. Asian Companies Forayed Into The Electric Vehicle Sector: Japan is home to arguably some of the most iconic automobile brands like Yamaha, Toyota and Honda. The Japanese automobile companies are at par with the American and European automobile companies in terms of quality and scale of manufacturing. In the year 1997, Honda came up with EV Plus with a range of 80 miles and a top speed of 80mph. In the very same year, Toyota came up with the RAV4 EV with a range of 87 miles and a top speed of 78mph. In the year 1999, Honda Prius (a hybrid car) makes its debut in the USA. India was not far behind in foraying into the electric vehicle market. In the year 1994, The Reva Electric Car Company was established as a joint venture between the Maini Group India and AEV California. In the year 2001, the Reva Electric Car Company released REVA which was one of the most affordable electric vehicles in the world.
  6. Environmental Concerns: The gasoline-based vehicles had very high exhaust gas emissions. These exhaust gases included carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide and other hydrocarbons. These gases are responsible for the Green House Effect which in turn causes Global Warming. The policymakers and environmental stakeholders urge the automobile manufacturers to design cars with Zero Exhaust Gas Emissions.


One must remember that the electric vehicle revolution isn't merely a few decades old but it has an illustrious history of a staggering 197 years. The electric vehicle revolution has survived every up and down. Continuous innovation and development have been one of the key factors in making electric vehicles closer to the common man. As a concluding remark, I would like to say,

The 20th Century arguably witnessed some of the greatest innovations and developments in the domain of Electric Vehicles. These innovations and developments were the foundation for a strong and stable electric vehicle market all across the globe. The electric vehicle industry has grown all the way from creating a small model car powered by an electric motor in 1828 to witnessing the Tesla Roadster run with a range of staggering 600 miles in a single charge. The global elctric vehicle market was valued at US$162.34 Billion in 2019. It has been anticipated to reach a value of US$802.81 Billion by 2027 with CGAR of 22.6%. Norway have taken steps to make their transportation sector carbon neutral by 2030. Developing countries like India are creating a favourable environmnet to nurture Electric Vehicles. In the year of 2020, the Government of the United Kingdom has announced that they would become 100% electric by 2030. According to the report by the International Energy Agency (IEA) published in the year 2018, nearly 74.5% of the global carbon dioxide emissions were from the road transportation vehicles. Electric vehicles are touted to herald a new dawn in the domain of sustainable transportaion in the near future.





Hemanth Kumar J

Horizonite’15, Deekashaite’17, RITian’21, A proud Cinephile, Mechanical Engineering Graduate, A die-hard MUFC fan, Photographer, MUNner, Meme Creator.