From Cars To Planes: The Complete History Of Electric Vehicles

Learning where it all began via the history of electric vehicles will only make you appreciate EVs a lot more. After all, the first electric car paved the way for the rides we have today in some way or another.

Electric cars aren’t the product of 21st-century innovation as most would have you believe.

No, EVs have been around a lot longer than you might think.

In fact, they’ve actually been around just as long as their combustion engine brothers, dating all the way back to the late 19th century.

Granted, these vehicles would be no match for a Model 3 or a Porsche Taycan today. Still, times were different back then. Electric propulsion was a popular topic yet was limited by internal/outside factors that would take decades to sift through.

Today we’re looking back to look forwards.

Here we take a look at the history of electric vehicles — covering everything from electric cars to electric boats for your reading pleasure.

Now, let’s flick through the history books, shall we?

Complete History Of Electric Cars

Early versions of electric cars were slow and sluggish due to the overall size of their parts, coupled with the state of the roads back then.

Steam-powered vehicles were just as popular, taking the shape of trams and carriages — although the majority would find themselves replaced as soon as better alternatives were discovered.

Discovering the origins of electric cars can be difficult.

After all, responsibility tends to fall on the companies/names involves, which is difficult as early model cars were made by forward-thinking pioneers/inventors.

Pinpointing who made what and when can be a minefield in and of itself.

Still, there is enough evidence to suggest that the electric motor, for example, was created by Hungarian engineer Ányos Jedlik. We can safely assume that rechargeable lead-acid batteries were the product of French physicist Gaston Planté also.

Their work combined would lead to the creation of the first electric car ever.

The First Electric Car in the World Uncovered

The first electric car ever made was crafted by an Englishman (sorry America).

Thomas Parker, the electric car pioneer himself, created the first production electric car, using his own high-capacity rechargeable batteries.

Now, it’s important to note that the first full-sized electric vehicle was actually created by Scottish inventor Robert Anderson in 1832. Anderson’s vehicle was more of a carriage, according to historians.

However, his work would influence Thomas Davenport to invent a small locomotive to run on a DC electric motor, which in turn would go on to help Parker bring his EV plans to life.

Make no mistake about it, Parker’s work was a technical marvel at that time, but the experience is nothing compared to what we have today.

Back then, electric cars could only drive a limited number of miles at a time and were limited by the constraints of urban living.

In other words, there was no way you could drive these vehicles out in the countryside over long distances.

This is partly the reason why electric cars became such a popular taxi option in the States around the turn of the 20th century.

© Credit to Early American Automobiles

US Electric Taxi Service

Considered by many as the golden age of electric motoring, the US was leading the charge, so to speak, around 1897 via the introduction of innovative taxi fleets.

The first commercial electric vehicles were used in New York. Apparently, around 60 electric cabs were roaming the streets of The Big Apple at the time.

But wait, it gets better.

In 1900, around a third of the cars in America were electric, with EVs outselling combustion types a couple of times.

That’s right, the US has already gone through a mini electric boom — granted, it’s not nearly to the size and scale of the current boom, but it’s a boom nonetheless.

Even the UK got involved with its own ‘Hummingbird’ taxis occupying the streets of London.

Despite the early success of EVs, the market was about to face a downward spiral unlike any other.

Why the First Electric Cars Failed

Why did the first electric cars fail? And fail before they even had a proper chance to take off?

A range of factors led to the downfall of arguably the greatest technological achievement the world had/has laid eyes on.

For starters, the price of oil was changing, making it a lot more cost-effective to own a standard gas-powered vehicle.

Mass production of combustion-engined cars made the decision a no brainer for drivers as this also caused the price of these vehicles to drop significantly.

Range/speed has always been up for debate whenever EVs are mentioned, more so back then, as road networks began to grow exponentially.

Drivers wanted faster rides that could go the distance to meet the new public demand. This would ultimately push electric vehicles into limbo for a very long time.

Electric Cars in the Modern Day

For a while, electric cars were seen more as a publicity, or event, vehicle.

Case in point: the 1972 Munich Olympics saw electric versions of the BMW 1600 used as marathon support vehicles.

EVs were named as a potential solution to the oil shortage in the 70s. Still, nothing major ever materialised as automakers and onlookers alike were adamant that they could simply ride out the embargo put in place by Saudi Arabia.

You could say EVs had a mild revival back then, with companies like Sebring-Vanguards’s selling around 2,000 models of its CitiCar by 1975.

The CitiCar was an EV produced between 1974 to 1977 and is a borderline box on wheels — a two-seater that was always limited by its weak tech.

For reference, the CitiCar packed less than 5 horsepower and could only travel 40-50 miles on each charge, with a max speed of 40 mph (if you were lucky).

As mentioned, the history of electric cars hasn’t always been so appealing as it is now.

We did, however, get the first electric Lunar Roving Vehicle out of it in 1971— which happens to be the first-ever car driven on the moon.

Electric cars in space should sound familiar to Tesla fans. The American automaker launched a Roadster into space strapped to a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket in February of 2018.

It wasn’t until the 90s before automakers/consumers began to take notice once again.

A clear highlight from this era is the EV1 from General Motors, the first mass-produced modern electric car. Over 1,000 of these eco-friendly rides were produced before the line was discontinued due to a lack of overall interest from consumers.

And that brings us to the present day — and the dawn of a new golden age?

Electric Cars of the Future

Concept images/patents give us a pretty good idea of where the EV market is heading.

As you can imagine, automakers aren’t shy when it comes to challenging the status quo knowing the power electrified vehicles possess.

Just look at Tesla’s upcoming Cybertruck for the perfect example; a vehicle ripped straight from the future and a sure-fire contender for the world’s most out-there EV.

That being said, there are countless EVs worthy of a nomination like this.

For example, MINI’s Urbanaut is basically a front room on wheels, giving drivers the ability to rotate the interior of the vehicle to fit their current mood.

Electric cars have given automakers a new lease on life, so to speak.

Think about it, the lack of moving parts under the hood gives brands a lot more room to play with both inside and out.

And who could talk about the future of electric vehicles without mentioning the possibilities tied to autonomous vehicles.

Companies like Google, Tesla and Amazon are all involved in the self-driving game at the moment.

The first self-driving electric car to hit the market will be a game-changer as expected and will only inspire the next generation of EVs that follow.

Basically, our minds are far too small to comprehend the limit to electric power.

That is all.

Complete History Of Other EVs

Searches like the “history of electric cars” and “first electric car” tend to lead the conversation, which isn’t to say there aren’t other timelines to explore.

The electric car timeline is but one of many; remember that, as most tend to think of automobiles whenever the words ‘electric’ and ‘vehicle’ are mentioned.

Take electric bikes, for example. These two-wheelers go back as far as electric cars, if you can believe that.

Visually, these early e-bikes mirror their contemporary counterparts far better than any other type too.

The first electric bike dates back to 1895 for reference, but more on that later.

History of Electric Scooters

E-scooters have roamed streets for the better part of a decade, but did you know they’ve been around since the Titanic fell?

That’s right, the first electric scooter released to the public came out in 1915 — a motorised two-wheeler known as the Autoped.

The Autoped proved an instant hit with New Yorkers, especially women.

Autoped actually marketed its ride to independent women, seeing the scooter as a symbol of freedom and mobility, which is quite the contrast to the modern-day, given the number of males with an e-scooter at home.

One thing hasn’t changed; they were illegal then, under the Highways Act of 1835, and they’re illegal now.

The media consensus was just as cynical, too, with publications like The Sun branding the Autoped a “Solo Devil Wagon.”

Some things never change.

Still, this didn’t stop the first electric scooters from finding success, aided by the likes of Lady Florence Norman and Humphrey Bogart. The latter would use an e-scooter to move between LA’s bustling studio lots.

Like electric cars, e-scooters went through a rough patch — some would call it a dark age — for a few decades before business would pick up again.

In 1986, Go-Ped found great success releasing its stand-up, gas-powered scooter. Go-Ped still make scooters to this day and are easily one of the better brands to go seek if you’re in the market for a quality electric scooter.

But it wasn’t until 1991 before lithium-ion batteries got involved, changing e-scooters for the better (they’re a lot friendlier on the environment for obvious reasons).

These days, e-scooters are a lot cheaper and more efficient, cutting away all the complicated jargon.

Borderline road warriors through and through.

History of Electric Bikes

Comparing the history of electric bikes to electric cars is easy; the two have a lot in common.

Both have been around since the time of black and white photos. Inventors behind the patents are difficult to trace/pinpoint. And finally, early concepts/patents of e-bikes/electric cars are easily the coolest out of all other vehicle types.

Take one look at some of the first electric bikes in existence and tell us otherwise.

Many resemble motorbikes, not the urban commuter e-bikes we know of today, which, again, is a sign of how far we’ve come in terms of technology.

The first patents for motorised bicycles were requested over 120 years ago. One of the inventors, Ogden Bolton Jr, worked on a cycling machine that featured a direct current hub motor mounted in the rear wheel.

While impressive, it wasn’t until Hosea W. Libbey invented an electric bicycle with two motors, two batteries and two wheels before people began to take notice.

Multiple improvements to each individual part of a bicycle would improve as the years passed until it came to a sudden halt — overshadowed by the motor car.

Electric bikes would enter the limelight again in the 1990’s courtesy of companies like Yamaha and Panasonic.

Seeing a pattern yet?

Sales/interest in electric bicycles began to surge in parts of China between 2002 and 2004 as air pollution led to greener alternatives.

According to Bloomberg, there are currently 300 million electric bikes in China — fitting, considering the country is known as the “kingdom of bicycles.”

Companies like Specialized and Propella fly the flag in 2021 as two of the best electric bike brands in the galaxy.

The tech surrounding e-bikes is only getting better too.

Who knows, maybe they could out-range a car someday.

History of Electric Planes

Any post that looks at the history of electric vehicles should always pay close attention to planes — or anything that flies, for that matter.

The first electric plane — if you can call it a plane, that is (you’ll know what we mean in a second) — took to the skies in the 1880s.

La France was its name, a craft that resembles a classic zeppelin, minus the balloon.

Anyway, La France used huge batteries and an 8-horsepower electric motor to cast it into the air and fly for a short while before landing.

La France was the handy work of two French army officers named Renard and Krebs; they didn’t invent flight like the Wright Brothers, but they still deserve recognition for an achievement of this magnitude.

Guess what happened after that?

Nothing, for close to 90 years before true innovation kicked back into motion thanks to inventors like Robert Boucher — a pioneer who saw the appeal of using electric motors in model aeroplanes before shifting his attention to solar-powered aircraft.

AeroVironment worked closely with Boucher and sought his help in supplying an electric motor capable of powering the Solar Challenger, an aircraft covered in solar cells to help it fly.

The Solar Challenger took off, climbed 14,000 feet, cruised at 40 mph, then landed.

Make no mistake about it, the Solar Challenge has earned its flowers as a big part of the history of electric planes.

Companies operating in the space would continue to make advancements with the tech. However, there is still a lot of work to be done.

Today, electric takeoff and vertical landing vehicles (eVTOL) aircraft rule the skies and could change the way we travel from city to city — or country to country with luck.

History of Electric Boats

Some inventors turned to the sea in the early 19th century.

Moritz Hermann von Jacobi was one of those inventors. The man installed an electric motor on a 28-foot paddleboat to create the first electric boat in recorded history.

Jacobi’s electric boat made its first trip across the Neva River in 1838, carrying around 14 passengers; an impressive feat, to say the least.

The e-boat itself was powered by zinc batteries weighing more than 180 kg; this allowed the boat to travel about 2.5 km per hour.

Jacobi would improve upon his original electric boat design, bumping the speed up to 4 km per hour later down the line.

One of the largest electric boats at sea was the Mary Gordon, a vessel capable of carrying 75 fully grown adults, powered by large/heavy DC motors. The Mary Gordon launched on August 2nd 1900 and is still floating about, surprisingly.

In 1909, the ban on steam/motorboats in certain areas encouraged fishermen to employ outboard electric motors for trolling.

However, the popularity of commercial electric boats did begin to decline around the 1920s with the introduction of combustion-engined types.

Electric outboard motors have continued to grow in popularity amongst fishing circles — especially in Asia, a known hotspot for catching a wide variety of sea creatures.

New electric boat startups in X Shore and Zin Boats are companies to watch as we delve even deeper into electric waters.

In Short: The Complete History of Electric Vehicles

We find that knowing your history helps you to really appreciate the vehicles we have today.

Yes, the images of these vehicles can look old and grey, but they should be considered the founding fathers to a lot of what we have today.

Innovation when it comes to electric vehicles often requires a template, and where would we be without the work of Parker and Bolton Jr?

Some would argue that electric innovation was inevitable, either way, but still.

Where EVs are headed benefits everyone, from people on the street to the businesses investing in electric commercial vehicles.

If history tells us anything, it’s that we’ve always had an admiration for electric vehicles. Only now are companies really seeing their electric efforts pay off.

Just look at the size of Tesla at this moment in time for the perfect example.

Did you learn anything from our deep dive into the history of electric vehicles? Let us know via social media.

History of Electric Vehicles FAQs

When was the first electric vehicle invented?

The first electric car was invented back in 1884 by an Englishman named Thomas Parker. This carriage is known as the first production-ready car in history. However, the first full-sized electric vehicle was crafted in 1832 by Robert Anderson, a Scottish inventor.

What was the first electric bike called?

Early models of the first electric bikes were known by patents for the most part. Ogden Bolton Jr and Hosea W. Libbey were instrumental in crafting some of the earliest e-bikes known to man. The first electric bike that really caught the attention of spectators was ‘The Zike,’ released back in the 1990s.

When was the first electric plane invented?

The history of electric planes goes back pretty far. In the 1880s, two French officers named Renard and Krebs brought La France, an unbelievable electric airship, to life. While not a plane, who can deny the power of this 8-horsepower craft?

How Long have electric scooters been around for?

The Autoped, the world’s first electric scooter, has been around since the early 1900s — 1915, to be specific. These two-wheelers were very different from the personal electric vehicles we know today, sporting a bulky motor on the front wheel and a split deck for standing on.

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