After the fall of the Roman Empire, peasants carried on their menial tasks literally in the shadow of some of the world’s greatest structures while they fell into ruins, and within a few short years the technology used to create them was lost. It would be hundreds of years before some of those innovations would be “invented” and utilized again. The motor vehicle industry seems to have followed a similar course.
In reading published materials from the turn of the century, there doesn’t seem to have been the same concrete delineation between a motorcycle, a motor tricycle, a motor quadricycle or an automobile when searching for a motorized vehicle that we see today. All were marketed for street use and even the early automobile was often open to the elements.
Obviously, from the nature of the service upon which the automobile is engaged, the supply of energy must be self-contained, no matter what class of vehicle is referred to. For this reason, therefore, the electric car must carry its charge of electricity in some convenient form and to this the accumulator lends itself but is subject to a great disadvantage in regard to its weight. The future of the electric car is bound up in the evolution of a light, efficient and cheap battery, and it is on this problem that the keenest intellects have been and still are engaged. Whether they will be successful in their endeavours or not it is difficult to determine, but it cannot be denied that should even only a modicum of success attend their efforts it would cause a much more extended use in town work. Clark, Alexander Graham. – Text Book on Motor Car Engineering. 1911. NY.
Today, when the buzz word in the industry is the electric car, would it surprise the reader to know that the preceding passage was published in 1911 – 101 years ago? Would you be equally surprised to know that the only real problem makers had to overcome was in keeping the batteries recharged efficiently and keeping the price of the vehicle affordable, just like today?
…It has been one [year] in which it [auto industry] has had plenty of time to see itself as others see it, and to realize that the electric car as well as its gasoline brother must be built in larger quantity, in order to bring down the price and open up a larger market. In the past, the electric makers have clung tenaciously to the idea that the type of car they produced must not be for any but the class of buyer who could afford a high-priced vehicle for city use alone. – Motor Age. Jan. 20, 1916.
The writer stated the electric car movement, “was begun over a year ago”, indicating that it was introduced about 1914, however, it can be traced much further back. I’ve created a timeline to trace the early autos, motorcycles, tri-cars, etc. from the first stages (gasoline and electric). I do not claim this to be a complete list, and any reader who desires further information can use my bibliography as a starting point and continue the research.
1200’s Roger Bacon [1214-1294] speculated upon the possible road use of fire and steam engines made in England.
1619 A patent was granted to Ramsay and Wildgoose as part of its subject, “drawing-carts without horses”.
1644 Oct. 10th. Louis XIV granted to, “Jean Theson the privilege of employing a little four wheel carriage set in motion without any horses, but merely by two men seated”.
Ca 1700 Sir Isaac Newton [1642-1727] reportedly invented a steam carriage, the motor of which was a kettle with its spout turned to the rear, this, “being provided with a horizontal jet-piece, formed a single-jet reaction apparatus similar to present-day [ca. 1900] toys.
1769 Frenchman, Nicholas Joseph Cugnot, constructed with state funds provided him the first steam trolley, which the next year was improved enough to be considered another model. It was exhibited at Tuileries in June 1889.
1784 James Watt patented an invention for propelling vehicles by steam. Nothing seems to have come of it.
1785 William Murdock, a student of Watt’s, made a miniature tricycle having a steam cylinder less than 20 mm. in diameter and a piston stroke of little more than 50 mm.
1786 William Symington [1764-1831] patented a steam road carriage. It had, “a cyclindrical boiler and a lever safety-valve, supplying steam to the cylinder of an atmospheric condensing engine whose piston-rod communicated motion by means of a rack and ratchet wheel”.
1787 Oliver Evans was the first to obtain the right to operate steam road wagons in Pennsylvania and Maryland. In 1805 he built a combined boat and road wagon.
1790 Nathaniel Read, of Massachusetts, patented a steam carriage with two cylinders whose pistons were connected to racks which moved pinions on the driving axles, ratchets preventing motion except in one way.
1802 Richard Trevithick and friend, Vivian, patented a steam carriage. Three years later they were broke and the vehicle was sold for driving a hoop-rolling mill. It was the first of the automobiles powered by gearing.
1821 The, “first steam carriage having comfortable accommodation for passengers”, was designed by Julius Griffiths and built in the works founded by Joseph Bramah.
1824 David Gordon patented an automobile, apparently suggested by Brunton’s locomotive invented several years earlier.
W. H. James patented a steam carriage in which the engines were not connected to the road wheels. His vehicle was improved in 1829.
1825 A steam automobile looking much like a four-horse mail-coach was patented by Burstall and Hall.
1828 Sir Goldsworthy Gurney patented the Gurney steam coach.
Pecqueur constructed a steam wagon in France.
1829 Between 1829 and 1833, Walter Hancock built an omnibus with a high-pressure boiler that was economic and efficient. Some years earlier he had built a steam tricycle and later a steam carriage.
1830 Joseph Gibbs patented a boiler and together with Chaplin, he used it on a steam tractor
1831 William Alltoft Summers and Nathaniel Ogle made two steam carriages that could reach speeds of 30 mph and could carry 16 to 18 passengers.
1832 Between 1832 and 1835 Dr. Church, of Birmingham constructed elaborate but comfortable steam coaches.
1835 Dietz constructed an ordinary road traction engine. He was the first to discover the utility of India rubber tires.
1839 Robert Davidson, a Scot, built a crude electric conveyance in Aberdeen, Scotland. It operated on a primary battery.
1840 Uriah Clark built a 60 lb. storage battery at Leicester, England.
Ca. 1840 J. Scott Russell built six steam coaches which were operated in England and Scotland until 1857.
In 1840 F. Hills of Deptford built a coach with gear-driven front steering wheels and gear-driven back wheels.
Between 1840 and 1895 three-wheeled road steamers made their appearance in England, those of distinction being made for the Earl of Caithness and for the Marquis of Stafford by Ricketts of Stafford.
1842 Sir William Grove constructed a gas battery
1845 R. W. Thompson invented the pneumatic tyre – it had a leather outer cover and a canvas-rubber inner tube.
1850 Gaston Plantè started researching what would became the first practical storage battery some 15 years later.
1856 Lotz ran a steam passenger carriate, steered by a single front wheel.
1861 Carrett and Marshall presented a three-wheeled road steamer known as the “Fly-by-Night”
1862 Lenoir tried to use gas motors for propelling vehicles.
1866 Sèguier suggested driving each wheel by a separate motor, and the idea was put into practice by Michau in 1870.
1873 Amédée Bollée built a steam car capable of carrying 12 passengers
1877 Siegfried Markus of Vienna possibly introduced a gasoline operated car.
1881 Rafford built the first electrically operated road vehicle. It was an electric tricycle.
G. Trouve introduced a second six months later
1883 Professors Aryton and Perry presented an electric tricycle which they demonstrated and lectured on in St. Andrew’s Hall, Glasgow, Scotland. It was its first appearance in Scotland, but had been known in London, “for some little time”.
In 1883, Delamare-Deboutteville constructed what is considered to be the first gas tricycle which actually ran on public roads.
1884 Delamare-Deboutteville worked with Malandin to make a carburetor, which was the first applied to a fixed motor and then to a gasoline-powered car.
1886 Daimler or Benz introduced a gasoline-powered car.
1887 Magnus Volk introduced a vehicle, and another in 1888.
1888 Fred M. Kimball of Boston, Mass. built the first practical American electric car.
Serpollet used his new boiler on a tricycle and then a car with four seats in Paris.
Count Albert de Dion, Georges Bouton, and Trépardoux constructed a steam tricycle with its driving wheel in the rear. They exhibited a steam car in 1889.
1893 Count Joseph Carli’s electric tricycle was released.
1894 and 1895 M. M. Morris and Salom conducted various experiments in America.
1895 A. L. Riker of York Street in Brooklyn, “just completed an electric motor cycle”. It had 4 wheels.
1896 The Riker Co. presented, “the electric apparatus…and expect to place upon the market shortly electric cycles and carriages of all descriptions.
1897 A. L. Riker built a commercial electric vehicle in New York, Darraoq’s electric hansom appeared, M. Krieger constructed a cab and improved the battery system, and the Ward omnibus made its debut in London.
1900 Compagnie Francaise des Voitures Automoviles introduced an automobile.
1901 The De Dion Bouton Co., Paris, joined the electric tricycle craze. References were published on the Sturgis Electric motor-cycle, no further information
1902 The British Electromobile Company was begun.
1903 The Waverly Company and the Vehicle Equipment Company (the predecessor of The General Vehicle Company) introduced electric passenger cars in England and America.
1908 An electric tri-car was exhibited at the Berlin Industrial Motor Show that had a 300 lb. carrying capacity, cost $700., and would run 50 miles on a single charge. 1907 and 1908 saw a marked improvement in the economy of maintenance of secondary batteries.
It can truly be said that, “…[in 1915] it will be apparent that, while American engineers have been largely responsible for the development of the electric to its present high state of efficiency and widespread use, Europe played an important part in the early development of the storage battery as well as of the electric vehicle”.
The same source expressed an opinion of the horseless vehicles that were becoming all the rage that echoed the sentiments of many. “Today,  automobiling is still essentially a sport”. That sport has today become the standard mode of transportation.
The Ward and the Milburn were supposedly one of the earlier vehicles to go into production. Their successes were said to be due to reduced vehicle weight, standardized parts to lower production costs, refined body styles, improved batteries, attention to mileage per charge, capacity for greater speeds, reduction of noise, and continued attention toward operative costs.
Their vehicle weight was reduced by using aluminum for body panels and fenders and by redesigning the battery cells. One maker shaved 50 lbs. off the weight of the vehicle by redesigning the battery alone.
The advantage of an electric engine over a gasoline engine was its simplicity of design, ease of starting, and noiseless operation. One writer compared the sound of the gasoline engine to a Gatling gun.
By 1916, the cars could travel approximately 100 miles before they had to be recharged, and that, “seems to be all that could be desired”, however somewhere along the line the electric vehicles fell out of favor and although insane gas prices have caused a resurgence of interest in electric motors, in many ways they were probably more common and more efficient a hundred years ago.
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Bibliography: Motor Age. Jan. 20, 1916. Motor Transport. March 28, 1908. Power Wagon. Feb. 1, 1914. Hiscox, Gardner. Horseless Vehicles. 1901. NY. Power Wagon. April 1908. Public Service Management. Sept. 1911. The Wheelman. Vol. 2. McClure, Sidney. May 1883. Boston. The American Technical Society. Cyclopedia of Automobile Engineering. 1915. Chicago. The Living Age. Aug. 1881. The Electrical Review. May 21, 1897. Hasluck, Paul Nooncree. The Automobile: A Practical Treatise on the Construction of the Modern MotorCars, Steam, Petrol, Electric, and Petrol-Electric. 1902. London. Clark, Alexander Graham. – Text Book on Motor Car Engineering. 1911. NY. Motor Age. Jan. 20, 1916.