This weekend, members of the Easton community can peruse a collection of electric vehicles (EVs) in the parking lot of the Easton Public Library. They will also be afforded the opportunity to talk to the owners of these vehicles to get some insight into both the pluses and the minuses of EV ownership.

While many folks seem to think that electric vehicles are new to the automobile industry, nothing could be further from the truth. Electrically powered vehicles have been around for over 140 years! That’s several years longer than any gasoline powered internal combustion engine has been supplying locomotion to personal transportation.

In 1881, Gustave Pierre Trouvé, a French electrical engineer, produced his first three-wheeled electric carriage. Trouvé adapted a Siemens electric motor to fit his carriage and attached it to a rechargeable battery designed by fellow Frenchman Raymond Louis Gaston Planté. It had a top speed of only 9 mph, but it didn’t require a horse, it made no noticeable noise, and it didn’t emit any noxious fumes or smoke.

In 1887, William Morrison of Iowa applied for and was granted a patent for his front-wheel drive, 4 hp electric carriage. It was capable of attaining a top speed of 20 mph. Powered by 24 battery cells, the machine could go 50 miles between charges. Shown at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, it was one of the first “automobiles” that caught America’s attention.

1906 Hartford built Columbia Electric Mark LXI Victoria-Phaeton. Priced at $1,350, this two-seater weighed about 1,400 pounds. 

Founded in 1895, the Columbia Electric Vehicle Company was located in Hartford at the corner of Park and Laurel Streets. Company president, Albert Augustus Pope had already introduced women to the wonderful world of individual mobility with his Columbia bicycle line. In 1896, he began production of his electrically powered automobiles and by 1899, the company’s production of 2,092 EVs amounted to almost one-half of the total United States auto production. 

Bridgeport’s Armstrong Manufacturing Company was located on Knowlton Street at the foot of Barnum Avenue near the eastern shore of the Pequonnock River. The firm had started out manufacturing items related to the horse & carriage industry, but by the mid 1890’s, they were producing tools for the plumbing and steam fitting trade. So, why not build an automobile? And why not make it one that operated with both gasoline and electricity? Pictured below is the one and only 1896 Armstrong Phaeton – perhaps the world’s earliest electric/gasoline hybrid automobile – built sometime between 1894 and 1896. In 1896, it was one of only six entries in a race that was sponsored by Cosmopolitan Magazine in an effort to convince a still skeptical world that the horseless carriage was indeed viable. The race ran from Manhattan to the magazine’s offices in Irvington, New York. Following the event, the company attempted to market their machine to no avail.

1896 Armstrong Phaeton Electric/Gasoline Hybrid built in Bridgeport.

By 1900, the horseless carriage was becoming more than just a curiosity. That year a total of 4,192 self-propelled vehicles were manufactured and sold in the United States – although that number could have been considerably higher since no state was then currently registering automobiles and many early entrepreneurs were building one-off designs in their barns or garages.

Steam power was the most popular choice in 1900. Steam powered automobiles were quiet and extremely quick. The issue was the time it took to build a head of steam and the danger of either setting the machine on fire or blowing it up if the pressure wasn’t properly regulated. In 1900, the total recorded production of steamers was 1,681.

Close behind came the electrics. Also quiet, they were extremely simple to operate. They quickly became a favorite among women who longed for the independence an automobile gave them, as well as physicians who needed a reliable means of transportation in which to make their rounds. Although the electric vehicles all had range issues – 20 to 70 miles was about as far as any of them could go without a sizable amount of time to recharge their batteries, they were well suited for urban travel.

An important factor in both the use of steam and electric power was their quiet operation. In a transportation world that was still dominated by horses, gasoline powered internal combustion engines were extremely noisy and they easily frightened many a skittish horse to the point where the animal would either buck its rider or run off with its wagon in tow.

The were less than a thousand gasoline powered vehicles sold in 1900. They accounted for less than 25 percent of all sales. In addition to being noisy, they emitted noxious fumes and were extremely temperamental when it came to starting. I recently attended a collector car auction where I saw the list of instructions for starting an early 1900’s Rambler – it had no less than 10 separate steps to get its engine running! All early internal combustion engines need to be cranked by hand to start them. Many a wrist or arm was broken by early motorists as they learned the perils of starting their prized new possessions.

By the middle of the first decade of the 20th century, the electric vehicle was still among the most popular choices in automobiles. The Detroit was one of the best-known brands, attracting such people as Thomas Edison, John D. Rockefeller, and even a young Mamie Eisenhower. Even members of the competition drove a Detroit. Henry Ford purchased one for his wife in 1908. The Detroit was the first automobile to use curved glass and later buyers had the option of equipping their vehicles with nickel-iron batteries from the Edison Company that would both charge faster and allow the vehicle to travel farther between those charges.

Even Henry Ford was an early fan of electric vehicles. He purchased a Detroit Electric for his wife in 1908.

In 1910, Thomas Edison patented his version of the nickel-iron battery (NiFe). It should have revolutionized the electric vehicle industry, but the cost of adding it to vehicle was too high at a time when Henry Ford was changing the industry with his low-cost, high-volume Model T. Edison’s batteries could last as long as 20 years in almost any situation. As little as 30 years ago, I rode in a Detroit electric that was still using its original Edison batteries – over 80 years after they had been manufactured!

The Detroit sold a total of over 13,000 units during its production run, with sales annually running between one and two thousand units in the years just preceding and following 1910.

Walter Luttgen in his Detroit Electric at his Redding estate Villa Linta on Sunset Hill c.1915.

By the second decade of the 20th century, the internal combustion engine took the lead as far as powering automobiles was concerned. Several factors had a huge impact on their growing popularity. One was the discovery of cheap petroleum in both Pennsylvania and Texas. A second was the invention of the electric starter, making them both easier and safer to start. A third slowly came into play as America’s roads improved and travel by automobile became more of a reality than a novelty – electric vehicles’ limited range became a burden. Long charging times versus quick fill-ups with gasoline dampened the enthusiasm of prospective buyers.

But undoubtedly the largest single factor in the demise of the first EVs was the lack of a reliable and wide range power grid. The vast majority of rural America had no electricity, and none would be forthcoming until the 1930’s when the Rural Electrification Act (REA) was enacted, and power companies were subsidized by the federal government to run electric transmission lines to the thousands of small communities and outlying farms that needed them.

If all these pitfalls sound familiar, they should. Range and the lack of recharging infrastructure is and will continue to be a major obstacle for the modern, rejuvenated EV market.

Climate change is a reality. It doesn’t matter whether one believes it is man-made or simply a natural occurrence like the coming and going of the Ice Age. It’s real and most of the civilized world has concluded that fossil fuels have at least hastened global warming. As a result, many governments have decided to limit, or even ban, the continued production and sale of gasoline and diesel-powered vehicles.

Easy to wish for. Difficult to accomplish. The very same issues that killed the electric vehicle industry the first time still exist. There are a few differences – we now have a nationwide power grid and battery range is better than it was 110 years ago, but the basic issues are still the same. The limited ability to provide an adequate amount of electric power and the inconvenience of time-consuming recharges versus fast fill-ups. Today’s power grid is ancient and weak; incapable of supplying adequate power on an everyday basis as it is, never mind what it would need to supply should all our vehicles need to run on electricity.

In early September of 2022, California residents were asked by Governor Gavin Newsome not to charge their electric vehicles so as to conserve energy amid a brutal heatwave – just days after the state had announced a plan to ban sales of new fossil fuel powered cars by 2035.

This request came as residents of the Golden State sweltered in triple-digit temperatures. However, the irony of this rather awkward request has not been lost on critics of the ambitious plan to switch the majority of California’s fleet of nearly 15 million passenger cars to zero emission vehicles (mostly electric) within the next two decades. Current ZEV (zero emission vehicles) registrations number approximately 1.4 million, with the state having a goal to increase that to at least 5 million by the end of the current decade. California’s lead is anticipated to set the pace for a similar shift both nationally and internationally by 2040. Given the current technology available for alternative power sources in vehicles, such a change would virtually amount to a fleet of all electric vehicles.

In addition to an underperforming power grid, there is a huge lack of available infrastructure when it comes to providing fast charging stations. Today’s EV owners don’t have a large complaint of long waits to recharge their vehicles at public recharging stations – yet. But give it a couple of years. Last year Americans purchased a little over 800,000 new EVs; only 5.8% of all sales. What happens as that increases? What happens when that number reaches 50%? When one adds that to the number of EVs that remain on the road it quickly becomes clear that America will not be able to build new charging stations fast enough to accommodate every driver, every day. Outlaw the sales of gasoline powered vehicles altogether and many vehicles will undoubtedly sit idle.

Good intentions? Yes. A workable reality? Extremely doubtful under the best scenario. Will history repeat itself? Perhaps not in quite the same manner, but likely with the same results. There was a reason our ancestors put the horse before the cart, and we need to heed the mistakes of the early 20th century that hastened the demise of the electric vehicle then. There wasn’t enough electricity to satisfy the demand then and there isn’t enough now. Just like one needs to lay the tracks before they run the train, we need to establish a reliable power grid and enough charging stations to accommodate a nationwide fleet of EVs.

Only time will tell if we are wise enough to look far enough back to see a better path to move forward.

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By Bruce Nelson

Director of Research for the Historical Society of Easton Town Co-Historian for the Town of Redding, Connecticut Author/Publisher at Sport Hill Books