It’s rather difficult to pin down the first electric vehicle, because manufacturers and inventors in several places developed electric cars at around the same time. What is known is that electric vehicles have been around for a long time, and initially they outsold gasoline and steam-powered cars, for a variety of reasons, ranging from price to convenience. The 20th century led to a decline in interest in such vehicles, until the cost of gasoline started to rise, along with interest in the environmental movement, creating demand for electric cars.
In the 1830s, inventors in Belgium, Scotland, the United States, and Holland were all working on electric cars. Robert Anderson of Scotland and Thomas Davenport of the United States are both given credit for building the first electric vehicle around 1834-35, with the help of their assistants. These early vehicles were more like horseless carriages, with very crude, basic designs and minimal efficiency.
By the 1860s, inventors began to focus on improving batteries to get more life out of their electric cars. The electric vehicle was primarily a novelty item for the wealthy at this point, with a high sticker price made even higher by ornate decorations and top of the line fittings. In 1897, the first electric vehicle designed for commercial use was produced: a fleet of electric taxis for New York City.
Other electric vehicles were also released in the 1890s, including “The Never Content,” a Belgian racing car which briefly held the land speed record. The electric vehicle began to skyrocket in popularity, as people turned away from horses and started exploring cars. Steam-powered cars were challenging to run and drive, as were gasoline engines. The electric vehicle was touted as a quieter, easier to handle alternative, but by 1912, sales had declined radically in response to the discovery of additional petroleum deposits, and the refinement of the gas engine and low-cost gasoline cars by inventors like Henry Ford.
The first electric vehicle with a hybrid engine was released in 1916, right around the time that interest in electric cars had faded. While a few manufacturers played with the design in the 1970s and 1980s, taking advantage of vast improvements in the field of batteries, the electric car was viewed largely as a curiosity until people started modifying commercial cars to run on electricity and demanding mass-produced electric cars to respond to concerns about the environment, vehicle emissions, and the rising cost of fuel.
It may intrigue readers to know that the first electric vehicle designs were marketed specifically to women. Their quieter, cleaner burning engines were touted for ladies who wanted to keep their white gloves spotless, and their easy handling was advertised as a bonus for supposedly flighty female drivers.
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