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The surprisingly long history of electric cars - Daniel Sperling and Gil Tal


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By the end of the 19th century, nearly 40% of American cars were electric. But these vehicles had a few major problems — early car batteries were expensive and inefficient, and the vehicles were twice the price of a gas-powered car. And so for the next several decades, gas-powered cars dominated the market. Can electric cars reclaim their place on the road? Daniel Sperling and Gil Tal investigate.

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In 1828, a Hungarian engineer, physicist, and Benedictine priest by the name of Ányos Jedlik created an electric model car powered by an electromagnetic rotating device (essentially, a DC motor). Of course, this contraption was a far cry from the speedy remote-controlled cars we know and love today, but it facilitated other attempts at small-scale electric automation. Jedlik’s invention was soon followed by the first electric (horseless) carriage, developed by Scottish inventor Robert Anderson between 1832 and 1839, by attaching a primary cell (non-rechargeable) battery and motor to a typical horse-drawn carriage. At around the same time (1835), Sibrandus Stratingh in the Netherlands (Groningen) and Thomas Davenport in the United States (Vermont) developed their own small-scale, short-range electric cars.

However, the first successful American EV is credited to a chemist living in Iowa named William Morrison, who developed (sometime around 1890) a six-passenger automobile that could reach a top speed of 14 miles an hour. Though that might seem slow to 21st century sensibilities, it’s about the same speed as the herd of running bulls at the annual Encierro in Pamplona. Such a vehicle must have been impressive to a 19th century audience—indeed, Morrison’s electric car caught the attention of some of the most famous inventors of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Ferdinand Porsche (founder of the sports car company), Thomas Edison, and even Henry Ford, whose Model T would later quash public interest in EVs, all worked towards creating better, more efficient electric cars.

These early attempts would pave the way for the plug-in EVs of today, which are quickly gaining popularity on a global scale. More accessible modes of charging, such as wireless and mobile power stations, could further encourage investment in electric cars. Companies and research institutions are also developing cheaper and more energy efficient batteries, which might eliminate anxiety over battery range and drive down costs for consumers. For instance, researchers at the University of Texas at Austin have discovered the means for creating a lithium-ion battery that eliminates the need for costly cobalt, and experiments in graphene-based and sulfide-based technology could shorten charging time to mere seconds and extend battery life by decades. See our video on the chemistry of cars to learn more about how these elements function in a typical gas-powered automobile. With governments creating greater incentives for the development of these technologies, the future looks bright for electric vehicles.

For more information on the history of electric cars, see this timeline from Interested in other alternatives to gas-powered engines? Check out our video, “What’s the Best Fuel for Your Car?

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Meet The Creators

  • Educator Gil Tal, Daniel Sperling
  • Director Lobster Studio
  • Narrator Jack Cutmore-Scott
  • Storyboard Artist Miguel Ángel Camprubí
  • Animator Ralitsa Aleksieva , Teodor Hristov
  • Art Director Miguel Ángel Camprubí
  • Composer Fabrizio Martini
  • Sound Designer Fabrizio Martini
  • Director of Production Gerta Xhelo
  • Editorial Director Alex Rosenthal
  • Producer Bethany Cutmore-Scott
  • Editorial Producer Dan Kwartler
  • Content Associate Abdallah Ewis
  • Script Editor Alex Gendler
  • Fact-Checker Jennifer Nam

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