Energy Perspectives

Driving the Recovered Past- Part I

In the face of global energy concerns, many car companies are producing electric and hybrid cars to become energy efficient and sustainable. Many believe that electric cars have a bright future. Carrington White, fourth year History and Political Science student at the University of Ottawa, explains how electric vehicles have a past that has been forgotten. 

“Park the future in your driveway”

I often wonder whether Canadians recognize that this phrase – which was coined to market the Toyota Prius – is actually pretty inaccurate. The electric car isn’t as new as we might think - the first one was actually introduced in 1881, as innovations in electricity opened the market for electric car companies in North America. Of these, Baker Electrics was the main producer of electric vehicles until 1913, but they were just one of several companies that rose to popularity during this time, which is commonly referred to as The Horseless Age


(CSTMC/CN Collection CN 1975.0216.001)

First generation electric vehicles owe much to the electric streetcar, which also relied on a battery and an electric motor for propulsion. Several improvements were necessary to develop a personal motor car, including increased travelling capacity on difficult roads and in poor weather conditions, and better motor speed control. Competition grew between proponents of gas, steam, and electric automobiles, as each fought fiercely to determine which industry would be the first to win the public over and corner the market.

The Need for Speed

The Baker Runabout (c. 1910-1912) was one such vehicle, meeting the demands of the growing automobile market. It was designed specifically for better mileage and higher speeds. The Runabout operated on eight 6-volt, 30 cell batteries; the strongest battery at a time when most electric vehicles were limited to a 24-28 cell battery. This battery allowed the car to travel at unprecedented speeds: It had a travelling capacity of 80 kilometres on one charge and could reach a speed of 27 kilometres per hour.

The Runabout also succeeded in establishing motor speed control. Baker Electric vehicles employed the battery switching technique, enabling the Runabout to travel at nine speeds and eliminating the need for the gear shifts which gas cars users often found difficult to operate. The Baker Runabout was marketed to doctors for its great speed, easy handling, and quick engine start-up. By improving their vehicles based on market demand, electrics gained great popularity over gas and steam automobiles in the early 20th century. 


Noise, dirt, smell and women

Early on, gas powered vehicles were unpopular due to the noise, dirt and smell caused by the engine and its exhaust. Driving these vehicles was viewed as unfeminine and improper, and women who operated them were often socially scrutinized. 

Women were believed to be incapable of operating a gas car due to its complicated gear shifts and laborious manual start. Some cities, such as Chicago, even withheld licences from women wishing to drive gas cars! The electric car provided a clean, quiet and odourless alternative in transportation technology. Baker Electric Company’s vision was to “build an electric motor car so simple that no woman will ever be confused in driving it.”[1]

The Baker Motor Vehicle Co., Photograph. Cleveland, Ohio, circa. 1910 via The National Museum of American History. (Accessed April 24 2014).

The decline of the electric car

As the gas-powered car rose in popularity, the electric car began to decline. By 1912, the gasoline car had developed an electric starter which eliminated the inconvenience of the manual one. Limited access to charging facilities and the lack of an electrical grid prevented electric vehicles from securing support in the rural communities. Gasoline was approximately 5¢ per gallon, while electricity cost 20¢ per kilowatt hour. This meant that gasoline was not only significantly cheaper than electricity, but also that it was readily accessible to both urban and rural residents. Finally, the Ford assembly line produced gasoline powered cars quickly and cheaply, making them even more affordable. The economic feasibility and easy access to gasoline greatly influenced the decline of the electric vehicle. By the First World War, electric cars were limited to a small market, primarily for industrial use. 

In the face of climate change, many auto companies are producing electric and hybrid cars and working to develop a better charging grid. Electric cars will probably have a future in the automobile industry, but they have a past that is easily forgotten when compared to the sleek designs and efficient models of today.  A more historically accurate slogan might be: “park the recovered past in your driveway”.

 "The Economy of Baker Electrics," Baker Motor Vehicle Company, Collier's, June 30, 1906. (CSTMC,  DeBondt Automobile Fonds, COL30606)

 [1] Artifact Full Report for Canada’s Science and Technology Museum Corporation, 1975. 0216. 

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