The Electric Car Is A Much Older Idea Than You May Think

“We will make electricity so cheap that only the rich will burn candles.” —Thomas Edison

In A Nutshell

With a nearly global push to be more environmentally friendly, electric cars are the new, up-and-coming thing. Only, they’re nothing new. In 1897, the London streets were patrolled by a fleet of all-electric taxis, and the idea was first developed in the 1830s.

The Whole Bushel

We tend to think of electric cars as something new. Naysayers also think of them as something perhaps less reliable and less powerful than the standard gasoline- or diesel-powered cars, and they’ve got something of a reputation as being for the more environmentally-minded. They’re new, they’re trendy, they’re still being developed—only, they’re not that new.

With the original development of the automobile came not only the Model-Ts we all think of today, but also the electric car. In the 1830s, a couple different styles of electric cars were created and by 1897, they were serving as taxis in London. The introduction of the electric cars didn’t go off without a hiccup, though. Because cars were originally sharing the streets with horse-drawn carriages, many were afraid that the scary vehicles would spook countless horses and cause just as many accidents. Until November 1896, there was a law in Britain that all cars had to be led by a man waving a red flag, warning others in the area that a car was approaching.

The Red Flag Act was ultimately repealed, and the car’s popularity soared when the Prince of Wales rode in one.

By 1897, there was a fleet of 75 Bersey taxis throughout London, and they were electric. There were also a number of electric taxis humming their way around New York City.

The cars had a range of about 50 kilometers (30 mi), which sounds like an impractically short distance; but traveling through London blocks, they were ideal for city driving. Their top speed was only about 20 kph (12 mph), which again, for city driving isn’t too shabby at the turn of the century. A ride in one of the two-ton electric taxis cost as much as a ride in a horse-drawn one, and there was seemingly only one major drawback that people needed some time to get used to—the electric lights that were mounted on the inside and outside of the cars.

Rather than taking the time to recharge the batteries, the Bersey taxis were built so they could have their batteries replaced quickly. This meant only a quick two- or three-minute stop at their home station, and they were back out on the road.

The benefits of the electric cars were much like they are today. Electricity was renewable, the cars were quiet (all but eliminating the worrisome possibilities of spooking the 11,000 or so horses that were already working on the city streets), and largely pollution-free. Another huge benefit was that the cars weren’t started by the often troublesome crank handles that many people had a tough time turning—those went away with the electric cars’ invention of the electric starter.

Electricity was still insanely expensive at this time, though, and producing enough to power the cars means that Bersey didn’t just need to build, manufacture and maintain the cars, they also needed to generate their own power. The cars were also subject to massive amounts of wear and tear, mostly generated from the vibrations of running across London’s uneven, car-unfriendly roads. Glass broke, tires wore thin, and engines broke down.

Bersey’s taxi company lost most than £6,000 in its first year, a staggering amount for the late 1800s. They hadn’t counted on the upkeep that the cars would need, and ended up going out of business in 1899. Today, there’s only one of Bersey’s electric cars known to still exist, and it’s in London’s Science Museum.

It’s a beautiful work of Victorian scientific ingenuity, that might have made today’s world a very different place . . . if it had been more cost-effective.

Show Me The Proof

Photo credit: Science Museum London
Smithsonian: London Had All-Electric Taxis in 1897
Wired: Science Museum exhibits London’s 1897 electric taxi
The Charging Point: Bersey cab goes on display at the Science Museum
Inside the Science Museum: The surprisingly old story of London’s first ever electric taxi

  • Lisa 39

    So London had electric cars in the 1890’s and just gave up on them, that’s a shame, I understand why they did it but if they had been able to keep them going we’d be a lot more advanced with electric cars today. Nice article Debra.

  • Never knew that the rise of electric cars is in fact a comeback! My grandparents never mentioned anything about this …

    • Nomsheep

      Maybe their grandparents did though.

  • Clyde Barrow

    I’m sure had it lasted longer, an oil company would have bought them up, had them destroyed, and replaced them with gas guzzling petrol motors. Just like Standard Oil did in 1930’s Los Angeles. they had a wonderful Red Car Electric Trolley system set up throughout the city, and into neighboring Long Beach and Pasadena. Standard Oil was allowed to buy them out, remove and destroy the streetcars, rip out the tracks, and replace them with gas guzzling buses that burned from…Standard Oil.

    So long clean efficient transportation, hello air pollution and traffic jams. Oh yeah, and a monopoly to boot.

    • Hillyard

      GM bought up a lot of the small companies that operated street cars and did the same thing. Basically no one was buying cars since public transportation was plentiful and cheap so GM (and probably Ford) just bought up the competition and got rid of it. The rest, as they say, is global warming.

  • Hillyard

    I thought that everybody knew that a lot of the first cars were powered by electricity. Henry Ford considered having his cars burn alcohol but went with gasoline because it has more energy. If he had gone with alcohol the world might be a different place today.

  • kathy fry

    The electric car is a very interesting creation and there were over 200 companies that produced them in the USA up until the 1920s they were just incredible they used a device called a retrostat that was a magnet with copper coils a lever was attached to the top and pushed and pulled back and forth to generate power this was run thru a regulator for even power to charge the battery these cars were well on their way to reliable use and could be charged anywhere for free they ran for up to 600 hours on one charge and could reach speeds of 65mph downhill on a good road but this was pre 1920 imagine what our world would be like if we had spent the last century improving the electric car they would be amazing and still a possibility .