Electric vehicles dominate at Munich Motor Show
Car manufacturers are showing off their latest designs at the IAA mobility show in Munich. (Sept. 7)
The claim: Electric cars were used 100 years ago, then technology was lost
Electric cars are on the rise. Global sales of electric vehicles rose by 160% in the first half of 2021 from a year earlier, according to research firm Canalys.
Due to consumer demand largely springing from China and Europe, electric vehicles sales are expected to surpass their gasoline-guzzling counterparts by 2036 at the latest, according to a June Bloomberg report.
Some social media users are claiming the rise of these green energy cars represents the rediscovery of a technology previously lost to history.
“Electric cars pictured charging back in 1917,” reads a graphic shared in an Oct. 6 Facebook post, which depicts a black-and-white image of early 20th-century trucks hooked up to what appears to be charging stations.
“How did we lose this technology, to then re-invent it in 100 years later (sic),” asks the graphic.
Similar posts shared to Instagram, including one by Brazilian racing driver Lucas di Grassi, claim that instead of 1917, the black-and-white image dates back even earlier to 1907.
The post has garnered over 300 interactions on Facebook in the last week, according to CrowdTangle, a social media insights tool. The related Instagram posts amassed even more with thousands of interactions since March.
The Facebook post is right that the image dates back to 1917 and depicts early electric vehicles. But the technology has been around since the first workable electric car was developed in the 1890s but was lost out in the car market with the rise of gasoline-powered vehicles in the early 20th century.
USA TODAY reached out to the Facebook and Instagram users for comment.
Image shows battery-powered trucks in London
The image was taken in London during the later years of World War I on July 11, 1917, according to Getty Images.
The vehicles aren’t cars but lorries – or trucks in American English – owned by the Midland Railway Company. They were being refueled in the St. Pancras Goods Depot.
The exact fuel isn’t specified in the image’s caption, but spokesperson Jasmine Rodgers of the U.K.’s National Railway Museum confirmed to USA TODAY it was electric.
“Electric vehicles were quite the thing in the first two decades of the twentieth century. The lorries in the photograph are being charged from the mains, but battery vehicles were popular too,” she wrote in an email.
The captions also don’t specify the exact make of the lorries but considering images of other Midland Railway vehicles from that time period, Rodger said they were “made by the Edison company, Lansden and the General Vehicle Company (which was part of General Electric).”
The term Edison Accumulators can be seen emblazoned on one truck to the image’s lefthand side, indicating these vehicles were likely outfitted with a type of nickel-iron battery initially patented by Swedish engineer Ernst Waldemar Jungner, and later refined by American inventor Thomas Edison.
“I think these electric vehicles probably had a top speed of about 25 mph,” Rodgers said. “Like Amazon today, they would have been used for deliveries and collections in London.”
Electric cars date back to the late 19th century
The earliest prototypes for the first electric-powered vehicles were developed in the 1830s, 50 years before German engineer Karl Benz patented and then built the gasoline-powered Benz Patent Motorwagen in 1886.
These early models of electric cars were more proofs of concept than a viable means of transportation, since they used non-rechargeable batteries. The advent of the first rechargeable, lead-acid battery in 1859 by French physician Gaston Planté lead to the first successful electric vehicle made by Iowan chemist William Morrison, showcased in a city parade in 1888 and at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893.
By 1904, electric cars were nearly everywhere, making up one-third of all motor vehicles in New York, Chicago and Boston, wrote Erica Schoenberger, an environmental historian and professor in Johns Hopkins University Whiting School of Engineering, in her 2014 book “Nature, Choice and Social Power.”
Electric car technology not lost, but lost the consumer market
The discovery of crude oil in Texas in 1901 and the mass commercialization of Ford Motor Company’s gasoline-powered Model T brought the electric car buzz to a reverberating halt.
“Ford devised a way of making cars that blew everyone else out of the water because of the way he made cars — the moving assembly line,” Schoenberger said in an email to USA TODAY. “He owned 96% of the market for inexpensive yet decent cars. He designed the Model T around a gasoline engine. Everyone who was not rich and who wanted a car bought a Model T, necessarily with a gas engine.”
Low costs and the relative accessibility of gasoline made choosing gasoline-powered cars over electric ones a straightforward choice for many Americans, most of whom – particularly in rural areas – were not connected to the power grid and had no way to recharge an electric car.
“In effect, the choice they were making was not between electric and internal combustion engines, it was between a car and no car. They wanted the car,” Schoenberger said.
Over the next decades, electric cars all but disappeared from American motorways. But the technology to make electric cars wasn’t exactly lost or fell out of favor, Schoenberger said. Electric cars simply lost the market.
For one, electric car use was overwhelmingly female, she said. In the early 20th century, these battery-powered vehicles were seen as cleaner and less strenuous to get started compared to a gasoline engine, which needed to be manually cranked. Electric cars were thus marketed as female-friendly and the ideal woman’s car. But women only made up a minority of drivers and had little buying power as gasoline cars prevailed.
Other issues related to practicality with changing times. Batteries were not as energy-efficient compared to liquid fuel, which provided more energy per unit mass, the Guardian reported. And as roads expanded and cars gave their owners the freedom to travel far, electric vehicles lacked the speed and range to go the desired distances.
Soaring gas prices and spotty fuel availability during World War I brought electric vehicles back to the forefront briefly, Car and Driver reported. But by World War II and the years after, gasoline-powered vehicles stayed en vogue, although electric cars continued to be used and developed to some extent, such as the Henney Kilowatt in 1959 and General Motors’ Electrovair series, which debuted in 1964.
Oil crises and development of lithium-ion battery
The U.S. became more serious about improving electric car technology with the oil crises in the 1970s. In 1976, Congress passed the Electric and Hybrid Vehicle Research, Development and Demonstration Act to drum up support for the research and development of gas-alternative vehicles and it became law after lawmakers overrode a veto by President Gerald Ford.
The Big Three automobile makers – Chrysler, Ford and General Motors – converted some of their gasoline-powered vehicles to electric, like Ford’s Ranger pick-up or General Motor’s two-passenger sports car called the EV1.
But nothing commercially viable came about until the 1990s with the emergence of hybrid cars, like the 1997 Toyota Prius, and the lithium-ion battery that could recharge in a short amount of time. It was first commercialized in 1991 by Sony in its handheld camcorder but used in electric cars with the 2008 Tesla Roadster.
Our rating: Partly false
Based on our research, we rate PARTLY FALSE the claim that electric cars were used 100 years ago, then the technology was lost. While it’s true the image is from 1917 and depicts electric-powered delivery trucks, the claim the technology was lost or recently reinvented is wrong. Electric cars were conceptualized in the late 19th century and rose to prominence by the early 20th century. They lost out in the car market with the discovery of crude oil and the commercialization of Ford Motor’s Model T in the early 20th century, which made gasoline-powered cars relatively cheaper. Electric cars would still be used and developed to some extent but the oil crises of the 1970s, along with the invention of the lithium-ion battery, inspired a resurgence in electric-powered vehicles and eventually their present-day demand.
Our fact-check sources:
- Canalys, Aug. 30, Global electric vehicle sales up 160% in H1 2021 despite supply constraints
- Bloomberg, June 22, Electric Vehicles Seen Reaching Sales Supremacy by 2033, Faster than Expected
- Jo Hedwig Teeuwisse, Oct. 11, Twitter exchange with USA TODAY
- Getty Images, July 11, 1917, Lorries being refueled at St Pancras goods depot, London, 11 July 1917.
- Jasmine Rodgers via Simon Bayliss, Oct. 11, Email exchange with USA TODAY
- Grace’s Guide to British Industrial History, accessed Oct. 10, 1917 Motor, Marine and Aircraft Red Book: Electric Vehicles
- BBC, Feb. 23, The battery invented 120 years before its time
- CNN, July 18, 2019, Electric cars have been around since before the US Civil War
- Daimler, accessed Oct. 10, 1885-1186. The first automobile
- Journal of Power Sources, July 15, 2010, Gaston Planté and his invention of the lead-acid battery–The genesis of the first practical rechargeable battery
- “Nature, Choice and Social Power”, Aug. 21, 2014, Chapter 4 Henry Ford’s Car
- Erica Schoenberger, Oct. 15, Email exchange with USA TODAY
- Upworthy, May 25, 2016, The weird, secret history of the electric car and why it disappeared
- Quartz, July 1, 2018, Early-1900s EVs were marketed to women because gas cars were too complicated
- The Guardian, Aug. 3, The lost history of the electric car – and what it tells us about the future of transport
- Car and Driver, March 15, 2018, Worth the Watt: A Brief History of the Electric Car, 1830 to Present
- Renault Group, Dec. 19, 2014, Henny Kilowatt: The American Electric Dauphine
- General Motors Heritage Center, accessed Oct. 18, GM Electric Vehicles
- Congress.gov, Sept. 17, 1976, H.R.8800 – Electric Vehicle Research, Development, and Demonstration Act
- Idaho National Laboratory, accessed Oct. 18, History of Electric Cars
- Energy.gov, Sept. 15, 2014, The History of the Electric Car
- Energy.gov, Sept. 14, 2017, How Does a Lithium-ion Battery Work?
- USA TODAY, May 31, 2016, Elon Musk recounts the secret history of Tesla Motors
- CNBC, Dec. 30, 2019, The battery decade: How energy storage could revolutionize industries in the next 10 years
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