Electric Cars: They’re Just History Repeating Itself a Little Bit, Right?

Whilst I was on holiday in the English Lake District I stopped in at one of my usual haunts; a bookshop in Keswick which contains a vast number of interesting tomes. Organisation is not the shop’s strong point, and it’s a place in which many a happy discovery has been made finding books on motoring or electronics tucked next to Daily Mail editions of popular classic novels.

This year, lurking on the shelves was part of what appears to be a terribly interesting series of books, one of which has more relevance to today’s plug-in car driver than you might expect.

In 1910 the American School of Correspondence noted an important gap in people’s knowledge. With the increasing importance of the motor vehicle, many folk were finding they were unable to understand or care for their newest technological marvel. And so they set about publishing a multi-volume set covering everything from the design and construction of the automobile through to how to drive it and maintain it.

The 1910 Cyclopedia of Automobile Engineering is a wealth of information

The 1910 Cyclopedia of Automobile Engineering is a wealth of information

Volume three from that set it turns out was titled: Electric Vehicles, Automobile Driving. Despite a not terribly small price tag, after some debate, the book followed me home. I mean, it’s from 1910 and it’s nearly all about electric vehicles! How could I not? But on reading it, what’s startling is both how far, and how similar the discussions are. Given the new developments in formula E it’s particularly entertaining to read about the EV’s heady start in racing. Back in 1900, the first race in the USA on a circular circuit was conducted in Narrangansett Park – who won? A.L.Riker in his EV. He also won the 1908 Vanderbilt Cup Race, I believe in his Locomobile Racer which covered the 5 miles in 11’28 – crossing the finish line a full mile ahead of its nearest petrol driven rival (that, incidentally is an average speed of around 26 miles an hour. No mean feat in the 1900s).

And it wasn’t just short shots that EVs were winning. Good old A.L. Riker also won the 50 mile Blanchet Cup race in 1900 with a margin of “fully half an hour over the best gasoline car’s performance”. The book concedes that since then things have not been quite so rosy on the EV racing front, and comments on the need for better batteries – but it’s a fascinating glimpse into a scene I’d not even truly considered. That EVs were out there, racing, from the very earliest days. Quite often when you look at the history of the EV there’s talk of it being for ‘the ladies’. Indeed, the very introduction of the book comments on it being suitable for those who’ve not got ‘a man’ to look after their car. Both emphasising it’s suitability for the ladyfolk, but also for gents who weren’t able to afford a chauffer and associated garage.

But it’s not just in racing that the book seems surprisingly relevant. It also discusses the practicality of long-distance touring in an EV. In 1910 in the US they conclude that touring anywhere “North of Ohio or East of the Mississipi” is quite feasible due to the widespread availability of electricity. However, at 10 cents per kilowatt hour it would likely cost 89 cents to charge the average EV, a significant sum at the time. But their commentary on long distance trips already undertaken, and how they compare to trips taken in gasoline cars seems to make more of a mockery of the good old BBC’s recurrent failure to manage the same now.

Then we enter a whole ‘nother arena of similarity. Let me utter a few choice words to you and see what it brings to mind: Type 1, Type 2, CCS, CHAdeMO… Charging standards a bit of an issue are they? Well, spare a thought for your 1900s EV driver. First you have to contend with the flavour of electricity supplied to your house. Is it AC? or DC? Do you have electricity at all or is it only supplied by a petrol generator for your lighting? If you do have electricity what voltage is it? Anything from 100 volts up to your local tram company supplying a convenient 550volts! Then we get down to the fearsome contraptions which are required to convert to the right voltage. First up we have the hideousness that is the AC motor connected to a DC generator. We’re not talking solid state power supplies; oh no. We’re talking an actual motor turning a generator so you get the right number of volts DC back out. Apparently these are ‘not very efficient’, which I suspect is putting it mildly. They also need someone to watch and run them, which suggests a whole special level of concerns regarding their reliability.

No, no. That’s clearly foolish. No, instead what we need is the ultimate in EV charging technology. Take a moment to admire the Mercury Vapour Rectifier.

Charging the Baker Electric via a Mercury Rectifier, circa 1910

Charging the Baker Electric via a Mercury Rectifier, circa 1910

Yes, this is a device which will turn your alternating current into direct current with only a degree of terrifying and a small quantity of toxic vapour in your garage. Sadly it doesn’t delve into the theory of how a mercury vapour rectifier works; suffice to say it’s a glass vessel under vacuum with a quantity of liquid mercury in it. By passing enough power through it you can generate a mercury arc and some characteristics of both mercury and that arc mean it rectifies current. I really must find out how (but given that as I write this I’m in a hut on a fell with neither mobile signal, nor landline I can’t do that right now).

But I’ve not finished with the entertainment prospects of that rectifier. No, what makes it especially terrifying is that the arc isn’t completely stable. It breaks down and needs to be restarted. This is achieved by gently shaking it – since it takes a few hours to charge the car, rather than you staying there at all times it has a circuit which senses when the DC charging current fails, and in that circumstance shakes the fragile mercury glass vessel. What could possibly go wrong?

As with current EV developments there is also a discussion of battery technologies. At the time flooded lead acid batteries were the winner on the reliability and capacity front, but were already seen as being far too weighty. The authors comment on the habit of newspapers of enthusiastically reporting the latest scientific developments as though the release of their technology is just around the corner; and promising cars with 100s of miles of range that will charge in ‘just minutes’ from any old electricity supply. Something that the hydrogen fuel cell fans will no doubt appreciate. Interestingly the development of nickel-iron based rechargables seems to have been approaching courtesy of Edison, and for racing, lead batteries with their plates replaced with zinc once charged seems to have been the way to go.

Lead Acid, even in 1910, wasn't expected to be the way of the future.

Lead Acid, even in 1910, wasn’t expected to be the way of the future.

But perhaps one of the most prescient comments regards the surprising longevity of the EV. It gives the impression that New York was absolutely filled with Baker electric cabs which had been in service since the late 1890s. Having commented on how a 10 year old petrol car would be well beyond the end of its working life, it goes on to say how many of the cabs are still going strong; the minimal maintenance and mechanical simplicity giving the EV a life span far in excess of its petrol driven counterpart. We see this now, of course, with the original Rav 4 EV in California often running well beyond its design lifespan.

The promise of the EV as a clean, quiet vehicle has taken one hundred years to be realised. But it seems we are finally getting there, and with their inherent longevity this time they are here to stay.


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