MAILBOX: Tryin' It Again


Colorado, Nevada, and Utah are pushing for the increased use of electric cars by establishing a regional electric-car-charging network. Most people probably think electric cars and related hybrid cars are fairly new technology. Well, have you ever heard the old expression, “There’s nothing new under the sun?”

Let’s take a brief trip back into history. According to the website, a German named Moritz von Jacobi made an electric boat that sailed on the Neva River in Russia around 1839. The boat had a 1 horsepower electric motor fed by current from a Grove cell, an early battery. In that same year, a Scottish inventor named Robert Anderson made a crude electric carriage.

Perhaps the first usable vehicle was an electric railway patented in 1885 by Ernst Werner Siemens, another German inventor. His rail car had wheels driven by an electric motor. This motor drew electricity from rails, which were insulated from the ground and connected to a generator. In 1887, a British man named Magnus Volk developed a more advanced electric carriage propelled by a 1 horsepower Immisch electric motor and other components that gave it a speed of 10 miles per hour.

And finally, the first type of what we call the electric car—in 1897, the London Electric Cab Company started service using a vehicle called the Bersey Cab. It was powered by a 40-cell battery and a 3 hp electric motor, with a range of about 50 miles.

The history of hybrid cars is fascinating. Ferdinand Porsche was a German engineer, and around 1900 he invented the first truly hybrid car. Called the “Mixte,” it used a gasoline engine that ran constantly to power a dynamo, which charged a bank of accumulators. These then sent current to electric motors in each front wheel. The system was very simple, with no need of a transmission, gears, clutch, etc.

Next came the Krieger Hybrid in 1903. It used a gas engine to supplement a battery pack, and much of the model appears to have been copied from Porsche. The Auto-mixte, produced in Belgium in 1906, had a 24 hp engine that drove a motor dynamo connected to a gearbox-less transmission and then to the rear wheels by chain final-drive. Normally, the engine alone could be used to propel the car. When the load was light or if braking was required, the dynamo driven by the engine or the final drive (regenerative braking) could be used to charge a bank of 28 Tudor batteries in series. When the load was heavy, the battery could be used to drive the dynamo as a motor to assist the engine, or the electric motor could be used to drive the car on its own. Before modern times, the last hybrid car was the 1921 Owen Magnetic Model 60 Touring model. It used a gasoline engine to run a generator for power to electric motors in each of the rear wheels.

At one time, electric cars were widespread in the United States. An October 2, 2012, New York Times article entitled “Why Your Car Isn’t Electric” points out that in 1900, 34% of cars in New York, Boston, and Chicago were electric. Around 1900, the Electric Vehicle Company was the largest car maker in the United States, and the article goes on to state “...when a series of shady business dealings drove the New York-based company into bankruptcy, it took electric cars down with the lull in electric car development that followed, gasoline-car companies improved their technology and made their vehicles cheaper.”

Will electric cars really take off this time? It has been tried before, and before, and before. Only the next few years and decades will tell.

Milton Ammel • via email

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