Shock of the old: the amazing, infuriating history of the electric car – in pictures

  • October 24, 2023
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Believe it or not, battery-powered vehicles have been around since Victorian times – everything from private automobiles to taxis, ambulances and tricycles. We’ve got the photos to prove it

The history of the electric car is surprisingly enraging. If you imagine early electric vehicles at all (full disclosure: I didn’t until recently), it will probably be as the quixotic and possibly dangerous dream of a few eccentrics, maybe in the 1920s or 1930s, when domestic electrification became widespread. It’s easy to imagine some stiff-collared proto-Musk getting bored of hunting and affairs, eyeing his newly installed electric lights speculatively, then wreaking untold havoc and mass electrocutions.

The reality is entirely different. By 1900, a third of all cars on the road in the US were electric; we’re looking at the history of a cruelly missed opportunity, and it started astonishingly early. The Scottish engineer Robert Anderson had a go at an electric car of sorts way back in the 1830s, though his invention was somewhat stymied by the fact rechargeable batteries were not invented until 1859, making his crude carriage something of a one-trick pony (and far less useful than an actual pony).

Thomas Edison with his electric car, circa 1895.

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