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A brief history of electric cars: when were electric cars invented?

07 December 2021 | Aimee Tweedale

Electric cars might seem futuristic, but they have a surprisingly long past. 

In fact, tracing the history of electric cars takes us all the way back to the early 1800s, with the invention of electric motors and batteries. After almost 2 centuries of innovation, new developments are still being made in the world of EVs all the time. 

Ever wondered when and where the first electric car was invented? Here’s a timeline of electric vehicle development, from the first “horseless carriage” to the first Tesla, and beyond!

When were electric cars invented?

The history of electric cars stretches back a lot further than you might think. In fact, battery-powered cars were invented before petrol vehicles!

The very first electric motor was invented in 1828, while the lead-acid battery later was invented in 1859. This led to what was widely considered as the first electric car in the world making its debut in the late 19th century. 

Who invented the electric car?

The answer to who invented the electric car isn’t entirely simple. Electric cars as we know them today come from the inventions of a few different brilliant minds.

Hungarian engineer Ányos Jedlik was the first person to invent the electric motor, back in 1828. The motor lives in a museum in Budapest, and still works perfectly well to this day1!

The Scottish inventor Robert Anderson was seemingly the first person to put this technology to use for road transport. He strapped a motor and a battery to a carriage sometime in the 1830s, creating a crude prototype for electric cars as we know them today2.

In 1859, French physicist Gaston Planté invented lead-acid batteries, which are still used in some EVs today. His invention was later improved on by English engineer Thomas Parker. Parker and Planté both submitted a patent for an improved lead-acid battery in 1882, and both were granted.

Parker then set up shop manufacturing lead-acid batteries in Wolverhampton. Together with his partner, Paul Elwell, he developed several prototypes for electric cars. 

But it was William Morrison, a Scottish-American inventor, who created the first successful electric carriage in the US. He completed his first prototype in 1887. 

One of Thomas Parker's electric carriages 1895

One of Thomas Parker's electric cars outside his home near Wolverhampton, around 1895 / Photo credit: Wikipedia

What was the first electric car?

As you can see, there were a lot of early prototypes and experiments in electric vehicles. But it was William Morrison’s design that became widely known as the world’s first electric car, in the late 19th century. 

Between 1888 and 1890, he perfected his design to include gears, steering, and other features. It became famous for being a “horseless carriage”, able to propel itself down the street without the need to be pulled by horses!

Electric cars in the 20th century: how petrol took over from batteries

In the late 19th century, Morrison’s design exploded in popularity. In fact, by 1900, electric cars accounted for a third of all vehicles on the road in the US3! So what changed?

The answer is Henry Ford. If you haven’t heard of the American businessman, you’ll certainly have heard of his company, Ford Motors. In 1908, they launched the Model T: the first cheap, easy to drive, and widely available petrol car. It was hugely popular, and paved the way for cars as we know them today.

Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, more and more gasoline-powered cars entered the market. Meanwhile, the infrastructure of roads improved, and it became common for middle-class families to own a petrol car so they could take trips away from home. Electric cars, which were slower and could only travel short distances, dwindled in popularity. 

Later in the 20th century, interest in EVs picked up again. This was first fuelled by surges in petrol prices in the 1960s and 1970s, and later by concerns about climate change. But electric cars still couldn’t travel anywhere near as far or fast as cars with petrol or diesel engines, so they remained niche. 

Everything changed with the invention of the rechargeable Lithium-ion battery. When this hit the market in 1991, EVs got a boost. Lithium-ion batteries made it possible for EVs to travel a lot further than lead-acid. 

As the 20th century drew to a close, innovation in EVs was starting to accelerate. 

Electric cars in the 21st century: the biggest developments so far

The biggest leaps and bounds in EV technology have happened this century. Here’s a quick guide to the key developments. 

Improvements in battery technology

Lithium-ion batteries were around throughout the 1990s, but experts agreed they weren’t powerful enough to give EVs the same range and reliability as petrol cars. 

At the turn of the century, 2 new varieties of Lithium-ion battery were created: lithium nickel cobalt aluminium oxides (NCAs), and lithium nickel manganese cobalt oxide (MNCs)4. These forms of battery technology gave cars more bang for their buck, allowing them to hold onto more power, and travel longer distances.

The discovery of NCA and MNC battery technology led to an explosion in electric cars, including the launch of Tesla, which mainly uses NCA batteries.

Want to know more about EV battery technology and how long they last for? Read our guide!

A woman charging her electric car by the road

When was the first Tesla made?

Elon Musk’s electric car company Tesla launched its first model, the Tesla Roadster, in 2006. Customers could buy it between 2008 and 2011.

With a starting price of $110,000, it was something of a niche car. Only 2,400 of them were actually sold5. But the Roadster was hugely important for what it represented: it was the first EV on the market that could travel more than 200 miles on a single charge. 

These days, Teslas (and electric cars in general) have lost their niche status. In March 2020, Tesla became the first car manufacturer to have made 1 million electric cars6.

Read more about electric car range and how far an EV can go

The development of plug-in hybrid cars

The concept of a hybrid car is almost as old as electric cars themselves, with the first one being produced as early as 18987. But most developments in hybrid car technology kicked off since the beginning of the 21st century. 

In 1999, the first hybrid car (a car with both a combustion engine and an electric motor) was released to the public in the US –  the Honda Insight. Toyota followed up with the Prius in 2000, the first hybrid 4-door sedan available to customers in the US8.

But the first true plug-in hybrid car available to buy in the US was the Chevrolet Volt, launched in 20109. (A plug-in hybrid has a battery that can be charged, just like in an EV, alongside its petrol/diesel engine.)

Read more about hybrid cars and how they work

The future of electric cars

In 2020, the UK government announced that it will be illegal to make petrol and diesel cars from 2030. This means that electric cars are bound to be a big part of our future.

While EVs have come a long way from where they started in the 1800s, there’s still some way to go. 

Electric car batteries today can travel as far as 300-400 miles on one charge. But researchers around the globe are working on creating batteries that can go even further, to end “range anxiety” once and for all. 

Scientists are also working on new technologies that can cut down the time it takes to charge an electric car. Earlier in 2021, researchers at Penn State University in America claimed to have invented an EV battery that can fully charge in just 10 minutes10.

As this technology develops, and more charging infrastructure is put in place around the UK, EVs are set to become as cheap and convenient as petrol cars. 

For more, read our complete guide to the future of electric cars and the top EV trends in 2021.

A family in their car

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So why not get a quote, and switch to OVO today? You could be charging your EV and saving money sooner than you think.

Read our blog on what to consider when buying your first electric car. Thinking about leasing? Check out EV offers from our partners at Vanarama



Sources and references:

http://www.museum.hu/exhibition/10980/The_Jedliks_Dynamo__is_150_Years_Old

2 https://www.upsbatterycenter.com/blog/robert-anderson-19th-century-scottish-inventor/

3 https://www.energy.gov/timeline/timeline-history-electric-car

4 https://www.lifewire.com/electric-vehicles-a-short-history-lesson-5202203

5 https://www.businessinsider.com/tesla-roadster-history-2016-3?r=US&IR=T

6 https://www.theverge.com/2020/3/10/21172895/tesla-one-million-cars-production-model-y

7 https://web.archive.org/web/20090904154040/http://www.hybridcars.com/history/history-of-hybrid-vehicles.html

8 https://web.archive.org/web/20090904154040/http://www.hybridcars.com/history/history-of-hybrid-vehicles.html

9 https://www.energy.gov/timeline/timeline-history-electric-car

10 https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/gadgets-and-tech/battery-electric-car-range-charge-time-b1790601.html

11 100% of the renewable electricity we sell is backed by renewable certificates (Renewable Energy Guarantee of Origin certificates (REGOs)). See here for details on Renewable Energy Guarantee of Origin certificates and how these work. A proportion of the electricity we sell is also purchased directly from renewable generators in the UK.

12 Each year, OVO plants 1 tree for every member in partnership with the Woodland Trust. Trees absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, so tree-planting helps to slow down climate change.

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