The gradual switching over of gasoline-powered cars to electric cars doesn’t bother me, even though I generally oppose technological change and have been called, not unfairly, a curmudgeon.

I’m not bothered because electric cars are not a new technology. The majority of folks nowadays think electric cars are an invention of the 21st century. Far from it. They go back to the 20th century. And even the 19th.

At the dawn of the automotive era, three versions of cars fought for market share: steam, electric, and gasoline. All three types competed in 1898 in a hill-climbing contest in France; the electric car won.

When 1900 came along, 40% of U.S. automobiles were powered by steam, 38% by electricity, and 22% by gasoline. But the steam engine proved complicated and extremely thirsty, and the gasoline engine was unreliable, noisy, and prone to excessive vibration.

Thus, the electric car emerged as the winner. At least for a while.

The gasoline car is often credited to Carl Benz, who drove his first internal-combustion vehicle — a three-wheeler — in early 1885.

At a public showing later that year, he forgot to steer (I wonder if he was posing for the press) and smashed the vehicle against a brick wall surrounding his estate. It’s probably the first car crash caused by distracted driving.

When did the electric car come into being? It dates back to circa 1890 when William Morrison of Des Moines, Iowa, built a car powered by electricity. Electric cars became the most popular car in America during the late 1890s and early 1900s.

They were easy to operate, ran quietly, and did not emit smelly fumes. But they were limited in speed (about 20 miles per hour, tops) and needed recharging about every 50 miles.

Despite those limitations, electric cars were king of the hill by 1912, with more than 33,000 such cars registered in the United States alone.

Eventually, the first automobile to exceed 60 miles per hour would be an electric car.

But the game changed in 1912, when General Motors introduced the battery-reliant electric starter. This innovation did away with the need for the dreaded hand-crank, which pretty much required strength to use and tended to cause injury.

With the electric starter, women could drive solo too, and so could non-muscular guys. Since then, cars with internal-combustion engines have reigned.

This vying for supremacy is a pattern not unique to automobiles. In the late 1970s and for most of the 1980s, I can recall two competing formats for videotapes, VHS and Betamax, duking it out. VHS won the videotape battle, but eventually they both lost the war to DVDs.

Some of us remember that electric cars attempted a comeback in the late 1990s when General Motors mass-produced its EV1 vehicle. This experimental electric car was leased but not sold. Users were, by and large, very happy with their electric cars.

But once the leases expired, General Motors made the startling decision to demand the return of all the cars and consigned them to the trash compacter. Almost all were crushed. One functioning specimen still resides in the Smithsonian, and a few nonfunctional ones have scattered off to other museums.

And now electric cars have begun their ascendancy anew. They seem to be the wave of the future. For instance, municipal law in Atlanta, Georgia, requires all newly built homes to accommodate electric vehicles.

It looks like electric cars will become the champs again in 15-20 years. Yet it’s possible that future advances in internal-combustion cars — such as finding a way to get 200 miles from each gallon of gasoline — could wrest the championship belt back from electric cars.


Arthur Vidro worked for a decade in the stock industry. Before and after, he wrote newspaper articles and edited a few books. He has served as treasurer of theater and library organizations. He’s been cautious with money ever since a dollar was worth a dollar.

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