Yesterday's article on early solar power and the world that might have been were it not for the abundance of fossil fuels was very popular so I thought I would follow it up with a similar article envisaging what form transportation might have taken if gasoline use had not become widespread in the infernal combustion engine (pun intended).

The Columbia electric omnibus 1900.

The Columbia electric omnibus 1900.

Electric mobility was, at the start, on a par with gasoline-fuelled mobility and looked like it would win the battle for hearts and minds.

One of the chief pioneers were the Siemens brothers, William and Ernst Werner von Siemens, founders of the great energy company. William first proposed the idea of the electric trolley bus in 1881 as an:

"...arrangement by which an ordinary omnibus...would have a suspender thrown at intervals from one side of the street to the other, and two wires hanging from these suspenders; allowing contact-rollers to run on these two wires, the current could be conveyed to the tram-car, and back again to the dynamo machine at the station, without the necessity of running upon rails at all."

The first such vehicle was the Electromote, made by his brother and launched in 1882 in Halensee, Germany. This was a prototype and Europe had to wait another 19 years for the first passenger-carrying trolley bus, which ran in 1901 near Dresden. This was developed by a man called Max Schiemann. The first European cities to put them into general service were Leeds and Bradford in the north of England, which carried their first passengers on 20 June 1911.

The first electric vehicle

Over in America the first electric vehicle ran in Boston in the 1880s, a tricycle developed by Philip Pratt. 11 years later 500 cars were registered in the city.

The 1894 ElectrobatHenry Morris and Pedro Salom developed the next vehicle, called the Electrobat (right), in Philadelphia, evolving several models. Morris was a great ambassador for electric vehicles, noting their advantages compared to gasoline motors: they were safe and clean, made no noise, vibration or heat and seemed unlikely to cause environmental problems.

Forseeing the problems of the future he said in one speech:

"all the gasoline motors we have seen belching forth from the exhaust pipe a continuous stream of partially unconsumed hydrocarbons in the form of thin smoke with a highly noxious odour. Imagine thousands of such vehicles on the streets, each offering up its column of smell as a sacrifice for having displaced the superannuated horse."

Electric vs. gas: the battle of the technologies

Around 1900 there were three types of powered vehicle on the streets, each with about a third of the market: steam-powered, electric and gasoline.

Morris and Salom's Electrobat was a technological basis of the Electric Vehicle Company, the world's first corporate car company, founded in New York City.

A technological battle began, the outcome of which would decide which entirely new mobility system would take over the United States. The winner would require new roads, new ways of planning, land use and social systems.

It was not apparent then, which type would win the contest, yet any sensible financier might have put their money into electric vehicles – because why would anyone want to buy a massive hunk of metal powered by explosions, carrying a tank of highly inflammable liquid?

One financier who had already sunk $1 million into an electric future was William C Whitney, a robber baron, playboy and former secretary of the Navy. He had invested that amount in a new company set up by Col Albert Pope. Pope had founded the Pope Manufacturing Company in 1877 following a revelation he had experienced at the 1876 Philadelphia exposition where he became enthusiastic about bicycles.

He began importing European penny farthings and taking out patents on these models and by the early 1890s had established a bicycle trust controlling most of the bicycle patents in the US.

Nearly every US bicycle manufacturer had to pay him around $10 per bicycle. His bike was known as the Columbia and, as the cycling craze spread across America in the mid-1890s, he was making about a quarter of a million bicycles every year. In 1898 his Bicycle Company produced 800,000 bicycles.

But there was a problem: the roads were rather bumpy. So he formed the League of American Wheelmen to campaign for improved roads which, ironically, would make it easier for cars too.

In 1897 he started producing electric automobiles in Hartford, Connecticut and by the end of the century had produced over 500 of them. The electric vehicle division was spun off as an independent company, the Columbia Automobile Company, soon to be acquired by the Electric Vehicle Company.

Colombia electric car advert 1901

Pope's auto in 1905An astute businessman, Pope already had his own battery company, the Electric Storage Battery Company which bought out Morris and Salom's company.

Columbia's basic runabout was typical of the time, resembling a horseless carriage, and was steered via a tiller. It cost $850, $200 more than the contemporary Curved Dash Oldsmobile.

Columbia also manufactured about 20 other electric vehicles, including taxis and police cars, and even electric buses. The vehicles were most popular in cities, where relatively smooth roads made the electric motor, with its smoothness and silence, appear superior over the gasoline engine.

Right: An advert for Pope-Waverley's electric auto in 1905, showing it to be cheaper than gasoline versions.

It helped in urban areas that electrical supply for recharging was easily found within the runabout's 40-mile (64 km) range. Nevertheless, in 1903, a Columbia was driven 250 miles (400 km) from Boston to New York City in 23 hours.

Electric taxi cabs

Pope opened a cab service in Manhattan with 13 modified Electrobats. In its first month, April 1897, travelling from its base at Broadway and West 39th, it served 1000 passengers and travelled 2000 miles.

But the batteries had to compete with the energy density found in gasoline. The solution was fast battery swapping. In a converted skating rink at 1684 Broadway, cabs would drive in and be secured, and the battery tray, weighing 1300 lbs, would be hoisted out by an overhead crane to be recharged and a new one slotted in.

This process has been called by transportation historian David Kirsch, "a marvel of modern mechanical engineering. For the first time, industrial practice was brought to bear on the age-old problem of transportation over city streets".

The growth of the "interurbans"

Whitney saw this success and, with a vision of a syndicate that could control all kinds of electrified mobility within and between cities, he envisaged a network of electric trains which he called "interurbans" – trolleybuses running along major roads – and other kinds of electric vehicles. He didn't see a reason why urbanites would need to buy a car. They would be able to go anywhere using one or another form of electric transport.

Over in California, Wells Fargo and Pacific Electric were evolving a network that by 1900 saw 1,000 miles of extensive electric trolleybuses installed, the largest in the world. 

PG&E  electric railway network California map
PG&E electric railway network California map. Click for a larger version.

In 1915, 15,500 miles (24,900 km) of interurban railways were operating in the U.S. For a time, interurban railways were the fifth-largest industry in the U.S.

The graph below shows in general terms the growth in death of the electric trolleybus running on rails. A similar graph could be drawn in many countries in Europe.

US trolleybus use growth and death 1920-1980

Electric cars 110 years ago were slow by modern standards but faster than horses, clean, quiet, renewable and relatively safe. Although they couldn't travel long distances it didn't matter around then.

At this time only 7% of the 2,000,000 miles American roads between cities were surfaced. No one had a clue who would build those roads to support long-distance car travel.

In his book, "Powering the Dream: the History and Promise of Green Technology", Alexis Madrigal comments that:

"at the time it was possible to imagine an American transportation system that didn't include cars at all, let alone 300-hp versions that can go 400 miles between fuelling."

Whitney and his business colleagues had a vision of their factories churning out thousands of electric vehicles to the big cities of the world: New York, Chicago, Mexico City and Paris, powered by the powerplants of Edison Electric and New York Heat, light and Power, which Whitney and his colleagues also controlled.

Advert for the 1910 Waverley electric coupe

At first it seemed almost about to happen. The Electric Vehicle Company had operations in Boston, New Jersey, Chicago and Newport. But these operations suffered from poor management. The batteries weren't properly looked after and the drivers weren't trained well, Madrigal comments in his book.

Confidence in Witney and his cronies fell. Within a couple of years the dream had disintegrated, a victim of his own greedy will to control the entire transport market.

Bicycles paved the way for cars

But bicycles still continue to be popular. Around 1900 there were 6000 American bicycle repair shops. As gasoline-powered automobiles became more common, these repair shops began to gain the skills to maintain cars as well.

At the time, there was still the impression that the main form of travel between cities would be the train, as it was in Europe and still remains in many ways. But bicycles turned people on to the idea of individual freedom, an idea that was quickly transferred to the car

Kirsch, in his book The Electric Vehicle and the Burden of Failure notes that:

"the collapse of EVC can be seen as a turning point, not simply in the choice of automotive technology, but in the choice of business concept that shaped the subsequent development of the American transportation system.... Its fate took with it a particular alternative vision of personal mobility."

Eclectric cars continued to be made for many years; however Ford's Model T, cheap and marketed for the masses, won the game for gasoline.

But it's worth remembering that the world's then-largest oilfield in the Petrolia region of Pennsylvania had given out by 1880. In the period 1880-1905 people thought that crude oil was a boom and bust phenomenon.

But in the first decade of the 20th century there were oil finds in Texas and Oklahoma and this idea faded away, taking with it the electric rail lines that united every major American city at that time. They were eventually ripped out of the ground and paved over.

Full circle?

Nowadays, bicycles, electric vehicles and bus rapid transit systems are returning to our streets.

As with solar power, water power and windmills, we can see that, if it were not for the abundance of fossil fuels, a different reality would have evolved directly from the prevalent and more attractive technology of the time.

These were the foundations of personal urban transit over 100 years ago. We might have skipped the polluting, land-wasting, climate-trashing, suburbia-creating era of the last 100 years that has dominated urban and national planning, not just in America and Europe but throughout the world.

But a different world is still yet possible.