Victorian-Era Photos Prove Electric Cars Were Popular Way Before Tesla

Electric vehicles seem like a new invention, but these fascinating photos from over 100 years ago show that EVs existed long before Elon Musk and Tesla.

In fact, it was another famous businessman and inventor of the lightbulb Thomas Edison who patented the “electric automobile,” which he built three of in 1912. However, the car never went into production.

Edison’s alkaline battery-powered car was not the first attempted electric vehicle, the first full-sized EV trundled out 200 years ago in 1832.

A Scottish inventor named Robert Anderson created an electric-powered carriage which was followed by Vermont blacksmith Thomas Davenport unveiling a small locomotive in 1837 that was powered by the first American DC electric motor.

An electric car built in England by Thomas Parker, circa 1895.
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Men ride on an electric car designed by Siemens and Halske outside of Berlin, Germany, circa 1882.
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A Columbia electric car, circa 1899.
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Roger Wallace drives his electric car, 1899.

In 1884, Thomas Parker of London built the first electric production car which used high-capacity rechargeable batteries. This kickstarted a boon for electric vehicles.

In 1890, an electric wagon was introduced to the United States, and between 1900 and 1912 a third of all vehicles on U.S. roads were powered by electricity.

Camille Jenatzy drives his self-designed electric car near Paris, France. He was the first person to exceed 100 kilometers per hour (62 miles per hour) in a car, circa 1899.

Much like today, the popularity was because of the vehicle’s lack of pollutants, quiet nature, and ease to drive. It was during this period that Edison made his own EV.

However, the EV market would grind to a halt when, in 1908, Henry Ford introduced the Model T. The Ford was easier to refuel, competitively priced, and sold 15 million units by 1927.

A German electric car, 1904, with the chauffeur on top.
Electric vehicles recharging at a power substation, 1909.
Edith Wilson, the first lady of the United States, driving an electric car.
A woman named Charlotte Shipley charges her electric car’s battery in her garage with a cord from a hand-cranked electrical generator, Cincinnati, Ohio, 1912. (Photo by Cincinnati Museum Center/Getty Images)
A Detroit Electric car drives on a mountain road between Seattle and Mount Rainier, Washington, 1919.
A woman uses a hand-cranked battery charger to charge her electric Columbia Mark 68 Victoria automobile. The Pope Manufacturing Company made the car in 1906 and the charger in 1912.
An electric street sweeper cleans the roadway in Berlin, Germany, 1907.
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A stylish electric vehicle in Buffalo, New York, circa 1921.
Electric cars of the New York Edison Company line up in Manhattan, 1906.
American inventor Thomas Edison with his first electric car, the Edison Baker, circa 1912.
American inventor Thomas Edison with his first electric car, the Edison Baker. He is holding one of the batteries used to power the vehicle, circa 1912.
Electric cabs on Pennsylvania Ave, Washington D.C., circa 1905.
A Detroit Electric car drives on a mountain road, Washington, 1919. Note the camera’s shadow at the bottom right of the picture.

It wasn’t until 1973 when British chemist M. Stanley Whittingham invented the world’s first rechargeable lithium-ion batteries that things would start looking up again for EVs. And even then, it wasn’t until 1997 that the world’s first mass-produced hybrid vehicle would arrive: the Toyota Prius.