How early electric cars made American women independent

Electric car makers of a century ago faced the problem of positioning. They arrived late to the party — around the year 1895 — and severely handicapped by power and range anxieties at that. The first electric cars were slow, didn’t travel far, nor climbed hills. They were no match for competing petrol cars, and the image stuck. What did electric evangelists do? They aimed for the ears of women, and even children.

“An electric pleasure car may be driven by any member of the family, and therefore removes the necessity of a chauffeur or attendant,” says an editorial in a journal from 1913. Another article makes a case for letting children drive themselves to parties and dance classes.

“Before the youngsters are very old, boys or girls can run the car themselves, and in a large number of instances they are permitted to do so because the simplicity of construction, absence of cranking and facility of management make it a matter of no risk to trust the piloting of an electric to a fair-sized and reasonably bright boy or girl.”

Fair-sized and reasonably bright? We would have many 10-year-olds speeding around in Tesla cars, but for the rules.

The publicity did one good thing, though — it got many women driving (soprano Louise Tetrazzini was one). Horse carriages and even gasoline cars had been too cumbersome and messy for most women, but small and easy-to-use electrics freed them to go “shopping, for her calls and little runs into town for matinees or bridge parties” alone.

No longer dependent on her husband or the chauffeur, the ‘liberated’ woman could stay at parties as long as she liked. She could also attend to numerous chores: “On rainy days she can send them (her children) to school or to the railroad train in the ever-ready electric, and no condition can arise to block this plan, for no chauffeur is required. She herself can drive the machine and she has no fears of any difficulties she may encounter while controlling its movements.”

A 1913 article from Boston reported: “since the season for golf and tennis opened, it has been remarked that an increasing number of women players and visitors appear at the various country clubs driving their own electrics.” Apparently, Boston women caught the electric fever from visits to “Washington, Philadelphia, Chicago, Cleveland and other cities where electrics are in very common use.”

The cars — “clean, simple, and with the minimum amount of garage attention constantly ready for use” — seemed made for women. (Read about a pioneer saleswoman of electric cars)

“With an electric in the garage a woman who wishes to make a trip to the country club has simply to step aboard with her golf sticks or tennis racquet, switch on the current from the battery and drive away.”

Petrol cars, on the other hand, were simply too ‘masculine’ at the time. The first difficulty they posed was hand-cranking the engine. Most women, the editorial said, were not “strong enough to turn over a heavy gasoline motor,” while an electric car eliminated “the danger of broken arms through an accidentally advanced spark in starting the motor and avoids the necessity of wading in the mud to the front of the car and to the crank.”

Electrics also did not have gear levers: “As change gears are eliminated, it is pliant in its action and especially adapted for travel in the congested districts of large cities, where the constant manipulation of the gear lever is not only tedious but dangerous to the operator.” Also absent were “problems incident to the spark and carburettor controls.”

And so, the electric car became a practical runabout, one “anyone who has the mechanical ability to move a small, single control lever back and forth” could drive.

It was certainly a wimpy projection of women that many readers today wouldn’t like, but it worked in the early 1900s, and women put their money on cars that could be driven “without soiling the hands or ruffling the temper.”



How electric trucks killed the horse-wagon in America

Even 100 years ago, they were expensive to buy but cheap to run

America’s thriving cities were drowning in horse manure in the early 1900s. All their trade moved on the back of horses that left trails of poop behind them. What rescued cities from horse manure? The automobile; but the word brings to mind gasoline engines, not electric motors, which were more reliable, cleaner and cheaper to run at the time.

Electrics could not go fast, nor could they cover long distances between charges, but for city use these vehicles were perfect. Many businesses sold off their horses and wagons in the years before WW-I to go electric.

In November 2010, W R Metz wrote a paper for the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, comparing the costs of using horse-drawn and electric vehicles, and the electrics easily came out on top.

Businesses at the time were considering whether to replace their horse-drawn wagons with automobiles. Metz estimated the office he worked for would save $11,000 per annum if it completely replaced its horse-drawn equipment with electric trucks. The actual saving came to $12,000 even though the office retained six horses for another year.

For his paper, Metz used numbers from the naval gun factory in Washington that had been using a 2,500-pound McCrea electric truck and a 5-ton (10,000 pounds, using the American ton of 2,000 pounds) Studebaker electric truck since 1906.

The light truck cost $2,230 to buy and the heavy one $3,725. This was much more than the 250-odd dollars a draught horse cost those days. But the cheap horse ate feed worth $150 or more in a year while electricity to charge batteries cost only 1 cent per kWh.

The gun factory’s light truck consumed current worth only $16.5 over 3,366 miles in a year (in fact, labour for charging cost thrice as much as the current, and battery acid $18). Including labour costs, charging the truck for a 40-mile run cost only 75 cents. Even the heavy truck cost $1.1 to run 40 miles. Then, the electric truck depreciated at 10% per annum to the horse’s 20%.

However, the horse still seems cheaper till you compare the cost of its full rig.

Metz next compared horse wagons, electric trucks and gasoline trucks used by a large company. This company used, among other vehicles, 5,000-pound electric trucks that cost $3,745 each to buy, and $2,533 to run for a year. A horse-wagon of similar tonnage using two heavier and more expensive horses cost only $1,175, but its operating cost, including wages, stabling and feed, was $3,369 per annum.


Not only was the electric truck cheaper to run, it averaged eight trips daily to the horse-wagon’s four. It also carried 5,500 pounds per trip, on average, to the horse-wagon’s 4,000 pounds. So, the cost per mile for the electric truck was $0.338 to the horse-wagon’s $0.899. Over a year, it saved $4,204 relative to the cost of running two 5,000-pound horse-wagons.


The electric trucks also cost much less to operate than the company’s gasoline trucks. Per mile, a 2,000-pound electric truck cost $0.03 while a gasoline truck cost $0.135 — that’s 3.4 times more. The gasoline trucks were of Cadillac, Brush, Buick, Ford, Franklin and Maxwell makes, with engines rated at 10-30 hp.

The numbers clearly show that the horse-wagon could not compete with the economics of automobiles, especially the electric truck, and so it bowed out.


How to drive a 100-year-old electric car

Lessons From Mrs Lampard, Ace Chicago Saleswoman From A Century Ago

What do women want most from their car? Good looks. That’s not a sexist answer because it comes from Mrs C M Lampard, a saleswoman with Detroit Electric Car Company in Chicago, before World War-1.

“Ninety-nine out of one hundred women buy a car on appearance in preference to one that may be better in point of construction and safety. So many cars are top-heavy, they are wider than they should be, their weight is not evenly distributed, they may be freakish, even, but if a woman likes its appearance she will buy it,” she told reporter Mabel Condon in 1913.


Lampard was quite a knowledgable sales hand, considering she had switched from selling theatre advertisements to cars only recently. She was a keen learner. “I’ve just been here since the first of the year, and in no time was fully equipped with the technical knowledge, and now—why, if I thought the salesmen here knew anything about the car that I didn’t know, I wouldn’t rest easy a minute.”

Inside a 100-year-old electric

What was it like to drive an electric car those days? The cars themselves were nothing like the ones we know. You would be quite lost amid their controls. There was no steering wheel, and no stick-shift. Instead, you might have found two black rods of unequal length at your left elbow, and three pedals below. This short lesson from Mrs Lampard might prove helpful:

“These two bars control the driving. You place them horizontally, so. This shorter one is manipulated with the left hand and controls the power and you steer with the longer one.” So, the shorter bar was the accelerator. The braking was rather well thought out for emergencies. The three controls on the floor could be depressed together to freeze the vehicle.

“These two pedals are the brakes and the one between is the power cut-off. In a moment of confusion, when one must stop and stop quickly, and excitement makes your hands forget to do the right thing, the natural tendency is to straighten out and brace yourself against something, and with one forward movement of your foot, you press forward all three and automatically bring your car to a standstill. Then you can collect your thoughts, release your brakes and proceed with judgement.”

The cars weren’t fast, but they could be quite heavy because of the batteries they carried, despite being built out of aluminium. Hence, the need for desperate braking. “The entire body is made of aluminium; that is why these cars are so light. The greatest weight they carry is that of the batteries.”

Some of the early electrics had batteries slung under the body, but the small cars Lampard sold carried them front and aft: “Here they are, under these hoods at each end of the car. There are 40 cells in this car. It is possible for a woman to take entire charge of her own car if she has a rectifier (here’s an article on charging) in her garage.”

Electric cars were certainly easier to run and maintain in the city, even though they could not race the gasoline vehicles. Mrs Lampard lists the advantages: “There is no chauffeur disturbance, no tire troubles, no sickening odours and it’s always clean.” Monthly maintenance was also free: “Once a month our customers may bring their cars in and have them thoroughly oiled and inspected, gratis.”
But why were electric cars immune to tyre trouble?

Driving for mental health, vigour and beauty

There is no pleasure in city driving anymore, and even the Chicago of Mrs Lampard’s time was a crowded place with slow, chaotic traffic, but she was a student of the glass-is-half-full school. She considered driving a healthy ‘game’ and recommended it for many reasons:

“Driving an electric automobile, while it is a modest, sedate conveyance in appearance, is, nevertheless, a most fascinating game. It’s just as exhilarating, just as exciting, just as stimulating as any other sport; in fact, it’s an all-around tonic, mentally as well as physically.”

Driving was also her way of keeping up with the times: “It keeps real warm human blood flowing through your veins. Why, my dear, it makes you both act and appear years younger. It makes you feel you are part of this great ‘right up to the clock tick’ modern sway of ‘things doing.’”

She even claimed driving made us better human beings and was liberating for women: “When you are threading your way in and out of the vast swarm of vehicles that congest this great downtown Chicago, in the busy hours, you are bringing into play all your faculties. You must be alert and watchful every moment, careful and calculating in thought and action, courteous and charitable to drivers and pedestrians. In fact, it makes you a broader-minded woman in every way. Makes you more self-reliant and gives you a feeling of accomplishment in the knowledge that you are an atom in the history-making of that leading industry, the electric vehicle.”

If you were a car maker, what wouldn’t you give to hire saleswomen like Mrs Lampard?

This is how you charged an electric vehicle at home 100 years ago

You had to watch the voltage and play with a rheostat

What’s better for electric car owners, public charging stations or home chargers? A century ago, the electric vehicle industry was adding public stations in big cities like New York and London, but also encouraging vehicle buyers to charge at home.

The tone of these campaigns was encouraging — “It requires no special electric or mechanical knowledge, and practically no attention or physical effort. When once installed, the charging apparatus may be operated by any member of the household after a few moments of instruction.”

Nothing motivates more than economics, and the sellers played on not only the extra expense of garage charging but also ‘range anxiety’.

“Aside from the garage charges, and the indifferent care that is often given to a car in a public garage, there is always a considerable loss due to the trip from the garage to the residence of the owner, and then back to the garage.”

How much driving range did owners lose by charging at a garage? “The great majority of car owners live two or three miles from the source of current. This means that from four to six per cent of the charge is expended uselessly; in hilly country this may be even higher.”

Although the sellers claimed charging a car at home was as simple as “filling a tank with water”, in practice it was more complicated. As the charge on a battery increased, the resistance of the charger had to be manually decreased using a lever on its rheostat.

These rheostats wasted a lot of energy as heat: “As an example of the extent of the rheostat loss, we will assume that the battery voltage is 80 and the line voltage 110, giving a difference of 30 volts. With a charging current of 40 amperes, there will be 30 times 40, or 1,200 watts, dissipated per hour (1.2 kilowatt-hours).” That’s enough current to make a Delhi apartment’s living room cosy in winter.

You really had to be a hands-on owner to charge your electric car those days: “adjust the lever of the rheostat until the needle of the ammeter on the control board or car reads an amount specified by the builder of the car, a process that is as simple as turning on a hydrant.”

You had plenty of time to get some chores done as the battery charged, and then, you came back and made another adjustment, and so on. “When the charge is completed he opens the line switch and removes the charging plug that connects the car with the lighting circuit. That is all.”

As easy as that.