Gasoline-electric hybrid cars such as the Toyota Prius will be considered game changing transitional vehicles by automotive historians of the future. Likewise with the first generation Tesla and other electric vehicles being produced today. However, today, these cars are often viewed as a point of contention as well as a solution for pressing environmental issues.
There is an old adage that history repeats itself and in the 1890s automobiles, including electric cars and hybrids, were often a point of contention. But, ironically, in the late 19th century automobiles, including those powered by gasoline, were also viewed as a solution to a growing environmental catastrophe.
At the turn of the century in New York City a report was published that highlighted a pressing sanitary issue. More than 100,000 horses were being used on the streets of the city and they produced an average of 2.5 million pounds of manure per day. They also produced thousands of gallons of urine, and when they died the owner often simply unharnessed the animal and left it on the street where it would often lay for several days.
To provide perspective about the future of the electric vehicle, the resultant societal transition, and the future of the automobile in general, study the years between 1880 and 1910. Aside from the modern era of dramatic technological development, the last decades of the late 19th century, and first decades of the 20th century, were a time of astouonding transformation. Never in history has there been such an overlap of past and future.
In May 1880 the League of American Wheelman was established to provide bicyclists with legan protections, and to petition for good roads. This was the foundation for the good roads movement, and the cornerstone for what would become the U.S. highway system. One year later, in October 1881, the now famous shootout at the OK Corral in Tomsbstone, Arizona took place.
But in 1884, Ransom E. Olds began testing his first steam powered automobile. In that same year Lucius Copeland amazed crowds at the territorial fairgrounds in Phoenix, Arizona with his steam powered motorcycle. Two years later in 1886, Carl Benz received a patent for his vehicle that was powered by a gasoline engine and Gernomio surrended to the United States Army.
In 1890 William Morrison built the first practical electric car in the United States. Then in 1893 the Duryea brothers established the first automobile manufacturing company in this country. By 1899, there were thirty American automobile manufacturers and they produced 2,500 motor vehicles. This was the same year that Woods Electric in Chicago initiated production of electric taxis and busses. And in 1893, Dr. Jackson became the first person to drive an automobile from coast to coast.
This colorful and fascinating chapter in history is brought to life in a new program series entitled, In The Beginning: Dawn of The Great American Road Trip, created by author, humorist, and historian, Jim Hinckley, developer of the Jim Hinckley’s America network. Hinckley, billed as America’s storyteller will introduce the series at the Miles of Possibility Conference in Normal, Illinois on October 20, 2023.