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Battery-powered Cars

June 2024
1min read

Taking Charge
The Electric Automobile in
America

by Michael Brian Schiffer, Stnithsonian Institution Press, 240 pages, $24.00 . CODE: SIP-1

Nowadays internal combustion and the automobile seem inextricably linked, but at the turn of the century cars driven by steam and electricity sold just as well. Electric cars had important advantages: they were quieter, cleaner, and easy to start and operate, did not smell, and required no transmission. On the other hand, the batteries were heavy and needed constant maintenance and recharging, and the cars were slow, expensive, and limited to ranges of one hundred miles or less.

In this history of the first electric-car era, Schiffer suggests that the vehicles could have established a niche market among urban drivers who made frequent short trips. Near the end he optimistically asserts that “if middle-class women had enjoyed greater economic independence, the electric car in the teens might have found a market of millions” instead of seeing its sales peak at an annual figure of sixty-five hundred units. Whether you buy that conclusion or not, the book is a valuable reminder of how divergent technologies struggled for supremacy in the automobile’s early days and of the obstacles that electric vehicles continue to face today.

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