Dan Albert | An excerpt adapted from Are We There Yet? : The American Automobile Past, Present, and Driverless | W. W. Norton & Co. | June 2019 | 25 minutes (6,750 words)

Most people reasonably expect the story of the evolution of the automobile to begin with the invention of the automobile itself. I’ve disappointed enough people in my life already, so I give you the Jesuit Rat Car of 1672. In that year, missionary Ferdinand Verbiest created a steam wagon to bring the Emperor of China to Jesus, but the car was only big enough to carry a rat.

If you don’t like the Jesuit Rat Car as an automotive first, you might consider Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot’s cannon hauler of 1769. A product of the French army’s skunk works, it was canceled in beta testing. In 1790, Nathan Read got the first American patent for a steam-powered wagon, a remarkable feat because the US Patent Office itself had yet to be invented. Perhaps that counts. In London, Richard Trevithick set a Georgian coach body atop a steam boiler and eight-foot wheels, creating the first giraffe-less carriage. In 1805, American Oliver Evans drove his harbor dredge, the Orukter Amphibolos, down the streets of Philadelphia in hopes of enticing investors for a car business. Philadelphia cobblestone street paving gave horses purchase but shook the Orukter so violently that the wheels broke. Let’s call his the first amphibious car.

Samuel Morey patented an engine in 1826 and then proceeded to show it off by strapping it onto a buckboard wagon. According to an eyewitness, Morey tripped while trying to mount the wagon. The engine “ran across the street, through the gutter, over the sidewalk, and turned a somersault, a complete wreck.” This may explain why it took nearly two hundred years to try driverless cars again. Richard Dudgeon built his first steam minibus in 1853 and his 1866 model still sits in the Smithsonian collection. It did thirty miles an hour in New York City and out onto Long Island. He invented it, he later wrote, to end the abuse and mistreatment of horses. Sylvester Hayward Roper of Roxbury, Massachusetts, built steam carriages starting in 1859. At a scant 650 pounds, the Roper’s two horsepower carriage could reach 25 mph and cost a penny a mile to run. In the 1850s, heavy steam-powered vehicles were developed to travel overland for use as plows and portable saw mills. These “traction engines” would later evolve into tractors. In 1878, the state of Wisconsin offered an XPRIZE award of $10,000 (about $200,000 today) for anyone who could develop a “cheap and practical substitute for the use of horses . . .  on the highway and the farm.” There were several entries, but only two specially built machines finished the race. They were far lighter and less cumbersome than the agricultural traction engines on which they were based. The “Oshkosh” beat the “Green Bay,” but the governor (foreshadowing the penurious Scott Walker) reneged on the prize. Eventually the winning crew got half the money, but they were still steaming mad.

Any one of these “firsts” from the seventeenth century through to the mid-1870s might have evolved into the automobiles we know today. None was perfect, some far from it, but then new machines rarely are. The first electronic computers filled entire rooms and had no memory. Windows 95 crashed as often as a drunken driver. Sure, the Jesuit Rat Car had its problems, but imagine how many rats it would have carried after 250 years of development by the people who gave the world fireworks. Automotive pioneer Hiram Percy Maxim noted in his autobiography, “We have had the steam engine for over a century. We could have built steam vehicles in 1880, or indeed in 1870. But we did not. We waited until 1895.” According to historian Clay McShane, “The pre-1890s steamers failed mostly because of regulation, not mechanical inefficiency.” Local governments passed outright bans on driving steam contraptions on city streets for fear of boiler explosions.

Few have adopted that foreign freak, the wheel.

Early automotive historians such as John Bell Rae argued that steam and electricity were not the right technology. But no sudden technological breakthrough explains the automobile’s arrival in the 1890s either. Around 1860 Nikolaus Otto developed the four-stroke (Otto cycle) engine that cars still use today. The lightweight wheels and frames that would become crucial to the gasoline automobile had been developed for bicycles in the 1860s as well. A patent application filed in 1879 for the gasoline automobile would later be declared valid and recognized by all of the major manufacturers. But it would still be twenty years before the dawn of the Automobile Age.

Rather than looking in vain for an ur automobile or the mythical figure who invented it, we should instead ask why the technology was taken up when it was. Why did the American automobile suddenly seem like such a good idea in the 1890s? Within the space of a few years, not one or two odd inventors, but dozens, began showing off experimental autos. The largely forgotten William Morrison of Des Moines, Iowa, drove his electric car down the streets of Chicago in 1891. The famous brothers Charles and Frank Duryea of Springfield, Massachusetts, ran the first internal-combustion (IC) automobile in the United States in 1893. The Stanley brothers produced their first steam automobile in 1897. They sold 200 Stanley Steamers during the following two years — outselling all other makes. Of the 4,200 vehicles produced by 1900, fewer than 1,000 had IC engines. The balance was shared about equally by steamers and electrics.[1] Inventors were coming out of the woodwork. They dreamed up contraptions and Americans bought them. By 1899, commentators and industry experts saw that the motorcar was destined to revolutionize American life in profound ways.

Today, the feel of change is again in the air. Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors, has said, “Today, we are at the start of . . .  a revolution in the auto industry.” The best way to understand the present revolution is to examine the original automobile revolution. So, let’s review.

America First types may be disappointed to learn that it was France that had the first car culture. Reporting on the bicycle and automobile show at Madison Square Garden in January 1899, a New York Times journalist noted that the normally avant-garde US was “far behind the European countries in adopting the bicycle and motor vehicles. France has paid the most attention to the latter, and motor carriage racers were very popular there a decade ago.” He boastingly and presciently added, “Yet, though late in beginning, it will take us but a short time to make up lost ground, and then we will lead the world in this as we do in about all things else.” American inventors learned from European inventions by reading journals such as American Machinist and Scientific American. We even adopted the French word, automobile; the English term, “motor car,” now sounds quaint.

When the Duryea Brothers were still puttering about at the experimental stage, companies such as Panhard et Levassor, Roger (which sold the German Benz in France), Peugeot, De Dion-Bouton, and Bollée were in production and selling cars at a profit. These cars had exciting innovations. Frenchman Léon Serpollet’s steam car had a flash boiler. Without it, steam cars took as long as a watched pot to get going. Benz introduced the steering wheel in 1891. The Americans still used tillers. On visiting the nation’s first standalone automobile show in 1900, a journalist for Horseless Age was relieved to find “few have adopted that foreign freak, the wheel.” A car with a wheel would be “a nerve racker of the worst kind” while a tiller makes automobiling “a most fascinating pleasure.” The simple tiller worked well enough on lightweight, relatively slow-moving American cars. Using a tiller to manage the bigger motors and higher speeds of the contemporaneous European models, however, would have been quite nerve-racking indeed. While the Americans were still hiding their transverse motors under the seat, Panhard et Levassor came up with the standard layout of a longitudinally mounted engine in the front. There was much smacking of heads because, of course the engine belonged in the front. That’s where the horses had been. The Système Panhard provided the room for the engine to grow in size and power.

The first American car owners were Europeans by another name, that is, members of the trans-Atlantic elite who steamed back and forth in first-class cabins. They bought their cars like baubles, opulent toys for keeping up with the Rothschilds next door. These machines appealed especially to young men of inherited wealth. Motor World reported in 1903 that John Jacob Astor owned fifteen automobiles, including a $17,000 Mors from France (equivalent to half a million dollars today). In all, the magazine counted fifty machines in the stables of five families worth a total of $250,000 (the equivalent of $7 million today). By 1905 Astor had twenty. In the interim, Astor’s first cousin Margaret Laura Astor became a widow. Her husband, William Eliot Morris Zborowski, Count de Montsaulvain, died driving his Mercedes in a race up a hill in Italy. His mechanic was thrown clear of the wreck and survived. In 1905, Cornelius K. G. Billings, an avid horse racer with an inherited fortune, sold off all his horses and proceeded to spend $30,000 a year keeping his ten cars.

With impunity, these heirs used the public streets running from Paris to Lyon, the mountain roads of Palermo, Italy, and the country lanes of Nassau County, New York, as their private race tracks.

William Kissam Vanderbilt II, Willie, was a notorious madman among the automobiling sportsmen. He bought his first car in 1899; many more followed. In 1902, he handily beat Baron Henri de Rothschild and set a world record. “With my 40 H.P. Mercedes I broke the world’s kilometer record . . .  at the rate of 111 kilometers an hour,” he recorded in his racing diary. Two years later he set a new record of 148 km/h (92 mph) at Daytona, which is nuts. He sponsored the Vanderbilt Cup races on Long Island. He tore dangerously around the cottages of Newport, Rhode Island, but always went free when the police nabbed him. His chauffeur took the rap.

Pope-Waverly Electric Runabout
A Pope-Waverly electric automobile is pictured in a magazine advertisement from 1904. (Stock Montage/Getty Images)

Marxian analysis is of little use in understanding the sudden enthusiasm for the automobile among the super wealthy. These men were so rich that their automotive consumption happened almost beyond the realm of capital and labor. But some Freudian analysis might help. Driving a gasoline automobile at the turn of the last century combined manly command of explosive power, the titillation of speed, and its inherent threat of violent death. William Vanderbilt confided to an interviewer (whom he perhaps mistook for his analyst) that his inherited wealth was “as certain death to ambition as cocaine is to mortality.” Racing gave Willie a thrill and excitement his life otherwise lacked.

A motoring journal expanded on this theme: “In Europe it is openly recognized that the main excuse for the speed mania is the desire to feel new sensations and juggle away the emptiness of a purposeless life.” In and of itself, that was a good thing, for civilization is all about “new sensations” which bring “spiritual progress.” The problem, however, was that the men doing the racing were the idle rich. The scions had no hand in actually building and repairing the cars. “They are like savages with firearms,” the editorial concluded its “Anti-speed Philosophy.”

Drivers were stoned and, in at least one case in Germany, beheaded by piano wire strung across the street.

Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s Manifesto of Futurism, written in 1909, took this psychological hypothesis one step further, embracing the link between automobiling, violence, and the search for life’s meaning. Marinetti’s manifesto did more than merely outline an aesthetic philosophy — it laid the groundwork for fascism. War is “the world’s only hygiene,” he wrote. Violence, Marinetti predicted, would usher in a new age of Italian glory. But it all began with a car crash.

Having pulled an all-nighter, Marinetti and his friends rush to their automobiles. He describes “crushing [watch dogs] beneath our burning wheels.” A pair of wobbly cyclists cause him to crash into a ditch, but he’s thrilled: “Oh, maternal ditch, half full of muddy water! A factory gutter! I savored a mouthful of strengthening muck which recalled the black teat of my Sudanese nurse!” Climbing out from under the wreck, he “felt the white-hot iron of joy deliciously pass through my heart!” Willie and Filippo, they are the joy riders, the boy racers, the ones who fed on the automobile’s latent violence. For Marinetti, crashing wasn’t an accident to be avoided. It was the whole point of the exercise.

The deadly exploits of super-rich automobilists were a site of political debate in Europe. The views of the European press followed the political leanings of their publishers. A socialist paper, for example, condemned Count Zborowski’s hill climb racing. He was quite welcome to kill himself, the paper allowed, but threatening the public in the process demonstrated the arrogance of wealth.

In the United States, newspaper publishers like James Gordon Bennett of the New York Herald sponsored races, confident that by covering the event they could sell more papers. In 1896, Cosmopolitan magazine offered a $3,000 purse ($100,000 today) for a race that ran from New York City to Irvington, about twenty-five miles away. The crowds at the starting line were so huge, the police had to be called in to maintain order. Cyclists followed along, with the inevitable accidents not far behind. In one case, “a wheelman [cyclist] was run into and seriously hurt by one of the horseless carriages,” Scientific American reported. “The operator was arrested.”

Although they reported on the races in the sport and society pages, both the motor press and mainstream newspapers in the United States condemned the reckless speeders. In 1902, the New York Times editorialized against plans announced by “certain young billionaires” to build a speedway running from Long Island City, just over the river from Manhattan, out to Hempstead. The editors mocked the “gilded youth” who bought the most expensive cars precisely because they were expensive. They wrote that rather than being slapped with a fine the speeder should be “imprisoned or put to death by electricity or the rope.” The argument against the private road then took a sarcastic tack. The thrill of high-speed automobiling involved mainly “the chase . . .  the great satisfaction and excitement in seeing how closely he can miss his fellow-citizens who are riding or walking or driving on the same thoroughfares through which he recklessly whizzes.” Since the road would be closed to other traffic, that thrill of running down pedestrians would be lost.

Baker Electric Runabout
A Baker Electric Runabout is pictured in a magazine advertisement from 1909. (Stock Montage/Getty Images)

The public was equally conflicted, or divided. Many put down their newspapers and headed out to watch the races, as they did for the Cosmo contest. Spectators lined the routes of high-speed races on public roads, despite, or perhaps because of, the obvious danger. On the other hand, as the monstrous cars trickled down from the 0.1 percent to the merely rich, more and more of them tore through town, killing anyone who got in their way. A 1909 Puck centerfold, “Privileged Sport,” captures the mood. A chauffeur, bent over the wheel, barrels through the city in the boss’s big machine. Relaxing in the rear are his wealthy employers in their motoring costumes. (Automobilist clothing for both men and women included a long duster of heavy cloth, fur, or leather, tall boots, and gauntlets. A scarf obscured the face but for goggled eyes. The full kit lent a monstrous and inhuman air.) Newspaper clippings surround the car like smoke: “ANOTHER BOY DIES UNDER MOTORCAR,” “AUTO CUTS DOWN CHILD,” “TWO GIRLS RUN DOWN BY SPEEDING TAXICAB.” These headlines were both typical and common in the newspapers of the day.

Such incidents were skirmishes in a war of colonization. Before the automobile, city streets were multifunctional spaces, used for commerce and recreation as well as travel. The upper classes used automotive violence to drive the working classes and urban poor from the streets — relatively wide open spaces in dense urban neighborhoods. Vigilantes responded with attacks on the millionaire motorists who raced through working class neighborhoods. Drivers were stoned and, in at least one case in Germany, beheaded by piano wire strung across the street.

Kickstart your weekend reading by getting the week’s best Longreads delivered to your inbox every Friday afternoon.

Sign up

Before the automobile, there was the bicycle. The early bike culture looked a lot like the car culture. It appealed especially to young men in rut, and the races drew crowds. When they raced along public roads — as youngsters will do — they earned the name “scorchers.” A speeding bicycle does not sound all that scary until you realize that, into the 1880s, the rider coming at you sat as high up as a Cossack. Because no one had yet invented the bike chain, the pedals on early bicycles were attached directly to the hub of the front wheel. As physics tells us, with direct-drive pedals, mechanical advantage — and hence speed — increases with the diameter of the wheel. In the quest for higher speeds, racers would try ever larger wheels. As physics also tells us, when you sit atop a five-foot-diameter wheel, it is both easy and painful to fall off. The rider who hit a hole in the road, or a good-sized stone, would take a header. As it would be for Marinetti and the automobile, this danger was a good part of the attraction.

With the invention of the bike chain in 1885, cyclists came down to earth. Now, sensible women and even children could ride bikes. Millions flooded the roads and by the 1890s there was a full-on bicycle craze. As with automobiles later on, bicycles elicited a bit of moral panic. It was the bicycle as facilitator of women’s liberation, manifest in its impact on fashion, that really caused consternation. Victorian-era costumes made it difficult for the fairer sex to pedal the modern bike — as anyone who has gotten a skirt or pant leg caught in a bike chain can imagine. Bloomers were one solution, although they — Gasp! — revealed the ankles. Facing off against the moralists, advocates of women’s lib celebrated the way the bicycle was modernizing women’s place in society. Bicycles also gave rise to the road trip, an outing we usually ascribe to the automobile.

It is impossible to guess what millions of such road trips meant to their riders. Literary evidence nevertheless offers some tantalizing insight. Two of the best artistic representations of the bicycle tour come not from the United States but England and France. Nevertheless, such works found readers here as well. In H. G. Wells’s The Wheels of Chance: A Bicycling Idyll (1896), our hero Mr. Hoopdriver sets off on a bicycle tour holiday. Along the way, the store clerk meets a coquettish cyclist, a “Young Lady in Grey” who bites her lower lip and says things “very prettily.” The two kiss across the chasm of class and fall deeply in love. Perhaps Wells’s story inspired Maurice Leblanc’s French cycling novel, Voici des ailes, two years later. Leblanc had a Gallic rather than a Protestant sensibility, so his cycling tour ends with loosed corsets, bared breasts, and swapped husbands. Remember your etymology: automobile is a French word, as is chauffeur.

The electric vehicle struggles in the marketplace today because it is a pigeon being asked to swim like a goldfish.

These characters used their bicycles to make an escape, evading society’s confines by wandering the countryside guided only by whim and fancy. Herein lies one answer to the question of why the IC car won out over the electric vehicle and steamer. The automobile would be expected to facilitate the same sort of freedom as the bicycle — only more so.[2] Automobile innovator Hiram Maxim concluded, “The bicycle had created a new demand which it was beyond the ability of the railroad to satisfy. [It] directed men’s minds to the possibilities of long-distance travel over the ordinary highway.”

Although both electrics and steamers outnumbered internal-combustion cars at the turn of the century, by 1917, only 50,000 electrics were registered compared to 3.5 million IC cars. Steamers were all but gone. There is little to be gained in considering gasoline cars as “better” than electrics or steamers in any objective sense. Goldfish can’t fly and pigeons can’t swim. That doesn’t make one better than the other. Gasoline cars were, however, the best at realizing the vision of what some segments of American society wanted the automobile to be.[3] Steam engines did not need gear boxes and ran quietly compared to gasoline cars. They offered the mechanically minded plenty of whirligigs and dials to play with. I won’t discuss steamers much further, to the disappointment of steampunk cosplay fans everywhere, I’m sure. They are not on the table today as a possible alternative to the IC engine. Electrics are.

Borland Electric Brougham
A Borland Electric Brougham automobile is shown in a magazine advertisement from 1911. (Stock Montage/Getty Images)

The qualities and range of the electric vehicle (EV) of 1899 served the needs of daily transportation quite well. The electric delivery wagon was far better than the horse-drawn kind, if only because it occupied half the space. The powerful torque of the electric motor allowed the electric wagon to carry a heavy load and the weight of the batteries mattered less. Private electric automobiles were also ideal for the city. They accelerated quickly and, quite unlike gasoline cars of the day, stopped easily as well.

The most common technical complaint against the battery-powered electric vehicle — then as now — is that it lacks range. Elihu Thomson, one of the founders of General Electric, tried to develop an EV but said, “It’s like a calf. If you move it, you have to take the cow along too.” But faulting an electric for inadequate range only makes sense in reference to an IC car. In other words, how much range is enough depends upon the purpose of an automobile. According to historian Rudi Volti, “In the first years of the century, 98 percent of all car trips covered fewer than 60 miles.” A standard EV range was about 40 miles on a charge, though some claimed 70 and a Detroit Electric claimed a record 241 miles on a single charge in 1914. Cities might also have provided charging infrastructure. The New York Times noted an “electrant” at the auto show the following year, “Which is designed to supply electricity as a hydrant supplies water.” A quarter in the slot would dispense enough juice for twenty-five miles of travel. “It is expected that these automatic devices will be installed in suburban villages and places on the main lines of travel.” That expectation was never met, but the idea highlights the electric’s need for a commitment to infrastructure.

Low speed was the other complaint, although EVs held land speed records (for every form of motive power) in the early days. A French and a Belgian racer traded the land speed record back and forth during 1898 and 1899 with speeds in the neighborhood of 60 miles an hour. In 1902, Walter Baker set a record of 102 mph in his Baker Torpedo. Baker would have set many more records but he had a tendency to crash. As a practical matter, however, electrics could not hope to sustain such speeds for very long. Nevertheless, in an urban environment, raw speed is no measure of a machine’s ability to cover distance. This was true in congested cities a century ago, and it’s true today. In 1908 the owner of a Studebaker electric, with a top speed of 17 mph, challenged the owner of a 40 horsepower IC car to a race through Philadelphia. She proposed a practical contest, including stops to simulate a typical day of shopping and social calls. In the congestion of city traffic, and without having to crank start her machine after every stop, she won by ten minutes. The speed complaint was thus a complaint not about practical application in the city but about thrills. Elihu Thomson, who used the poetic metaphor of cows and calves, concluded that the EV was inferior because “It’s too tame.”

So, the electric was a perfectly viable automobile for city traffic, superior to the gas car in many ways. Yet it provided neither the thrill and danger that rescued Vanderbilt from his ennui nor the romance of the open road and escapism of the bicycle. A 1902 report on “The Problem of the Automobile” in Electrical World and Engineer pointed out that the EV would never afford the freedom of the bicycle or gasoline car. Even if charging points or battery-swapping stations were available in the hinterland, the writer concluded, “One does not wish to limit his country tour to lines of travel along which he can strike charging facilities . . .  [one] wants to have a certain liberty of action which a journey fully prearranged cannot give.” Had the EV won out against the IC car in those early days, our patterns of life would now be entirely different. Indeed, had this period of random technological mutation selected for the electric, the social history of America would be unrecognizable. The EV struggles in the marketplace today because it is a pigeon being asked to swim like a goldfish. We live in the world the IC automobile made. That world is not conducive to mass transit or even walking. It is little wonder that the EV, too, struggles to compete on the IC’s terms.

Baker Electric Automobile
A Baker Electric automobile moving down a country road is shown in a magazine advertisement from 1912. (Stock Montage/Getty Images)

For all its practical advantages and its ability to fulfill the desire for freedom, speed, power, and violence, the IC car lacked the electric’s cultural weight. At the dawn of the automobile age, Americans saw electricity as futuristic, magical, and progressive. According to historian David Nye’s study of the social and cultural impact of electricity at the turn of the last century, “Anything electric was saturated with energy, and the nation came to admire ‘live wires,’ ‘human dynamos,’ and ‘electrifying performances.’ ” Street lighting and amusement parks opened up the night for entertainment. Electric elevators made skyscrapers possible. Neon “violet ray” tubes could cure any number of ailments at home. From any mail order house you could buy an electric hairbrush to cure dandruff or electromagnetic clothing that would invigorate the body. The Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 featured 100,000 light bulbs. Not to be outdone, New York’s theater district shone so brightly that it earned the nickname “The Great White Way.” Thomas Edison was known as the “Wizard of Menlo Park” for his New Jersey laboratory that invented all manner of electrical devices, including the incandescent lightbulb. He created the first electric utility when his Jumbo dynamo began spinning at the Pearl Street Station in 1882.

Even those who had the background to understand and even invent electric technologies could not help but be enraptured by it. Henry Adams, great grandson of president John Adams, had a spiritual epiphany on coming face to face with a Jumbo dynamo at the Paris Exhibition of 1900. In “The Dynamo and the Virgin,” he writes: “The dynamo became a symbol of infinity . . .  he began to feel the forty-foot dynamos as a moral force, much as the early Christians felt the Cross.” (Adams wrote in the third person.) Like Henry Adams, a young clockmaker from Neuchâtel, Switzerland, named Hermann Lemp had an epiphany, though of a more secular kind. He came face to face with Jumbo at the first International Exhibition of Electricity at the Palais d’Industrie in Paris. “Jumbo, with its hundreds of incandescent lamps, and the completeness of the accessories, decided me to sail for America,” he reported. On arrival, he walked into the Wizard’s offices, carrying with him the differential galvanometer he had made, just for the fun of it. Lemp went on to work with Elihu Thomson and secured more than two hundred patents on everything from x-ray machines to diesel-electric locomotives. It was Lemp who built the automotive calf Thomson rejected.

The modern parallels are so perfect as to be almost scary. Uber, for example, has been expanding rapidly but not making money.

The EV would have been a natural extension of the existing system of urban mass transportation. Aside from walking, most city dwellers had few transportation options besides the trolley — or streetcar. Electrification of the trolley lines had transformed the city, expanding its reach and inverting its geography. In so doing, trolleys helped create the market for automobiles. Into the 1850s, the American city had remained the merchant’s walking city. Poor and rich lived side by side, though in different conditions. As waves of migrants arrived from Eastern and Southern Europe, they squeezed into dense neighborhoods and filled the city to overflowing. Here was a problem that electrification could solve. By adding overhead wires and electric motors to horse-drawn trolleys (and subtracting the horses) these early forms of mass transit could travel faster and farther, and carry more people. As urban historian Sam Bass Warner showed in his seminal transportation history of Boston, the “streetcar suburbs” began to develop even before electrification. But, electricity supercharged the growth of the metropolis and the inversion of its class dynamics. The working class, with less stable employment, used crosstown lines to navigate the city as they often changed jobs. The wealthiest, who had stable jobs, could travel far out on the longest lines where new houses and quarter acre lots gave them a respite from the industrial city. “Patterns of development followed little logic beyond the availability of dry land and the enterprise of speculators, builders, and trolley companies,” writes Robert Wiebe in his social history of the era. In fact, many streetcar companies were actually real estate developers, profiting from the rising price of the land their trains served.

The city became the metropolis and its middle-class citizens began to commute. It was a short step from there off the increasingly crowded streetcar and into the driver’s seat.[4]

Baker Electric Automobile
Color advertisement depicts a Baker Electric automobile, the Baker Queen Victoria, 1909. (Stock Montage/Getty Images)

In this context, Albert A. Pope got into the electric car business. He was by far the nation’s leading bicycle manufacturer and is supposed to have said about the IC car, “You can’t get people to sit over an explosion.” Ironically, executives at Pope Manufacturing chose an engineer with a penchant for explosions to head up the company’s new “Motor Carriage Department.” Hiram Percy Maxim, whose father had invented the machine gun, graduated from MIT and was in the grenade business before being hired by Pope. When Maxim proudly showed off his prototype IC car, his boss said, “Well then, Maxim, let me tell you something. We are on the wrong track. No one will buy a carriage that has to have all that greasy machinery in it.” He figured it might be a fun toy for mechanically inclined young men, but not a useful machine for the average buyer. Pope went on to become a leading manufacturer of electric cars under the Columbia brand name. He was wrong: plenty of people were willing to sit over an explosion. Many were also willing, even eager, to put up with greasy machinery.

The market for electric cars was limited in part by their relatively high initial cost. So, Pope fell in with the Electric Vehicle Company, which had a different business model in mind: Mobility as a Service (MaaS). Customers could buy a car from them, or lease one, rent one, or pay by the mile for a ride. The potential profits were much greater than selling a vehicle outright. The EVC would capture every drop of potential revenue from their vehicle assets by running them continually. The economics of electric vehicles have not changed. As they transition to electric cars, and as they develop driverless technology, the world’s automakers are reviving the EVC’s MaaS business model. “We’re a mobility company,” they say.

Henry Morris and Pedro Salom had launched the Electric Vehicle Company in Philadelphia with a $10,000 capitalization in 1896. The pair had developed the Electrobat with a layout similar to the horse-drawn hansom safety cabs of London and a range of twenty-five miles in city traffic. Passengers sat inside a comfortable cabin while the driver sat in the open to the rear. The Electrobats were large, heavy, refined machines. The cars would be stored at central stations where a highly automated system would swap out a depleted battery pack in seventy-five seconds. Then, the Electric Storage Battery Company bought the Morris and Salom startup even before it had made a sale. Capitalization increased thirtyfold to $300,000. Beginning in Philadelphia and expanding quickly to New York, the new Electric Vehicle Company became a raging success. Cars were rented out so often and for such long intervals that few were available as taxicabs. As of January 1899, fifty-five cabs were in fleet service and forty more were leased to customers under a long-term service contract. According to Horseless Age, “Many aristocratic people . . .  are so enthusiastic that they declare they will not bring their horses to the city another winter, but will leave them at their country places.” From there things went mad. The EVC ordered 2,000, 8,000, wait! 12,000 new cars. These would include hansom cabs, landaus, and coupes. A giant EV holding company would open branches in every state and territory in the union. There would be a “worldwide network of branch EVCs,” wrote the press. The EVC planned a paper value of $200 million.

The expansion plans made sense. The EVC business model worked. According to historian David Kirsch, the company was likely profitable on its own. But the shareholders of the holding company under which it operated may have had more to gain from rapid expansion than the bottom line. The modern parallels are so perfect as to be almost scary. Uber, for example, has been expanding rapidly but not making money. Still, it has a market capitalization as high as Detroit automakers, companies which actually return profits to shareholders.

Another facet of the EVC business was the need for monopoly. The company had to monopolize the electric cab business in order to have a critical mass of vehicles. Only then could riders count on being able to get an EVC cab when they wanted one. Again, the same is more or less true today: ride hailing services need to achieve nearly monopolistic scale to survive. Unless they reach a critical mass of drivers (or driverless cars), they cannot serve customers. App-enabled flexibility reduces the tendency toward total monopoly as drivers can effectively operate for two ride-hailing services — think Uber and Lyft — simultaneously.

Monopoly was a dirty word in the app-less 1890s. President Teddy Roosevelt, elected in 1901, became known as the “trust buster.” E. P. Ingersoll, owner of the motor journal Horseless Age, attacked the EVC as a trust in his every editorial. Ingersoll battered the electric battery as well. “The history of storage battery traction is strewn with wrecks and failures,” he wrote. The battery electric would not work “until the laws of the universe are superseded.” He warned against those who would “force” electrics on a “credulous world.” With Ingersoll’s constant attacks, the EVC became known as the “Lead Cab Trust,” according to Gijs Mom, the leading historian of the rise and fall of the electric car in this period. Mom concludes that Ingersoll’s technical complaints overshadow his real enemy: monopoly. Ingersoll believed the EVC trust would prevent the dawn of a utopian Horseless Age based on the internal-combustion motor.

Clara sat in a cozy drawing room with seating for three, surrounded by a greenhouse of glass.

A New York Herald investigation late in 1899 revealed that the EVC had secured a loan fraudulently. The scandal sent EVC stock plummeting from $30 to 75 cents a share. In 1900, Horseless Age cancelled all EVC ads and then named and shamed the “floater(s) of watered stock companies.” In 1901 the EVC began to collapse. Chicago liquidated in the early spring. Boston folded two months later. Whatever the technical demerits against the battery electric, commentators at the time noted that “the dismal failure of public electric automobiles in several cities tended to give the motive power a black eye irrespective of its real merits.” In other words, the business failed the machine rather than the other way around.

Baker Electric Coupe Automobile
A Baker Electric Coupe automobile and four women are shown in a magazine advertisement from 1908. (Stock Montage/Getty Images)

As horseless buggies like the Curved Dash Oldsmobile evolved into automobiles, EVs evolved into drawing rooms. By the time Henry Ford’s wife, Clara, started driving her 1914 Detroit Electric, the technology was highly refined. At a time when gasoline cars like the Model T were open to the elements, Clara sat in a cozy drawing room with seating for three, surrounded by a greenhouse of glass. Mounted crystal vases held flowers. Deeply tufted upholstery covered the chairs. The feminine, luxury appointments denote this as a “woman’s car.” The car’s top speed of twenty-five miles an hour was deemed more than enough for the fairer sex.

As we enter our own automotive revolution, it pays to keep in mind the gendered nature of the car culture and the transformative role both electrification and the end of driving will have on it. As they lost out to IC cars, EV makers began appealing especially to women. That marketing of EVs to women evinces not a biological imperative but the perpetual construction of the driver’s seat as a prerogative of masculinity. Drivers took command of their gasoline cars from the exalted captain’s chair, gripping the steering wheel and reaching for various levers and knobs by hand and foot. Clara Ford sat in the rear of her Detroit Electric, more of a hostess than a driver. She had a single bar, push-pull tiller to steer and a second that engaged reverse. Her luncheon companion would nestle in beside her and a third lady, perhaps being dropped off at the dressmaker’s, sat opposite, facing the rear. With the controls folded away — as they were for easy entry and egress — the Detroit Electric looks for all the world like an autonomous mobile parlor.

Now the auto shows are replete with such interior design studies with steering wheels that fold into the dashboard. The Mercedes-Benz “Luxury in Motion” concept features swiveling white leather seats and wooden floors; Yanfeng’s XiM7 interior switches into “meeting mode” with chairs that slide and turn. The intervening century of change is there. The tufts are gone from the upholstery and there are no flower vases. Add these back and Clara Ford would feel right at home.

Before most Americans have ever seen a driverless car, expectations have developed around it. The original automobile was likewise freighted with expectation. It would provide the freedom of the open road — the road trip — and with it the fantasy that women would loosen their corsets. Men would demonstrate their masculinity through mastery of grease, gears, and gasoline. Autoists of both sexes would don the fearsome steampunk look of goggles and gauntlets. The internal-combustion car that had to be coaxed and muscled to life, with its lubes and explosions and thrusting pistons, that would be the car for men. The IC car that would roar and thunder, not slip silently by on electrons, the IC car that would inhale great gulps of atmosphere and exhale noxious smoke. That would be America’s car.


1. By 1900, there were 109 manufacturers who produced 4,192 vehicles. Steam cars accounted for 1,681 of these; 1,575 were electric, and 936 had internal-​combustion engines. See Rudi Volti, Cars and Culture: The Life Story of a Technology (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006).

2. Some recent scholarship has framed such stories and escapades — ​particularly in the automobile context — ​not as examples of freedom and pleasure but as opportunities for sexual violence. Passage of the Mann, or White-​Slave Traffic, Act of 1910, supports this idea. The act made it a crime to transport women across state lines for “immoral purposes.” Such transport was facilitated by the automobile. See Katherine J. Parkin, Women at the Wheel: A Century of Buying, Driving, and Fixing Cars (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017).

3. Precise language for comparing these three technologies becomes complicated. Both steamers and IC engines ran on a variety of hydrocarbon fuels. Properly, the steamer should be called an “external combustion” engine. Similarly, the electric vehicle runs on energy produced by a chemical reaction taking place inside a battery. The original source of the energy to create that chemical reaction came — ​remotely — ​from the steam or IC engine used to charge it. In that sense, all three run on the energy in the chemical bonds created by plankton millions of years ago. For the IC engine, I like the term sometimes offered in the early days: “hydrocarbon explosion engine.”

4. The word “commuter” is an early ​twentieth-​century invention. Streetcar companies commuted the ticket price if you bought a weekly pass, just as parole boards commuted sentences.

* * *

Dan Albert holds a PhD in history from the University of Michigan. He writes about the past, present, and future of cars for n + 1 magazine.

Selected from Are We There Yet? by Dan Albert, Copyright © 2019 by Dan Albert. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

Longreads Editor: Dana Snitzky