The brilliant insight behind the electric cars we know well today dates back over a century. If you have in fact wondered the meaning of the names of some famous “electric” companies or of models produced by them, you will surely have already discovered that the references are not random.

Clear examples of this are the Tesla brand, Nikola trucks or some individual models, such as the Opel Ampera. All these names refer to scientists and inventors who wrote the history of electricity and therefore also of motoring, present and future.

The very first electric car in history dates back to 1884, invented by Thomas Edison starting from a blank sheet of paper in his laboratory in New Jersey. It resembled a 4-wheeled carriage that could move without the aid of any horse.

The genesis

Just as is happening today, at the end of the 19th century there was still no certainty about what the fuel of the future could be. On the one hand there were the new combustion engines , already on the market for some years but still not extensively tested on a large scale, on the other innovative engines that tried to convert the energy of coal into electric current , simulating very far the current operation of modern fuel cells with hydrogen.

On the one hand there was Henry Ford who was preparing to launch his revolutionary Model T, a car that would later decree the worldwide success of the internal combustion engine, on the other there were some small inventors who experimented with the application of electricity to mobility in private laboratories. Among these, Thomas Edison .

Born in Ohio in 1847, in about 20 years of activity he had already achieved international fame. His name was linked to important experiments, such as that of the incandescent light bulb , which was already revolutionizing the world, and in the course of his life he had already made a great contribution in the studies on the management of electricity.

The first electric car in the history of Thomas Edison

Precisely in these years he obtained the ingenious intuition of exploiting the catalytic oxidation of carbon to generate clean energy , a revolutionary method of obtaining electricity that would have made it possible to greatly reduce sulfur emissions into the atmosphere and, as we have said, a concept progenitor of modern hydrogen fuel cell technology.

At the time, the focus on atmospheric emissions was obviously not in the annual objectives of any company and, least of all, of any nation. Who could have imagined that  138 years later it would become the world goal par excellence.

The experiments

The first fuel cell experiment carried out by Thomas Edison dates back to 1884. In his laboratory he tried to convert the energy generated by the oxidation of carbon into electrical energy capable of making the car move. The experiment, however, it is said, blew up all the windows of his laboratory due to the lack of an energy accumulator placed under the car, a sort of modern battery.

After the first failure, about three years later, the American inventor retraced his steps with a new experiment. In this second case the accumulated experience taught him that it was not wise to try to directly convert energy into motion. He then invented what he called the ” Pyromagnetic Generator “, a sort of ancestor of the modern alternator present in all cars, but with reverse operation.

This innovative generator soon became a patented invention by Edison but it was not enough to decree the success of the first electric car in history. In the following years, up to 1899, the American inventor made great efforts to find a way to make a battery suitable for storing a good amount of energy capable of moving the car and guaranteeing an acceptable range, firmly believing that this battery type would have been cheaper to produce than gasoline.

Thomas Edison and electric cars

The batteries

In the years of Thomas Edison, the only type of battery already patented and on the market was the lead one. Not at all small in size and with an almost unmanageable weight, it could not represent a valid solution to the problem, also considering the fact, discovered only a century later, of the poisonousness of the material for humans.

Following numerous studies, the inventor created a more compact and lighter Nickel-Alkaline battery, much more reliable, less dangerous and less heavy than the lead one, but much more expensive. This last problem was the one that definitively put a spoke in the wheel of the project of the first electric car in history.

The car manufacturers, including the one led by Henry Ford, were not willing to raise the prices of their cars to convert them from the internal combustion engine to the clean energy one, but there was also another problem: the customers. In fact, these were reluctant to shell out a greater amount of money to buy the car in favor of later cheaper management, preferring to spend little to buy a traditional fuel car.

The ultimate car

Despite the difficulties, Thomas Edison, together with his partner Bob Burrell, managed to bring a first prototype of his car to the street. Thanks to the nickel alkaline battery with unfortunately unknown capacity it  could travel about 170 km at 40 km / h and aesthetically it was similar to a 4-wheeled carriage. Among the scientist’s objectives there was also that of creating a battery capable of lasting up to 30 years , a patent that he never managed to conclude.

The problems encountered by Edison are precisely the same ones that the engineers of the past and present years have found and still face on a daily basis. The cost and efficiency of batteries has in fact made electric cars very expensive up to now, cars that only in the last 4 or 5 years have reached a purchase cost close to that of the corresponding combustion cars. This is thanks to the natural evolution of the materials which has made them, among other things, cheaper to produce and to find.

If today we can drive an electric car or we can simply admire a hydrogen car with fuel cell technology, we owe it to Thomas Edison and his brilliant intuitions.

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