The Electric Taxi Company You Could Have Called in 1900

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On August 31, 1894, two young men rolled their new electric car onto what passed for a road in Philadelphia. It would have been hot and sticky outside, a Friday at the end of a long summer that had seen an intense heat wave suffocate the city for most of July. Piles of manure would have dotted the stones.

excerpt_atlantic.jpgAs the two men began their slow ride, people must have stared. Horses must have balked. It was almost undoubtedly the only car in the city. Credit for the first American electric vehicle is generally given to Boston's Philip W. Pratt for his lithe three hundred-pound tricycle, but this new vehicle was one of the very first automobiles in the world. Even eleven years later, only five hundred cars were registered in the city.1 Pedro Salom, a chemist, and Henry Morris, an inventor, had built their new ride in only two months. As much tank as carriage, the Electrobat, as they called it, weighed 4,400 pounds and was powered by an adapted ship motor. Its designers freely admitted that the vehicle was not designed for "an attractive appearance to a carriage builder's eye." Instead, they built the vehicle rugged because they wanted it to stand up to the rough city roads--not at all smooth like the roads of today--and they happened to need a place to put 1,600 pounds of lead-acid batteries.

The first version of the Electrobat, on which they glided through the streets of Philadelphia that fall and winter, looks like an uncovered wagon, complete with the spoked wheels--big ones in back, small ones up front. Two could comfortably sit atop the battery compartment, which housed the monster lead-acid cells, but it could have carried up to a dozen people. It gives the impression of a stagecoach missing both the horses and the coach, but it got the job done. It had a maximum range of fifty to one hundred miles and traveled hundreds of miles in its few months of testing, if Salom is to be believed. Its successor, the Electrobat 2, weighed closer to 1,800 pounds and packed a couple hundred pounds of batteries. It looked like a box on wheels, and a conductor sitting in the middle of the front of the car drove it with a steering stick. This automobile was the one that would propel Morris and Salom into history.

The competition between electric, gasoline, and steam-powered horseless carriages was real. At the turn of the century each type of automobile had about a third of the market. We can be sure that proponents of each method of propulsion--not to mention the "lovers of horseflesh"--had frothy-mouthed adherents who would have left nasty comments all over the Internet had such a medium existed.

Many nineteenth-century heavyweights agreed that the electric car would win out, and the Philadelphia duo became a part of the most ambitious effort to create an integrated, nationwide, electric-powered transportation system that the world has ever seen. Morris and Salom's second Electrobat became the technological basis of the Electric Vehicle Company, the first corporate car concern in the world, the first cab company in New York, and, in the words of automotive historian John B. McRae, the "Monopoly that Missed."

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The Making of The Electric Vehicle Company

In April 1899 William C. Whitney, a New York financier, walked out of his home on 5th Avenue, bound for Hartford, with a million dollars earmarked to jump-start the creation of a nationwide electric vehicle company.

Whitney was a robber baron, playboy, lover of fine horses, former Secretary of the Navy, and syndicate builder. He married well; his mansion featured a Marie Antoinette room. Whitney's henchmen purchased ceilings, walls, and chimneys from old European manses and reassembled them in his home.

The million dollars was an enticement for Colonel Albert Pope, who was the country's leading bicycle maker, to tie up with the Electric Storage Battery Company (ESB). The ESB had bought out Morris and Salom's Electric Carriage and Wagon Company, which had successfully opened up a cab service in Manhattan with thirteen modified Electrobats. During April 1897, their first month at Broadway and West 39th, Morris and Salom happily reported to the Society of Western Engineers that they had served a thousand passengers and the small fleet collectively traveled two thousand miles across the city.

There was just one problem with the vehicles: They did not have the range of their gasoline competitors. Batteries, even our modern lithium ion ones, do not pack nearly as much energy per pound or cubic volume as gasoline does.

That disadvantage could be mitigated with an efficient central station that would allow for fast battery swapping. During that year Isaac Rice and the ESB took over more active management of the enterprise.

In particular, they asked George Herbert Condict to design a new way to swap batteries in and out of cabs quickly. Condict responded with an ingenious system that drew on his experience supervising a Manhattan streetcar line that used swappable batteries for power. The ESB constructed it in a converted skating rink at 1684 Broadway to service the rapidly growing fleet.

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