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.

When a cab drove into the station, technicians secured and centered it with hydraulic shoes. They then hitched the 1,300-pound battery tray, which ran underneath the cab, to a hydraulic piston that pulled out the whole thing and sat it on a table, where "an overhead crane plucked it from the table and deposited it in the charging room." They slotted in a new battery and off the cab went again into the wild Manhattan streets. Conceptually, it's not unlike what Shai Agassi' Project Better Place has been pushing in recent years. If batteries are the problem, engineer around them.

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The All-Electric Transportation System That Almost Was

The business caught Whitney's eye. His band of barons had made a pile of money electrifying New York city's trolley routes, and looking at the electric vehicle, he began to imagine a syndicate that could control all kinds of electrified mobility within and between cities. Electric trains called interurbans would run between local towns, trolleys would provide service along major routes, and the electric vehicles would serve any other intracity mobility needs. Urbanites wouldn't buy a car: They'd be able to go anywhere on one type or another of electrified transport.

So Whitney got his boys together--A. B. Widener, Charles F. Ryan, and a host of other names that now adorn the big buildings of New York--and convinced them that there was money to be made displacing the old horse-drawn carriage with clean, noiseless electric cars. They would churn out thousands of electric vehicles, sending them to the big cities of the world--New York, Chicago, Mexico City, Paris--where they would seamlessly fit into the transportation web that crisscrossed the world's great human agglomerations. At the back end of all the mobility, there'd be the miracle of electricity, as represented by the central power plants of Edison Electric and New York Heat, Light, and Power, which Whitney and his band of scions of wealth also controlled.

What five years earlier had been a simple two-man project in Philadelphia had morphed into a play to unify the transportation infrastructure of urban America into one great syndicate. What they needed was scale, and that's what Pope could provide. He was the largest manufacturer of the product at the center of America's latest craze: cycling.

energy_bug_1.pngBy 1898 Pope's newly consolidated American Bicycle Company cranked out 800,000 bicycles. They made their own tires and steel tube frames, and they assembled them in massive quantities. Pope's company had also been toying with an electric car concept that had yet to catch on, so it wasn't a stretch to work with the Whitney team.

Pope and Whitney sealed the deal and each side of the transaction took half of the Electric Vehicle Company. As an enterprise for building and operating electric vehicles, it seemed to have all the right parts: the Electric Storage Battery Company and its patent on the lead-acid storage battery, the Pope manufacturing apparatus, Whitney's financial connections, and the central station service model developed by Condict.

As the Electric Vehicle Company (EVC) rounded into shape, there was a brief moment when it seemed that success might be at hand. The New York station was performing well and new offices began to operate around Boston, New Jersey, Chicago, and Newport.

But to say that the EVC was a grand disappointment would be an understatement. Within about a year problems began to appear. In New York the service remained profitable, but the other cities suffered from poor management and operations. The batteries were not properly cared for, nor were the drivers trained well. Led by the trade magazine Horseless Ageand its "autoelectrophobe" editor, E. B. Ingersoll, the public started to call the company "The Lead Cab Trust." The regional operating companies were shut down in February 1901.

People began to suspect that Whitney and his financiers were merely trying to pull some stock swindle. That notion gained steam when the EVC turned patent troll and began brandishing the Selden patent, which it said covered all automobiles. Automotive historians of the 1950s have tended to see the problems as simply the gurgling death cries of an electric vehicle industry being taken out by the insurgent gasoline-powered car; they see the death of the EVC as a demonstration of the technological impracticality of the battery-powered vehicle. But contemporary historians like Gijs Mom and David Kirsch have taken the company more seriously. Kirsch sees the scheme, if not the actual company, as "the seed of an alternative transportation system for motorized road transport."

Images: 1. The first Salom and Morris Electrobat. 2. An Electric Vehicle Company Cab. From the author's collection with thanks to Mary Salom Lugones.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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