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Which came first – the electric car or the gasoline car?

The Answer

The electric car. While Karl Benz is generally credited with inventing the first production automobile in Germany in 1886, an earlier electric car was invented and produced in Britain two years earlier.

As usual, these “which came first” questions come down to a matter of definition. What do we mean by “car” in this case? For our purposes, a “car” is defined as an automobile that was invented, patented and then produced (not just as a prototype).

Most of us may regard electric cars as a new invention, perhaps starting with the GM EV-1 in the mid-1990s as explored in the documentary film “Who Killed the Electric Car“, and then arising more recently in the form of the Prius, Tesla, and the Volt. In fact, the history of the electric car dates right back to the beginning, and in fact slightly before the gasoline automobile.

So, was the first car electric?

No, technically, the first actual automobile was neither gas nor electric. A steam-powered self-propelled road vehicle was invented in France by Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot in 1769 for use by the French military. It was a three-wheeled (and crazy looking) vehicle called the Dampfwagen.

Replica Dampfwagen

When was the electric car invented?

The first electric vehicle was a small locomotive created by American inventor, Thomas Davenport, in 1834, but it ran on a track and can’t really be described as a car in any practical sense.

British inventor Thomas Parker created one of the first practical electric cars as early as 1884. The reason that Parker chose an electric motor for his car instead of internal combustion was a familiar one – pollution. The air in London at the time was pretty terrible due, primarily to the burning of coal during the industrial revolution.

One of Parker’s electric cars. Circa 1895

If we’re talking about practical electric cars that were (or could have been) mass-produced and driven practically, however, then the first electric car was most likely built by Thomas Parker, a British inventor, in 1884.

The First Electric Car | HowStuffWorks

What about the gasoline automobile?

Credit for the invention of the first gasoline-powered car is generally attributed to German mechanical engineer, Karl Benz. Benz filed the patent for his “vehicle powered by a gas engine.” Incidentally, in the previous year, 1885, another German – Gotlieb Daimler invented the prototype of the modern gasoline engine.

1886 Benz Patent Motorwagen

Were electric cars popular in the early days?

You may wonder whether this post is focusing on a bit of a technicality and that even if an electric car was invented first, nobody actually drove them. In fact, that’s not the case. Electric cars were quite popular in the late 19th and early 20th Century.

According to Wikipedia – “In the United States by the turn of the [20th] century, 40 percent of automobiles were powered by steam, 38 percent by electricity, and 22 percent by gasoline. A total of 33,842 electric cars were registered in the United States, and the U.S. became the country where electric cars had gained the most acceptance“.

Baker Electrics advertisement, The Washington Post, 19 October 1913

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