The History of Electric Cars – The Early Days

The History of Electric Cars – The Early Days – The history of electric vehicles has to start with the first successful attempt to store electrical energy made by Alessandro Volta in Italy in 1800. Volta had been fascinated by the experiments of Luigi Galvani, Professor of Medicine in Bologna, who had observed that a frog’s leg would twitch if he touched a muscle with a copper probe and the associated nerve with a zinc probe.

The History of Electric Cars – The Early Days

To simulate this condition Volta assembled plates of copper and zinc, separated by pasteboard soaked in saltwater, and discovered that a continuous electric current could be drawn. By connecting a number of these copper/zinc cells together in series he found that he could obtain a larger electrical potential at a continuous current, or by placing the cells in parallel a larger current at the same potential. The primary battery had been born and was then called the Volta pile by subsequent researchers.

The next event of major significance was in 1821 when Michael Faraday demonstrated that a wire rod carrying an electric current supplied by a Volta pile would rotate around a fixed magnet if one end was unconstrained by allowing it to hang in a bath of mercury. He also showed that the magnet.

In the course of the development of electrochemistry between 1800 and 1859, it had been shown that if electrodes connected to a Volta pile were immersed in water, oxygen bubbles formed on the positive electrode and hydrogen bubbles formed on the negative electrode, and these gases could be collected in test tubes. In 1802 N. Gutherot had connected a galvanometer across the electrodes after such an experiment had been completed and detected a small current flow in the opposite direction to that of the originally applied current.

This observation does not appear to have been acted upon until 1859 when Gaston Plante, a Belgian experimenting in the field of electrochemistry, placed two layers of lead sheet separated by cloth into a container of dilute sulphuric acid and observed that an electric current could be drawn from this cell, and as this happened lead sulphate formed on the positive plate. If a current was then passed through the cell from a Volta pile, the lead sulphate would decompose, and after disconnection of the electrical supply further current could be drawn in this reversible process. This was the first effective secondary cell in which charge and discharge processes could be repeated many times.

The earlier experiments with electric motors in the 1830s were to lead nearly 30 years later to the ‘ring’ direct current motor invented by Antonio Pacinotti in Italy in 1861. Apart from the invention of the motor itself, he made the very important discovery that if the motor was rotated mechanically a current was generated in a reverse direction to the current applied when it was being run as a motor. The electromechanical generator had been born. This discovery would make possible a continuous supply of significant amounts of electrical energy.

This discovery was built on by a Belgian, Zenobe Theophile Gramme, and in 1869 he was able to construct the first direct current electric motor. This could provide mechanical power of more than one horsepower (746 W), and could be used as a generator if mechanical energy was supplied to rotate it. Gramme was also the first to connect a steam engine to drive one of his generators and so to provide significant amounts of electrical power. These developments were closely followed by the Siemens brothers, initially in Germany and then subsequently in England, where in 1870 they developed and patented the Double T Iron Armature motor/generator.

The availability of this new technology signalled the birth of the electrical supply industry. This started by supplying continuous electrical current for electroplating. The industry then expanded to provide electricity for electricars street lighting, and then for domestic and general lighting with the invention in 1879 of the filament lamp by Thomas Alva Edison in the USA and Joseph Swan in England. However, of more interest to us in the context of this book is the rapidly developing availability and capability of both storage batteries using the Plante cell and electric motors capable of providing sufficient mechanical power to propel a road vehicle.

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