You may be forgiven to think that an electric car is a very recent invention, but in fact, it came decades before the first internal combustion engine car was born. Of course, these early battery-powered wonders were crude, to say the least.
The first working electric vehicle ever built however, is attributed to Thomas Davenport, inventor of the first American-manufactured DC electric motor. Davenport built a small locomotive consisting of a battery, a pivot, and two electromagnets. This would be sometime in 1834 or 1835.
The road to the first-ever working electric car
With the help of both his brother and wife, Davenport built his DC motor, along with his own battery, step by step. His wife, Emily Davenport, even sacrificed her wedding dress, cutting them into strips for insulating the wires of his new motor. When he got the motor running, Davenport fought a long and arduous battle with the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) to have his invention approved.
Unfortunately for him, the USPTO had never patented an electrical device before, and as such, was equally skeptical and inexperienced with licensing his invention. Davenport had to enlist scientists and gather their testimonials to attest to the originality of his work. Eventually, the USPTO relented, and gave Davenport his patent in 1837.
With patent in hand, Davenport began peddling his invention to buyers and investors, but couldn’t get anyone to bite because his batteries were not rechargeable, and his DC motor was too expensive to produce at the time. Unfortunately, Davenport never found customers for his high-tech motor, and he died penniless in 1851 at age 48, three days before his birthday.
Almost 60 years later, the National Electric Light Association (NELA) finally recognized the genius behind Davenport’s electric car. NELA observed ‘Davenport Day’ on September 28, 1910, and unveiled a stone tablet to commemorate his work, along with a brass band and an audience of 500.
“If the Davenport patent were enforced today it would embrace every one of the millions of electric motors in use in the United States, whose royalties would constitute an income equal to anything enjoyed by Carnegie or Rockefeller,” said NELA Secretary Thomas Commerford Martin during the unveiling of the tablet. “It would have been a merciful dispensation of the bitter bread of struggle and disaster eaten all the years of his life by this extraordinary genius, this prophetic village blacksmith, could have been sweetened with the merest modicum of the vast wealth that his glowing conceptions have helped create for the benefit of us all.”