How the 20th century was almost dominated by electric vehicles, rather than petrol

It’s amazing to think that had circumstances been different, the western world might have developed its road transport around electric engines rather than fossil fuels.

That’s one of the key points made by “A Most Deliberate Swindle“, by Mick Hamer – the tale of the London Electrobus company, which pioneered the use of electric buses in London in the early 1900s. I was sent a preview copy — it’s being released later this week.

It’s an interesting story, and is really both a book about Edwardian-era fraud, and transport. I confess the latter is of more interest to me, so I have to admit I skimmed a little bit over the background story of the some personalities involved: a mix of gentlemen who spotted what was essentially a worthwhile venture, a viable electric battery bus, and used it to fleece shareholders out of their money.

As it turns out, a major contributor to the buses being reliable enough for service was the batteries, and part of the story relates to how the Electrobus company’s management fooled the American inventors into handing over the technology.

And yes, for a time, the electric bus service was successful and popular with passengers, thanks in part to a smoother quieter ride, which also made them popular with local residents.

The idea unravelled thanks to the scammers being more interested in making money by cheating people than selling electric vehicles and running electric buses.

The real sting in the tale is towards the end of the book, when author Hamer points out that 20th century motor vehicles ended up being mostly petrol powered because the technology happened to be ready for prime time, cheap enough and reliable enough, at just the right juncture. It gained momentum, and like VHS winning over the technically superior Beta, became dominant.

So but for chance, it could have been electric vehicles instead that dominated during the 20th century, certainly for buses, but also for other service vehicles and even private cars.

London as a city in many ways holds enormous influence, particularly around the Commonwealth, but also farther afield. If electric vehicles had taken off in Britain in the 1900s, then right across the world, issues such as city air quality and lead poisoning from cars might be much less of a problem than they were and are — particularly now, when more electricity generation is being moved to clean sources of power.

Today, Tesla and others are pushing electric cars, and while they won’t solve traffic congestion, they are certainly advancing the technology. In the last year or two, numerous countries have announced the phase-out of petrol and diesel cars.

And yes, there’s a push for electric buses too — they’re being promoted by local companies and campaigns — here in Melbourne, PT Not Traffic have a campaign for electric buses on inner-city routes.

There’s plenty of detail in the book, and one thing that struck me was the names of the companies (both real and fraudulent), which back in those days certainly told you what the company did (or at least claimed to do). These days they’re a lot more abstract than some of those in the book: “The London Electrobus Company”, “The Electric Tramways Construction and Maintenance Company”, or the “Gould Storage Battery Company Limited”.

It’s a good read, and worth a look. It’s due out this Thursday 28th September.

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5 Replies to “How the 20th century was almost dominated by electric vehicles, rather than petrol”

  1. Sounds like a good read.
    I wonder how long it will be before a largish car (like an SUV) can travel 700km on one charge and then take only 5 minutes to be fully recharged again. Provided the battery isn’t too expensive and lasts as long as the car, this would mean electric cars can compete with petrol vehicles in the private car market.

  2. Since I posted this blog this morning, I’ve added a link via Janet Rice to a story about a bus driving 1700km on a single charge. Melbourne to Brisbane, anyone?

  3. @Marcus – Over the course of a year, families often have several holidays, traveling to places like the Grampians, Gippsland Lakes, Wilson’s Prom, etc.
    The current crop of electric cars cannot compete with petrol cars on this. It would be a backward step for families to need to have two cars, one (electric) for the short city trips you are alluding to and a second (petrol) for the longer trips. Hence one-car families like mine need the petrol model vehicle for practical reasons alone.
    The good news is that technology will mean that one day electric cars will be able to offer what petrol cars can now (low-ish purchase cost, 700km range and speed of recharging). Then I’ll be sold!

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