The industrial revolution depended to a very large extent on transport of goods from manufacturers to markets. Large towns and cities grew that specialised in extracting or making different things (coal from South Wales, shoes from Leicester, cutlery from Sheffield, etc.) which had to be moved to where they would be sold. Agriculture also specialised, with food production often a long way from where that food was consumed. Long distance goods transport was the preserve of the railways, with main lines servicing a dense network of rural and urban branch lines.
But local distribution and delivery was still the domain of the horse. Hundreds of thousands were employed across the country and they presented many problems. Aside from the considerable space needed for stables, the amount of feed that had to be provided every day and the traffic congestion they caused, there was also the tons of dung to dispose of, the smell of dung and urine in the streets, the flies, the diseases they carried, and how to deal with the horses when they died (or quite often, dropped dead of exhaustion).
The idea of a self-propelled electric goods vehicle looked an attractive way to replace the horse. If it could be perfected, it would be clean, quiet, and accelerate briskly; it would be relatively easy to drive, reliable, economic to run, and would require limited maintenance.
It was this thinking that led from the first battery-powered tricycles (starting with Frenchman Gustave Trouvé’s machine of 1881), through the first battery-electric car (possibly a dogcart designed by Magnus Volk of Brighton in the UK in 1887), to the first electric commercial vehicles at the start of the twentieth century.
The only traction battery used in this nascent period was of course the lead-acid type, introduced in 1881 and the work of another Frenchman, Camille Fauré. Strictly speaking, a ‘battery’ is the set of individual cells which are connected together to produce the desired voltage. Progress was rapid and it was not long before the battery-electric progressed from being a curiosity and a rich man’s indulgence to being a mainstream type of road vehicle.
Remember that Carl Benz’s first petrol-driven car was only unveiled in 1885, so the primary means of propulsion for modern road vehicles was far from settled at the end of the nineteenth century. Even steam power was considered a viable option for many applications – especially for larger vehicles.
After the first battery-electric car in the United States was built by William Morrison in 1890, that country saw extraordinary development. Over 1,500 battery-electric cabs were in use by 1900, mostly in New York. As for private cars, the electric was streaking ahead in America. A particular niche was as a wealthy lady’s town car.
In Europe too, there was a growing market for imported American and locally-built automobiles. However, the rise of the internal-combustion engine proved unassailable. Yes, it was noisy, dirty and temperamental. But as development advanced the petrol-driven car offered the speed and range which the electric could not match and in the second decade of the new century sales of electric automobiles rapidly dwindled.
However, the refinement of battery-electric vehicle technology for cars saw parallel developments in commercial vehicles – notably again in the United States.
Low speed and limited range were not big disadvantages for urban goods vehicles, where they would be direct replacements for horses that had limited pace and stamina. Several makes started producing battery-electric commercials around 1900. And they were not confined to light duties, with many carrying payloads of up to five tons, and even 6¼ tons on a Commercial model of 1905. Numbers increased until by 1913 there were 10,000 electric trucks at work across the US.
At the same time developments were taking place in Europe. Paris had a fleet of battery-electric taxis in 1900 and 100 big Fram refuse collectors with tipping bodies in 1915. In 1906 a postal van appeared in Italy and in Germany electric lorries, ambulances and even fire engines were to be found.
Entrepreneurs and business managers in Britain were well aware of these developments and there was plenty of original work going on at home.
The birthplace of the British battery-electric commercial vehicle is definitely London. One claim for the first commercial electric in the UK is a parcel van for the Royal Mail, constructed in the capital by Magnus Ward’s Ward Electric Car Company. It weighed 3½ tons (38% of which was accounted for by the battery) and was propelled by two 2½ hp Crompton motors.
Another claim is for a vehicle put together in 1889, and driven by the manager of the Chloride Electrical Storage Company (makers of Exide batteries) from Kentish Town to Oxford Street. This three-and-a-half-mile journey took some time because contemporary legislation prohibited self-propelled vehicles from exceeding two mph.
Fortunately, this regulation was overturned in 1896 and vehicle development of all kinds in Britain could (if you’ll excuse the pun) proceed apace. In 1894 young engineer called Walter Bersey unveiled an electric parcels van. Its reliability persuaded a number of organisations to purchase examples.
Richard Burbridge, the managing director of Harrod’s department store, worked with Bersey to refine the design for the store’s use. Attractively coach-painted with vertical stripes below an area displaying the Harrod’s brand, it looked like a giant mobile hat box. Harrod’s became a strong advocate for electrics and within fifteen years was a leader in their use.
The Royal Mail also bought a Bersey van, but Bersey himself decided to concentrate on developing better taxis.
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