[Forward: in the book ‘The Current’ (2018 Gestalten), I stated in my introductory essay that ‘Electricity is Modernity’.  The scientific and technical process of harnessing electricity for human use defines the modern era, and has transformed our lives in ways we scarcely acknowledge today.  We have become creatures seemingly independent of the sun, moon, and stars, or at least, the ability to abolish the night gave rise to such thinking, which increasingly looks like hubris.  It’s the use of electricity, not fire, that is the ‘true Promethean moment’, although our embrace of fire in the form of petroleum looks more like a Faustian bargain every day.

The history of electric vehicles is little discussed today, but goes back well into the 19th Century, paralleling developments in steam power for vehicles, and predating the use of petroleum to power engines. We all know the story of Benjamin Franklin and his experiments with kites in storms in the 1700s, but compared to steam (the first experiments date back thousands of years), electricity is a relatively new field. In this series, The Vintagent explores the roots and development of electric powered two-wheelers, as part of our celebration of e-Bikes on our web channel The Current.]

Benjamin Franklin’s ‘battery’ of interconnected Leyden jars from 1769 – exactly 100 years before the electric motorcycle was proposed [Franklin Institute]
The invention of electric vehicles was dependent on two technical advances in the 1800s: the battery and the electric motor.  The term ‘battery’ was coined by Benjamin Franklin, to describe an array of interconnected, charged glass plates.  The term was adopted to cover electricity generated through a chemical reaction (what we now think of as a battery): it was chemists who first developed a practical method of electrical generation. Allesandro Volta built the first ‘wet cell’ battery in 1800 – the Voltaic Pile – that used discs of copper and zinc sandwiched with cardboard soaked in brine.  Volta used his own research and that of Luigi Galvani to design his battery: both their names are enshrined in our daily vernacular as volts and galvanism.

One of the first electric motors, built by Jedlik in Hungary in 1828 [Wikipedia]
The creation of the battery as a stable supply of electric current led to a dramatic increase in research  with electricity.  By 1802 Humphrey Davy exhibited the first incandescent light (a thin platinum strip stretched between electric wires), and the first electric arc lamp in 1806.  It’s difficult today to imagine the impact of such inventions on the mindset of people in the day: no longer would our activities be limited to the cycles of nature – humans would soon dominate nature. Davy gave public lectures that spread a new ideology, a paradigm shift in how people saw their place in the world: “[Science] has bestowed on him powers which may almost be called creative; which have enabled him to modify and change the beings surrounding him, and by his experiments to interrogate nature with power, not simply as a scholar, passive and seeking only to understand her operations, but rather as a master, active with his own instruments.” (from ‘The Age of Wonder’, Holmes 2008).

Fiat Lux! Humphry Davy demonstrates the electric arc lamp for members of the Royal Institution of London, with a charge crossing two carbon points, in 1809. The lower half of the image shows rows of large boxes – these are batteries installed in the basement of the Institution!  A huge array was required to power a single arc lamp, as batteries were very weak in the early 1800s. [Wikipedia]
Various types of batteries were developed in the early 1800s, and were usually messy affairs: open containers of acid with metals suspended in them to create stable chemical reactions and generate electricity.  The rechargeable lead-acid battery, as used in just about every car and motorcycle until the 2000s, was invented in 1859 by Gustave Planté, while the first ‘dry cell’ batteries, as we use in portable electric tools, flashlights, and now vehicles, were invented in 1886 by Carl Gassner.  Of course, invention and application are very different things, and it took yet more time to develop practical batteries of all types, and commercialize them.  A battery small enough and strong enough to power a vehicle was not developed until the 1880s.

The turning point: Michaux’s first commercially produced bicycle of 1868, which rapidly spread the joy of two wheels. [Wikipedia]
The electric motor is a relatively recent invention, as the theory of electrons and magnets creating motion was first laid down in 1821 by Michael Faraday. The first proper electric motor, able to do real work, was developed by Thomas Davenport in 1834.  Still, it wasn’t until the 1870s that electric motors made any real impact on the world, in the form of trolleys.  They were the first form of electricity to affect people’s lives, as by the 1880s there were hundreds of trolleys transporting people in cities around the world, a decade before electric lights were adopted.

Louis-Guillame Perreaux’s 1871 (June 15th) elegant patent drawing specifying steam power for his velocipede, using a tiny steam engine on a Michaux bicycle (the first commercially produced bicycle with pedals). While Perreaux first patented the idea of a motorcycle in 1868 (Dec 26), he did not specify the power source until this 1871 addition, specifying steam power for his velocipede. [Archives INPI]
The concept of the electric motorcycle was first patented in France by three different people, two of them within days of each other: clearly, the idea had been discussed among peers. The invention of the electric motorcycle is directly related to the first commercial production of pedal bicycles in 1868.  In a case of competing claimants, Pierre Michaux and his son Ernest, in company with Pierre Lallemont initially, built the first pedal-cycles in the early 1860s, by adding pedals to the front axle of a velocipede – the idea was apparently inspired by a pedal-powered grinding wheel.  Lallemont took the idea to American in 1865, while the Michauxs worked with the Olivier brothers to commercially produce the first bicycles in 1868.  But these are dry words: it’s difficult to overstate the impact of these first bicycles on people’s consciousness, as they were a hell of a lot of fun.  Already on May 1st 1869, the English magazine Chamber’s Journal of Popular Literature, Science and Arts published an essay on bicycling that’s both rapturous and poetic:

“The slightly increased labour of climbing a hill is nothing to the zest imparted by a knowledge that there is sure to be a hill the other side to go down, and that is the most luxurious travelling that can be imagined. Descending an incline at full speed, balanced on a beautifully tempered steel spring that takes every jolt from the road – wheels spinning over the ground so lightly they scarce seem to touch it – the driver’s legs rested comfortably on the cross-bar in front – shooting the hill at a speed of thirty or forty miles an hour – the sensation is only comparable to that of flying.”

The idea of adding a motor to the bicycle was a natural follow-up, to perpetuate this amazing feeling:  the exhilaration felt by all motorcyclists on an open road and a rising throttle.  The idea for the electric motorcycle was first suggested (it seems) by the very fellow who first patented the concept of the motorcycle itself: Louis-Guillame Perreaux.  There has long been a debate over who built the first motorcycle – Perreaux or Sylvester H. Roper (read our story about Roper here), but it seems today Roper built the earlier machine, while Perraux probably built his in 1870/’71, and patented his steam-cycle in 1871 (Roper never patented his motorcycle, but did ride it extensively).  Of course, a credible claim can be made that the motorcycle concept dates back to 1818, as discussed in our post on the ‘Vélocipédraisiavaporianna’.

Joseph Marie’s patent drawing of April 28, 1869, that details an electric motor to power a “Vélocipède magnéto-électrique.” This is probably the oldest patent in the world for an engine other than steam to power a motorcycles, according to Steeve Gallizia, an archivist at INPI (Institut National de la Propriété Industrielle) in France. Many thanks to Steeve for his patent research! [Archives INPI]
Perreaux’s first patent for a motorcycle is from Dec. 26 1868, but he did not specify the type of motor to be attached to his bicycle.  The path was not yet clear: electric and steam were the rivals, as it would be 8 years before a petrol engine was built by Nikolaus Otto (although the internal combustion engine was invented back in 1807 by Nicéphore Niépce, but used powdered moss for fuel!).  Small electric and steam engines were both still under development, but steam was decades ahead in actual use, so it was natural the first functional motorcycle was steam powered. Still, on April 28th 1869, Joseph Marie filed the first known patent (#85499) for a Vélocipède magnéto-électrique – an electric motorcycle.  Mere days later (May 6 1869), Emile-Joseph Delaurier and Jules Morin patented their machine dite vélocipède électrique.  Perreaux didn’t patent his steam velocipede until June 15th 1871, as an addition to his original 1868 patent. It isn’t known if Perreaux, Marie, or Delaurier/Morin actually constructed these engines and built electric motorcycles, or merely patented the concept.  But, the concept is there, and correct, although batteries with strength enough to move a human were cumbersome, and better suited to 3- or 4-wheelers at the time.

Gustave Trouvé’s 1881 electric tricycle, the first electric vehicle demonstrated to the world, on April 19th, using a Starley tricycle with Trouvé’s own batteries and electric motor attached.  The future had arrived. [from Physique et Chimie Popularies, Vol. 2: 1881-83 (Alexix Clerc, 1883)]
The first successful demonstration of an electric vehicle was a tricycle built by Gustave Trouvé, demonstrated on April 19, 1881 on the Rue Valois in Paris.  Trouvé used a Starley eccentric tricycle chassis, and attached rechargeable batteries of his own design with an electric motor: an assistant drove the first electric vehicle in the world before an appreciative crowd.  He was unable to patent his design, as the concept of such a vehicle had already been patented (a Humber trike with a steam engine).  Regardless, Trouvé patented 300 other ideas, and swapped the very electric battery/motor combo from the trike into a small boat, and invented the outboard motor!  The list of his electric inventions is enormous, from sewing machines and dental drills to wearable luminescent body art and portable UV lights for treating skin diseases. (There’s a great book on Trouvé you can find here.)  Trouvé is one of those ‘lost’ inventors only recently rediscovered, whose impact on a dozen fields altered the human experience.

Gustave Trouvé’s luminescent dance costume from the 1880s

Next: The first electric motorcycles!

Related Posts

The Motorcycle is 200 Years Old Today?

Was the motorcycle first demonstrated on...

The Current: Future-Proof (Part 1)

How will the motorcycle become safer in...

Sylvester Roper’s Steam Velocipedes

Sylvester H Roper built his first steam...


Subscribe to Our Weekly Newsletter