Much fuss has been made over the all-electric Nissan Leaf. It's a
high-tech, low-emissions car with plenty of room inside and just quirky enough
with its bug-eyed appearance.
Nissan's been talking a lot lately about innovation, and when the company put the Leaf on sale to buyers across the United States early last year, company officials were understandably excited.
"The Leaf, the world's first and only electric car," Nissan officials boasted at the time, "now also is the only electric car ever to be available nationwide."
Except, there's this: The basic ideas behind electric cars aren't new. Not even close. More than 300 U.S. companies made electric cars before World War II. Some assembled a single prototype. Others built thousands of vehicles.
Two of those companies were in Toledo.
The merits of electric cars certainly remain up for debate today, but don't let anyone try to tell you the technology is new. And it's not just the basic idea of electric cars that's 100 years old, it's the very same kinds of technology touted today.
Plug-in battery packs? Had 'em. Gas-electric hybrids? Check. Regenerative braking? Yawn.
Remember, electricity wasn't even in most homes at that time. Susan Spellman, a history professor at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, said just 8 percent of U.S. homes were wired for electricity in 1907. Electricity in homes increased rapidly, doubling to 16 percent in 1912 and 34 percent in 1920, but it still was a technology most of America didn't have access to at home.
In the early days of motoring, the fuel of choice that would power automobiles into the future was very much in question. Car builders used steam power, electricity, and internal combustion engines to drive their carriages.
"For a while there, it was anybody's guess whether it would be electric, gas, or steam that would win out as the power of choice," said Matt Anderson, curator of transportation at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich.
Though gasoline ultimately won out, early electric vehicles were quite popular between 1905 and 1915. Two Toledo companies built electric cars: the Ohio Electric Car Co. and the Milburn Wagon Co., which was one of the more successful electric car builders of the era.
"They really enjoyed their peak in the years before the self-starter was introduced for the internal combustion," Mr. Anderson said of the early electrics. "That was one of their great advantages -- you didn't have to crank-start the car. That and they were a lot cleaner and quieter, as they are today."
Operating a car in those early days was a far more complex exercise than it is today. Until Ohioan Charles Kettering invented the electric starting motor, cars had to be started by hand crank, a difficult and at times dangerous task. Many electric car companies advertised to women, hoping to appeal to their proper sensibilities.
In an electric, all the driver had to do was flip a switch.
"It's in neutral now," Ford Cauffiel said, his hand hovering over a nickel-colored lever. "When you get in to run, you put it over here," he says, flipping the lever to the left.
With that, Mr. Cauffiel grabs hold of the two tillers that control the car -- there's no steering wheel or accelerator pedal -- and takes off.
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