If you thought electric cars and bicycles are new and exciting, you may be surprised to hear that they have been around for a very long time. In fact, both made their first appearance in the late1800’s; but it all started much earlier…..
Experiments with electric transportation began almost 200-years ago in 1828. Not surprisingly, early creations were primitive and impractical, but in 1859, French physicist Gaston Planté invented a rechargeable lead-acid battery that revolutionised the storage of electrical energy. In 1881 another Frenchman – Camille Faure – improved the design enabling Gustav Trouve to drive a British-made Starley tricycle along the Rue Valois in central Paris, thus becoming the world’s first road-going electric vehicle.
The first railway locomotive powered by batteries appeared even earlier. Built in Scotland in 1837 by chemist Robert Davidson, the relatively small seven tonne machine – named Galvani – was exhibited at the Royal Scottish Society of Arts in 1841. It managed to haul an impressive load of 6.1 tonnes at 4 mph, but it was destroyed by railway workers who saw it as a threat to employment.
The new light-rail systems rolling out across Australia today are essentially a reincarnation of much earlier tramways. The world’s first electric tram appeared near Saint Petersburg, Russia in 1875 and Berlin delivered a similar system in 1881. British inventor, Thomas Parker, introduced battery-powered trams as early as 1890. He also invented the world’s first production electric car in 1884, a year before Carl Benz launched the first internal combustion-engine automobile (so called “ICE” cars today).
Technology improved rapidly and by 1897 London boasted a fleet of electric taxi cabs. A battery-powered car was also the first road vehicle to exceed 100 kph in 1899. The Belgian made ‘torpedo’ – named La Jamais Contente – was driven by Camille Jenatzy and officially timed at 105.9 kph, a remarkable speed for a road based vehicle at the time.
By 1919, Harrods of London had a fleet of American made electric delivery vans, though they later built their own. In total, 565 different makes of electric vehicles were offered before the onset of World War Two in1939.
Brisbane’s first electric trams appeared in 1897. They were hi-tech creations of their time essentially kick-starting the suburban mass-transit systems that we rely on so heavily today.
You can see a reproduction of the record-breaking Jamais Contente in Europe, but you can ride a genuine 1901 electric tram at the Brisbane Tramway Museum in Ferny Grove. When you climb aboard, just remember that you are entering a hi-tech people parcel of its time, and spare a thought for the early pioneers who built it. To quote an ancient proverb – Everything old is new again………
Brisbane Tramway Museum is proudly supported by the Brisbane City Council. The trams on display were restored by Men‘s Shed volunteers.