Anyone who believes that the electric car is an invention of the 21st century is mistaken. Nor was it developed in California’s Silicon Valley. The beginnings of the electrified vehicle go back much further, to the Scottish city of Aberdeen. An exact date can no longer be determined, but the inventor Robert Anderson began performing experiments on the electrification of vehicles in his workshop shortly before the middle of the 19th century, probably between 1832 and 1839. At the same time, pioneers Thomas Davenport in Vermont (USA) and Sibrandus Stratingh in Groningen (Netherlands) were also working on the electric motor. While this motor was something of a sensation from a technical perspective, it was unable to gain acceptance as it still lagged behind the steam engine in terms of efficiency.
Tribelhorn, the Swiss pioneer
The first documented German electric car was the “Flocken” in 1888, built in the Bavarian town of Coburg. Electric passenger cars were also produced in Russia and in the Czech Republic (Škoda) at the turn of the century. In Switzerland, it was Johann Albert Tribelhorn who worked on designing electric vehicles, mainly commercial vehicles such as buses and trucks, between 1902 and 1920. He also turned his attentions to a few passenger cars and even boats. Tribelhorn’s customers included the Swiss Post Office, and he produced initially in Feldbach (canton of Zurich), followed by Altstetten (also canton of Zurich), which at the time was still a separate municipality and not part of the city of Zurich. Tribelhorn also set up the network of charging stations in the city and around Lake Zurich himself, and published the magazine Das Elektromobil.
The second decade of the 20th century had a far-reaching impact on the future not only from a political perspective, but also in terms of individual mobility. Cars with combustion engines became more and more popular, and increasingly forced electric cars off the roads after World War I. For almost 100 years, the vehicle with the combustion engine would clearly hold the upper hand worldwide in the competition between the technologies. Johann Albert Tribelhorn also felt the effects of this change. In order to save his company and his technical legacy, he was obliged to hand over the business to the battery producer company Akkumulatorenfabrik Olten.
Rediscovery in the 21st century
While there were repeated efforts in the 20th century to revive the electric vehicle, during the oil crisis in the 1970s, for example, these efforts never went beyond prototypes and small series. It was only the progress in battery development that brought electric mobility back into the arena. The smog situation in megacities and sprawling urban centres, the emerging concerns surrounding climate change and the associated political pressure further accelerated the rediscovery of the electric vehicle in the first two decades of the 21st century.
Source: Volkswagen AG