In 1917, electric vehicles reigned, and Edison charged them

General Electric

The sudden rush of electric vehicle (or “EV”) developments — from new models being introduced, to breakthroughs in battery technology, to sleek new EV chargers — makes what seems like futuristic technology suddenly within reach of everyday drivers. But the truth is that today’s EV headlines could be ripped from a newspaper in 1917.

It’s hard to believe, but 38 percent of vehicles in the U.S. were electric in that year; 40 percent were steam powered and only 22 percent used gasoline. There was even a fleet of electric taxis in New York City.

But between the limited range of EVs and a lack of infrastructure to support recharging, the market was crying for a new and cheaper source of auto power, and that came in the form of the internal combustion, gasoline-powered engine. Check out our photo gallery below to see just what cutting-edge EV technology looked like back in Thomas Edison’s day.


Charged up: In publications produced by GE founder Thomas Edison, seen at left, GE’s Mercury Arc Rectifier was described as “the most efficient device yet designed for charging electric vehicle batteries from alternating current, having an efficiency of at lest 80 percent in charging a standard 40-cell vehicle battery. It can be started, and the charging current adjusted within 30 seconds after the battery is ready to receive the charge.”

Chris Hunter, Curator of Collections and Exhibitions at the Schenectady Museum & Suits-Bueche Planetarium provided us with the photos. He says that GE made its electric vehicle chargers from 1904 into the 1920s — and that they were used in both public and private garages. In the 1920s, GE replaced the large chargers with smaller Tungar chargers, Chris explains, that had an argon filled rectifier tube with a tungsten filament.



Gallery guide: Click on the small half-circles on the right and left side of the gallery to see more images. To magnify or reduce an image, click on it. Scroll over an image to see the caption. To see the largest view, click on the small paper icon with the arrow and view the photo in Flickr.

“The growing use of the electric automobile, with its many advantages of simplicity, ease of operation and noiselessness, has resulted in a demand for some means of conveniently charging the batteries.” While that quote sounds like part of a pitch for GE’s new WattStation EV charger, in fact, it’s taken directly from GE’s Bulletin No. 4772, published 100 years ago in September, 1910.

Click on the images below to read the 10-page “Electric Automobile Appliances” bulletin, which describes the EV chargers in detail and explains how they work. There’s also a bulletin from 1914, “Mercury Arc Rectifiers,” which notes that there were over 12,000 GE rectifiers being used to charge batteries for electric cars, steam railroad cars, and a variety of motors — everything from motion picture lamps to telephone stations — that year.



* Try out our interactive electric vehicle features, videos, and games

Learn more in these GE Reports stories:
* “GE unveils residential WattStation EV charger
* “Edison speaks! Cracking the pallophotophone code
* “GE & Better Place to partner on EV infrastructure
* “Unveiled: $200M challenge, EV charger, smart monitor
* “GE teams with Nissan on electric car smart charging
* “New York powers up with new GE battery plant

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