May 13: Pope Manufacturing Co. Debuts Electric Automobile in 1897

 

On this date in 1897, outside his factory in Hartford, successful bicycle manufacturer Albert Augustus Pope unveiled what he considered to be the future of the automobile industry: the battery-powered Columbia Motor Carriage.  It was the first demonstration of a mass-produced electric car in American history.

A photocopy of the May 14, 1897 coverage of the Columbia Motor Carriage demonstration, from the Hartford Courant.

Weighing in at 1800 pounds and reaching a top speed of 15 miles per hour, the Columbia Motor Carriage thrilled crowds of onlookers as it effortlessly powered up steeply-inclined city roads, unhindered by muddy road conditions resulting from an earlier storm.  The next day, the Hartford Courant published a rave review of the vehicle under the headline “HORSELESS ERA COMES,” noting that even first-time drivers could “manage and turn [the vehicles] about with as much comfort and success as they would have in driving the gentlest horse.”

Pope, a Civil War veteran who made his fortune as head of the largest bicycle manufacturing company in the United States, had founded the Columbia Electric Vehicle Company in Hartford only a year earlier, in 1896. A true pioneer of the early American automotive industry, Pope firmly believed the future of transportation lay in self-propelled carriages powered by electricity, not gasoline.  Electric cars were much quieter, cleaner, and safer than their gas-powered counterparts, and most cities could supply residents with the electricity they needed to recharge the Columbia Motor Carriage’s four massive batteries by the dawn of the 20th century. For the next several years, Pope’s factories produced the lion’s share of American automobiles, with his creations totaling nearly half of all U.S. car production in 1899.

Pope’s automotive success, however, was relatively short-lived. Electricity was a pricey commodity, and most rural areas didn’t have access to an electrical grid, limiting the appeal of electric cars to anyone who didn’t live near a city center or could afford an expensive utilities bill.  Furthermore, technological advances in the earliest years of the 20th century rendered internal combustion engines much safer and cheaper than ever before, resulting in cheaper gasoline-powered cars overtaking the automobile market.  Even after several attempts to adjust to market demand — including dramatically increasing production of gas-powered vehicles — Pope couldn’t compete with automobile factories like Ford that had solely invested in gas-powered cars from the beginning, and the Columbia Electric Vehicle Company (since renamed the Columbia Motor Car Company) folded in 1912.

A 1904 Columbia Electric Runabout on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

Further Reading

Gregg Mangan, “Albert Augustus Pope, Transportation Pioneer,” connecticuthistory.org

Dave Corrigan, “The Horseless Era Arrives,” Connecticut Explored