By the start of the 1890s a number of inventors were seeking to replace the horse and wagon with what at the time was termed a “motor carriage”. The power of liquid water, long used to turn waterwheels for powering mills, when heated to its gaseous state where it’s power could be increased more than one hundred-fold, was harnessed in the 18th century with the steam engine. By the late 19th century, the steam engine’s well understood technology was a natural choice to serve as a mobile power source for motor carriage propulsion. Unfortunately steam engines and their associated boiler were massively heavy and not easily utilized for mobile power applications as evidenced by the steam traction engines in use at the time.
The properties of electricity and magnetism were beginning to become well understood in the middle of the 19th century. Masses of moving electrons had been harnessed to generate power within the electric motor and when electron movement was restricted in a controlled manner with a thread of vulcanized and carbonized cotton, the kerosene lamp was replaced by the incandescent lamp.
Roughly in parallel with understanding electricity and magnetism, the steam engine had been mechanically modified with a different valve arrangement and the addition of an electrically generated spark to create power from a combustible liquid fuel that could be vaporized. These hit-and-miss internal combustion engines became popular in the late 19th century replacing waterwheels and steam engines as power sources as these internal combustion engines harnessed the power of a liquid fuel directly without conversion to steam or relying on gravity.
With continued improvement of steam engines and the development of electric motors and internal combustion engines, the replacement of a horse team moving a vehicle became an interesting problem to solve. Applying a more economical and powerful mechanical power source to a moving wagon might lead to the retirement of horses as power sources. While Nicolas Joseph Cugnot built a prototype steam powered vehicle in 1769, it was not a vehicle for practical use. Oliver Evans of Newport, DE developed the high-pressure steam engine and used it to power an amphibious vehicle in Philadelphia by 1805 demonstrating a more useful harnessing of steam power.
Both Gottlieb Daimler and Karl Benz, working independently in the early 1880s, applied internal combustion engine designs to wagons and are credited as inventing what we term the automobile. As both the hit-and-miss internal combustion engine and the steam engine and boiler came with severe weight penalties in their application, ‘accumulators’ (what batteries were initially called) and electric motors were lighter weight power sources becoming the most practical and logical solution to power a vehicle.
The first electric cars were publicly demonstrated in the early 1880s in Paris, France. William Morrison of Des Moines, IA demonstrated a six-passenger electrically propelled wagon in 1891. In 1895 Andrew L. Riker’s Riker Motor Vehicle Company of Elizabeth NJ introduced the first electric powered tricycles in the U.S. At the very beginning of the 20th century, in 1901, Ferdinand Porsche combined the idea of an internal combustion hit-and-miss engine with batteries, and electric motors powering each of the vehicle’s wheels, to invent the first hybrid powered car.
The electric car reigned as the #1 technology choice for the first decade of the 1900s. The first car rental businesses in the U.S. were electric car rentals where drivers could rent an electric car for a few hours, by the week or month, or by the mile driven. Taxi services in cities such as Boston, New York, Trenton Philadelphia, and Washington DC operated fleets of vehicles within city limits where company depots could swap out a tray of discharged lead-acid batteries; replacing them with a freshly charged tray in a few minutes. Charging stations were abundant at hotels, and other locations around a large city. Maps, similar to the 1923 Edison Electric map pictured, indicated locations for public charging station locations and were prominently available.
In the U.S. in 1900 there were 4,192 vehicles registered. Steam powered Locomobiles accounted for a majority of the 1,681 steam vehicles registered. In second place were mostly Columbia electric vehicles with 1,575 registered according to the U.S. Census. There were 936 internal-combustion engine powered vehicles, mostly Wintons, registered. While the registration of steam vehicles would maintain steam power as the top automotive technology in use, by 1903 fleets of electric vehicles were being sold to taxi companies and Stanley designed steam cars (Locomobile, Mobile, & Stanley) no longer boasted being the top selling vehicle design. Both increasing electric vehicle registrations, and a few years later, increasing Ford internal combustion engine vehicle registrations, slowly chipped away at steam’s supremacy as the premier automotive power source.
By 1912 the U.S. had the most electric cars in operation of any country with 33,842 registered across the country. In that same year steam vehicles accounted for 40% (13,535) of the registered vehicles in the U.S. Electric vehicles were the second most popular technology with 38% (12,860) of registered U.S. automobiles electric motor propelled. The remaining 22% (7,447) were internal combustion engine powered and fueled with either gasoline or kerosene. With the start of World War I, the internal combustion engine established itself as the preferred automotive power technology. By 1935 both steam and electric vehicles were relegated to storage as a former novelty forms of transportation or had long since been scrapped.
These turn-of-the-century vehicles often had colloquial names. Stanley steamers were often called “Flying Teapots” due to their steam vapor trails and speed. Vehicles powered by a hit-and-miss or internal combustion engine were often called “2-bangers”, “3-bangers”, or equivalent number of ‘bangers’ depending on the number of cylinders the engine possessed. What was the colloquial name for an early electrically propelled carriage?
The commutating of carbon brushes against copper armature bars within a DC motor gave the devices, and hence the vehicle, an idiosyncratic combination of humming and whining sounds that was unique to hear as the vehicle passed by. Electric cars flying past pedestrians on city streets were soon referred to as “Hummingbirds” due to the quiet hummingbird-like sound they produced.
With the advent of brushless polyphase alternating-current electric motor technologies used in today’s hybrid and electric cars, most electric vehicles manufactured before 2019 are absolutely quiet; even quieter than the world speed recording holding flying teapot! This resulted in people stepping in front of moving hybrid and electric cars at intersections and in parking lots because they literally didn’t perceive the vehicle moving towards them. As electric vehicles became more prominent in the 21st century pedestrians stuck by a vehicle accident rates increased dramatically.
In 2010 Congress passed a law requiring the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to define sounds to be emitted by a vehicle anytime it was in motion. People heard an internal combustion powered vehicles and knew they were running and might move at any time. A similar auditory signal would be required of electric vehicles. In 2016 the Obama Administration and U.S. Department of Transportation finalized “Quiet Car” rules requiring all new electric or hybrid cars to emit distinctive sound(s) whenever the vehicle was moving at speeds less than 18.6 miles per hour. This year, 2021, all manufactured cars sold in the U.S. are required to emit cautionary sound(s) when moving slowly, forward or in reverse.
While no automobile manufacturer has chosen to replicate the early 20th century DC motor hummingbird sound, the Quiet Car Rules do allow manufacturers freedom to tailor the sound or sounds they wish to use. The following link provides examples of the various sounds some current manufacturers have chosen.