It happened today - September 7, 2015

Buy a Riker - 1900 adThen there’s the electric car, vehicle of the future, which first showed its true potential on September 7 of, um, oh my, 1896, when it won the first auto race ever held in the United States, at a mile-long dirt Narragansett Trotting Park in Cranston, Rhode Island.

The race was a huge hit, as people eagerly cheered on the various strange contraptions lurching round the track including steam-powered ones. Well, why not? It was the industry standard, powering the locomotives and paddle-wheelers and ocean-going freighters and liners that had Victorians gaga about the “wonders of the steam age.”

The first ever steam car thundered through the streets of Paris back in 1770 at a death-defying two miles an hour. And by 1906 the famous Stanley Steamer would hit 127 miles an hour. Though steam cars had a disconcerting habit of breaking down or blowing up, which consumers especially disliked.

As for electric cars, well, they sure started strong. The Riker Electric Motor Company’s car came first at Narragansett Trotting Park, and the other battery-powered car came second, before some 60,000 spellbound spectators. It’s worth bearing in mind as electric cars become all the rage again, and especially given the kind of conspiracy theories that swirl around alternate energy and other technologies supposedly suppressed by the big corporations.

Don’t believe conspiracy theories. If electric cars had worked better, they’d have been the foundation of the big corporations and gas would be a sideline whose enthusiasts would be muttering about monopolies crushing innovation. But the fact is petroleum distillates were a superior way of powering the horseless carriage and prevailed in open competition. At one point a third of all cars on U.S. roads were electric but gas engines kept getting better in a way that batteries just didn’t.

Of course technology can form a cul-de-sac. The excellence of gasoline as a fuel might have led us all into an environmentally and economically unsustainable system. But if so, fear not as long as human ingenuity is allowed to find alternatives. Fear only if government won’t let it.

If the state had been in charge in 1896, they’d almost certainly have mandated steam-powered cars, and we’d be filling up with coal every couple of dozen miles and waiting half an hour for the boiler to get hot enough to get moving.

The day of the electric car may yet come. But it’s been a long time getting here considering how fast it went in 1896.

It happened todayJohn Robson