“Its possibilities are simply boundless”

 This was the reply given by Walter C Bersey when asked what he thought were the possibilities of the electric carriage in 1898.

Mr Bersey became an Associate Member of the Institution of Electrical Engineers (now the Institution of Engineering and Technology) in December 1895 in addition to other professional organisations. The following year he founded and was General Manager of the London Electric Cab Company.

The IET Archives is fortunate to have a copy of his publication titled, ‘Electrically Propelled Carriages’ dated 1898. Bersey developed several electrically propelled carriages himself and these are mentioned in the book as well as the carriages of other manufacturers. It is this publication that forms the basis of this blog as we look at what electric vehicles were like at the turn of the twentieth century.

Technology of the future

By 1898 electricity was a burgeoning technology harnessed for power and communication. Bersey was a visionary who saw a future of vehicles powered by electricity. He advocated the use of electricity as safe, clean, reliable and efficient over current modes of transport (horse-drawn carriages, steam or petrol) and how the technology was developing to improve transportation to unprecedented levels.

Bersey was working at an exciting time when technology was advancing to utilise electricity. Bersey propounded the minimal environmental impact of electric vehicles without compromising on luxury. Today, with the need to find alternative low carbon technologies to create a safe, reliable and an enjoyable travel experience those arguments for electric vehicles are even stronger.

Walter Charles Bersey

NAEST 045 545 - Pt1 - Page 02 cropAbove: Portrait of Walter Charles Bersey from his publication ‘Electrically Propelled Carriages’ 1898.

Walter Charles Bersey was born in London in 1874. He was an electrical engineer and trained at the Finsbury College of Engineering, attending courses given by Silvanus P. Thompson, who was also President of the IEE in 1899.

Paving the way for his invention Bersey patented an improvement in electrically operated road vehicles to allow horse-drawn vehicles to be adapted for electric propulsion in 1894. In 1896, with Desmond Gerald Fitzgerald, he patented “improvements in voltaic batteries” which used dry materials to avoid the problem of electrolyte sloshing. By 1893-1899 Bersey had designed electric buses, cars, and cabs in London.

Bersey’s electrically propelled carriages

Bersey’s electric carriage of 1898 was designed larger than the familiar single-seated broughams and with more glass than usual. The windows across the front, which were made to open, and the extra side windows made the carriage pleasant to look at and ride in. Luxury was not spared with upholstered leather seats, electric lights both inside and out, rubber tyres and spring cushions. Unlike the hansom carriages of the day where the driver’s seat was at the back to allow passengers an unrestricted view, the driver’s seat of the electric carriage was placed at the front. This was for reasons of safety as the driver of a motor carriage must be able to see the ground immediately in front. To allow for this change in appearance the dash-board was rounded so that it did not look incomplete without the horse in front.

The electric current was supplied by accumulators placed underneath the vehicle. They were contained within a single tray which was suspended from the main framework thereby allowing it to be detached and replaced within minutes. The accumulators consisted of 40 cells and were capable of propelling the carriage over 50 miles. The motor was of three horse-power and sat in the rear of the carriage and was connected by gearing to a counter shaft and then by driving chains to the hind wheels of the cab.

NAEST 045 545 - Pt1 - Page 40 - im 11Above: One of the London Electrical Cab Company’s cabs running in London.

The best designs are often the most simple and Bersey’s cab was no different. It was reported in several newspapers that anybody could learn to drive his invention. On the left-hand side of the driver’s seat was a lever handle; when the carriage moved this handle was to be pushed forward and the more forward it moved the faster the vehicle moved – from 1 mile to 10 miles an hour. The driver’s right hand was occupied with a wheel – a new invention then but one we immediately recognise now as the steering wheel. A brake pedal was under the right foot; once this was applied the electric current was cut off. By comparison to horse-drawn carriages this was far more reliable as the break was more powerful and the driver could reverse the motor if needed but most importantly it eliminated the unpredictability of a horse. Another new concept was a special ‘plug’ or key that was in the possession of the driver. Without this key it was impossible for anyone to move the carriage. This was another great advantage of the newly designed carriage.

The electric carriages had the following advantages over the current steam or oil engines as reported by Bersey:

“No coal, no smoke, no ashes, no water, no steam, no noise, no vibration, no danger, no smell, and considerably less trouble in management, less cost, less risk, less liability to derangement, a few hundredweight instead of a few tons to move along.”

The early examples of rechargeable batteries were described by the Reverend T.C. Collings when he went to inspect and test drive some of the motor cars on the same day that HRH the Price of Wales also visited the Motor Car Club.

“Instead of using an ordinary fluid electrolyte, a special “affluidic” or “dry” material is used, thus practically converting the cell into a dry battery. The many advantages of this are obvious, among others being the impossibility of spilling, splashing, and spraying off and in the carriage…Re-charging can be effected wherever the electric light is used. The accumulators are carried in a tray, which slides into a well in the vehicle, and a fresh set can be substituted for a discharged one in two minutes; the discharged one can be re-charged by passing the electric current through the cells in two or three hours.”
The Prince of Wales on a Motor Car’ by Rev. T.C.Collings, 1896.

NAEST 045 545 - Pt1 - Page 49 - im 14Above: The Charging Gallery at the London Electrical Cab Company’s depot.

Bersey first exhibited his electric motor cars at the South Kensington motor show of 1896. There he impressed visitors with 12 electric cabs and these later appeared on the roads of London on 19 August 1897.

In order for the taxis to be allowed on the road Scotland Yard had to issue them with a special license provided they met four conditions:

  1. Each vehicle had to be accompanied by a driver
  2. The drivers were able to stop the carriage on demand
  3. The cab could turn in a small space
  4. The cab could climb the steepest hill in London – our very own Savoy Hill located directly behind the IET’s London home – Savoy Place!

NAEST 045 545 - Pt1 - Page 43 - im 12Above: Licensing the first electric cab at Scotland Yard.

Unfortunately despite all the advantages that came with an electric vehicle back in the late nineteenth century their success was short lived. The noise, vibration and the heavy weight of the vehicles meant that they were not as an attractive option as previously anticipated. Two years after their inauguration the Bersey taxis were removed from the streets of London but Walter Bersey continued to design and develop his ideas and created a range of private electric vehicles. As far as we know none are known to have survived except in the photographs in archive collections.

Featured image at top of blog: Electrical Phaeton – constructed March 1896 on behalf of the Universal Electrical Carriage Syndicate of which Mr Bersey was Managing Director and Engineer. This carriage ran at the International Exhibition of Horseless Carriages, London [1896] and was pronounced the finest carriage at the Exhibition.

By Asha Gage, IET Archivist