IN WHAT MAY HAVE BEEN THE FIRST attempt at an electric car, Scottish inventor Robert Anderson built a “crude electric carriage” in the mid- to late 1830s. It didn't get far. For one thing, its battery wasn't good enough. (Today's green car engineers can sympathize.) It also faced stiff competition from steam-powered cars.

When rechargable batteries started to appear in the mid-1800s, electric vehicles got a fillip. In 1897 the Electric Carriage and Wagon Company in Philadelphia assembled a fleet of electric-powered taxis for New York City. By 1902 the Pope Manufacturing Company in Hartford, Conn., had built around 900 electric vehicles, most of which were used as cabs. That same year Studebaker, which had gotten its start in horse-drawn wagons, entered the car market in Indiana with an electric model. Through the early 1900s electric vehicles ran smoother and quieter than their gas-guzzling, internal-combustion-engine-powered rivals.

Where the electric car stumbled was range—it couldn't go far between rechargings. By 1920 gas-powered rivals emerged as the clear winner, a twist of history that engineers are now working furiously to undo.