Quantcast
Energy
An electric bus in London. Domdomegg / Wikimedia Commons

Electric Bus Was Killed Off 100 Years Ago

By Kieran Cooke

The electric bus would have let Londoners enjoy clean air early in the twentieth century, saving millions of people from breathing problems and premature death, but dishonesty and double-dealing promoted the internal combustion engine instead.

The world is only now slowly waking up to the scale of the problem. Air pollution caused by fumes from the hundreds of thousands of vehicles on our roads is one of the big killers of the modern age, especially in cities, and is, along with climate change, a serious threat to the future of the planet.


It is not just fast-growing cities like Beijing or Delhi that are reeling from the effects of vehicle pollution.

At least 40,000 deaths in London each year are attributed to outdoor air pollution, much of it the result of the noxious fumes emitted from internal combustion engine-driven cars, trucks and buses, particularly those fueled by diesel.

Yet, as investigative journalist Mick Hamer wrote in his excellent new book A Most Deliberate Swindle, much of this pollution could have been avoided.

More than a century ago the technology existed for electric vehicles, hailed today as one of the main ways to tackle the urban pollution crisis. The adoption of a revolutionary vehicle called the electrobus could have ushered in an age of clean transport and clean air.

Hamer tells the story of how a massive fraud of shareholders and various other scurrilous activities acted as a severe brake on the development of electric transport.

"One thing is pretty certain," wrote Hamer. "The electric vehicle wouldn't have been stuck in the doldrums for a century, and today's electric revival wouldn't have had to start from zero.

Petrol's Moment

"Our cities could have been a whole lot cleaner, healthier and quieter. The electrobus swindle didn't just impoverish the shareholders of Edwardian England. We were all robbed."

Turn the clock back to 1906, when the age of horse-drawn public transport is gradually coming to an end in the United Kingdom. A number of petrol-fueled buses are on London's streets. They are noisy and smelly—some of them catch fire. They are prone to breakdown.

The electrobus—powered by batteries—is noiseless, emits no fumes and is more reliable. Its backers say it's also cheaper to run than petrol vehicles.

This was the age of the entrepreneurial investor, a time when members of the public were caught up in a rush to become shareholders in all manner of get-rich-quick schemes—from gold mines in the Amazon to rubber plantations in Malaya.

Shares in Demand

The public fell over itself to buy shares in the London Electrobus Company and what was considered to be "the aristocrat among public conveyances."

The problem was that while the basic idea of the bus was sound, the people behind it were not. Hamer lists a colorful cast of devious characters—headed by a German-born lawyer and including the nephew of the Greek prime minister and his astrologer, a music hall artist, a crooked judge and a gunrunner.

Shareholders were systematically deceived by "solicitors and accountants who could not be trusted to add up the pennies in a child's piggy bank."

"On top of the fraud, bribery and blackmail, there was champagne, sex, juicy divorce cases, a drunken brawl and motoring derring-do. This was no longer a simple story about an electric bus."

Some electrobuses did run on London's streets. Harrods, the fashionable department store, used electric delivery vans till 1918.

In 1911 a fleet of 17 electric and hybrid buses was running in Brighton, on England's south coast, but by then the London Electrobus Company—wracked by court cases and press exposés of its fraudulent goings-on—had gone into liquidation.

Boost for Oil

Along with Henry Ford's model T car, internal combustion-powered buses were starting to be mass-produced, and costs dropped. Oil consumption grew dramatically.

Perhaps the air would be a lot better today if it weren't for those fraudsters of more than 100 years ago.

"If battery power worked for buses then other vehicles might have followed suit," said Hamer.

"In the grand scheme of things, the failure of an electric bus may seem trivial, but it led ultimately to the failure of electric delivery vehicles," Hamer added.

"The result was a resounding victory for the internal combustion engine, which in turn established acceptable levels of noise and pollution. We still hear and breathe these consequences today."

Reposted with permission from our media associate Climate News Network.

Show Comments ()
Sponsored
Popular

Earth Day Tips From the EcoWatch Team

At EcoWatch, every day is Earth Day. We don't just report news about the environment—we aim to make the world a better place through our own actions. From conserving water to cutting waste, here are some tips and tricks from our team on living mindfully and sustainably.

Lorraine Chow, reporter

Favorite Product: Dr. Bronner's Castile soap

It's Earth-friendly, lasts for months and can be used as soap, shampoo, all-purpose cleaner and even mouthwash (but I wouldn't recommend that).

Keep reading... Show less
Popular
Will Rose / Greenpeace

7 Things You Can Do to Create a Plastic-Free Future

By Jen Fela

We're celebrating a huge moment in the global movement for a plastic-free future: More than one million people around the world have called on big corporations to do their part to end single-use plastics.

Now we're taking the next big step. We're setting an ambitious new goal: A Million Acts of Blue.

Keep reading... Show less
Popular

5 Environmental Victories to Inspire You This Earth Day

Planet Earth is at a crisis point. Researchers say we have to begin reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 2020 if we want to meet the temperature goals outlined in the Paris agreement and avoid catastrophic climate change.

The work to be done can seem overwhelming. A survey published this week found that only 6 percent of Americans think we will succeed in reducing global warming.

Keep reading... Show less
Animals
A fin whale surfacing in Greenland. Aqqa Rosing-Asvid / CC BY 2.0

Iceland to Resume Killing Endangered Fin Whales

By Kitty Block

Iceland seems to be the most confused of nations when it comes to whales. On the one hand it attracts international tourists from all over the world to go out and see whales as part of their encounters with Iceland's many natural wonders. On the other hand it kills whales for profit, with some portion of the kill even being fed to some of the same tourists in restaurants and cafes.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Climate
A.millepora in the Great Barrier Reef. Petra Lundgren, Juan C Vera, Lesa Peplow, Stephanie Manel and Madeleine JH van Oppen

Hope for Great Barrier Reef? New Study Shows Genetic Diversity of Coral Could Extend Our Chance to Save It

A study published Wednesday had some frightening news for the Great Barrier Reef—the iconic marine ecosystem is at "unprecedented" risk of collapse due to climate change after a 2016 heat wave led to the largest mass coral bleaching event in the reef's history.

Keep reading... Show less
Business
Lyft

Lyft Announces Carbon Neutrality Drive

Lyft will make all of its rides carbon neutral starting immediately by investing millions of dollars in projects that offset its emissions, the company announced Thursday.

The ridesharing service, which is part of the We Are Still coalition, provides more than 10 million rides worldwide each week. "We feel immense responsibility for the profound impact that Lyft will have on our planet," founders John Zimmer and Logan Green wrote in a Medium post.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Renewable Energy
Scroby Sands Wind Farm. Martin Pettitt / Flickr

UK Goes 55 Hours Without Coal Power, Breaking Record

Coal, which was once king in Great Britain, has continued its evident decline.

Absolutely zero coal was used to generate energy in UK power stations between 10:25 p.m. on Monday until 5:10 a.m. on Thursday, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. That's a history-making run of 55 hours.

Keep reading... Show less
Popular

Indonesia Calls in the Army to Fight Plastic Enemy

In March, a diver's video of masses of plastic floating off the Indonesian coast went viral. But that plastic often reaches the ocean through the country's rivers, clogging them to such an extent that Indonesia had to call in the army, the BBC reported Thursday.

The BBC spent time on the ground in Bandung, Indonesia's third largest city, and observed a concentration of bottles, plastic bags and styrofoam packaging so large it looked like an iceberg.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored

mail-copy

The best of EcoWatch, right in your inbox. Sign up for our email newsletter!