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America on the Move
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Columbia electric automobile
Catalog #: 310,575, Accession #: 123,348
In collection
From the Smithsonian Collection

The accession memo for this automobile describes it as "A Columbia electric buggy of about 1903-1906." This description reflects how many early automobile designs were firmly rooted in the carriage tradition. Although electric powered, this vehicle would not look out of place on a street full of horse-drawn carriages. Dr. J. O. Skinner used the car from 1906 to 1931. Doctors bought automobiles early and in relatively large numbers since they needed transportation for making house calls and they thought cars were an improvement on the horse. The car was donated to the Smithsonian by the daughter of the user in 1933.

The car, a Columbia Mark LX electric runabout, was made by the Electric Vehicle Co. of Hartford, Conn. That company had its roots in the Electric Carriage and Wagon Co. and the Pope Motor Carriage Co., part of the Pope Manufacturing Co., a successful bicycle manufacturer. Pope, like a number of other bicycle manufacturers, got into the car business in the late 1890s.

Although the company produced electric vehicles, it bought the patent rights for the infamous Selden patent and tried to sue the Winton Motor Carriage Co. in 1900 for infringement of the rights. A group of automobile manufacturers agreed to pay under the Selden patent claim, but some held out and challenged the patent through the courts. After more than a decade, and due in part to the intransigence of Henry Ford, the Selden patent was declared "valid but not infringed," effectively making it a dead issue. By that time the Electric Vehicle Co. has already folded, and the Columbia make of automobiles disappeared in 1912.

Physical Description

This vehicle’s total weight is 1,200 pounds. Its wheelbase is 64 inches; its tread is 48 inches; and its artillery-type wheels are 24 inches in diameter. The vehicle was designed to have as little deadweight as possible, to allow for a larger battery and a heavier motor. Two box-like compartments in the body held the battery equipment. The batteries, 20 two-volt cells, had a capacity of 120 ampere hours at a 30-ampere discharge rate. There are no batteries in the car now. The motor is believed to have been made by General Electric Co. and is of 6-pole construction, completely enclosed, and rated at 30 amperes at 40 volts. The motor is beneath the seat. Apparently, the car’s maximum speed was 15 miles per hour, and it could go about 40 miles on a single charge.

The frame is made of oak sills with steel reinforcement. The body is made of wood, and the fenders are of leather stretched over a metal frame. The folding top is made of leatherette. Step plates are attached to each side of the car. The owner added kerosene lights and a Stewart speedometer to the car during the time he owned it. The car is steered by means of a lever at the driver’s left. A single controller handle, also on the left, governed the vehicle's direction and speed. The controller handle moved in two slots separated by an offset. The forward slot gave three forward speeds, the rear slot two backing speeds.

Date Made:
Gift of Mrs. Sewell M. Johnson

When automobiles first began to make a mark on the American transportation scene, it was not clear how they would be used or how they would be powered. Steam power had a proven track record in the nineteenth century, and both gasoline and electricity were relatively untried fuel sources. Still, inventors and companies made vehicles using all three types of power. Each had its limitations; steam-powered vehicles were slow to start and could explode. Early gasoline-powered cars were noisy, hard to start, used a flammable fuel source, and needed constant maintenance. Early electric vehicles could only go for about 40 or 50 miles on their batteries, but they made up an important segment of the market for early cars since they were easier to start, drive, and maintain than their gasoline-powered counterparts.

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