Nothing new under the sun

It always amuses me as a seasoned electric boat historian when on Facebook or a beautifully designed website, a startup ignorantly claims a “world first” for an innovation in electric boating.


1)The first electric passenger boat with a primary battery was tested by Moritz Herman Jakobi in Saint Petersburg, Imperial Russia as long ago as 1836 although as they briefly cruised along the River Neva the passengers were nearly asphyxiated by the fumes given off by the Elektrokod..
2)The first two-seater electric boat whose outboard engine was powered by a rechargeable battery, called Le Téléphone after a new invention, was seen in 1881 on the River Seine in Paris, helmed by her inventor, a modest electrical engineer, called Gustave Trouvé. Trouvé fitted subsequent models with an electric horn and a frontal headlight.
3)The first sailing boat with an auxiliary electric motor was tested in 1892 by Mr Kerbey Bowen of Ray Mead Works, Maidenhead-on-Thames.
4)The first fleet of electric passenger boats were in service at the World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago in 1893: 55 electric launches, each 36ft (11 m) long, made 66,975 trips during the six and a half months of the exposition, carrying 1,026,346 passengers 200,925 miles (323,357 km) and earning $314,000 for the World’s Fair organizers.
5)The first hybrid-electric cabin cruiser, Mansura, was developed by Jack Delmar-Morgan at Taylor & Bates boatyard in Chertsey on Thames and cruised offshore between 1909 and 1939.
6)The first series-produced electric outboard engine, the Accumot, was built and sold by the Preinerstorfer brothers of Gmunden, Upper Austria, from the late 1940s; it came complete with its own recharging device.
7)Although in 1965, Siemens R&D had equipped a boat called Eta with fuel cell propulsion system and demonstrated it on a pond at their Erlangen Research Center in Bavaria.
8)The first solar-powered catamaran, Solar Craft I was built by a retired British Rail engineer, Mr Alan T. Freeman and tested on the Rugby Canal between 1975 and 1978.
9)The EBA, the first electric boat association was founded in May 1982 and is still going strong.
The only thing which held back the renaissance of electric boats, ships and all forms of transport was the limited battery energy of the lead acid battery. Indeed it was not until the commercialisation of the lithium-ion battery, over a decade ago, that things began to change and have not stopped changing ever since.

Kevin Desmond published his first article about electric boats in 1979 and soon after was invited to join a tiny group of enthusiasts who co-founded the Electric Boat Association. He was Chairman of the EBA from 1987 to 1991. He is currently President of the EBA and still enjoys researching and writing books from his home near Bordeaux France. The most recent is a series of tomes about the history of electric transport: Electric Boats and Ships, Electric Airplanes and Drones, Electric Bicycles and Motorbikes, Electric Trucks, Electric Farm Equipment and Electric Buses. Kevin is also founder of VeniceAgenda2028.org, a mission to convert Venice’s entire fleet of motorboats (vaporetti, taxis, etc) to zero electric propulsion by the year 2028.

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