Albert Pope’s Amazing Automobiles
Ad for Pope’s bicycles and new electric car in The Hartford Courant, August 1902
Electric cars are an exciting new invention. But are they new? Did you know that the first electric cars were invented more than 100 years ago?
One of the largest electric carmakers was the Columbia Motor Car Company of Hartford, Connecticut. For a short time Hartford was the automobile capital of the world!
But this is a story of boom and bust.
Ad for Pope’s Columbia bicycle. Library of Congress
The company’s founder was Albert Augustus Pope. He was born in 1843 in Boston, Massachusetts. In 1876 he began manufacturing a new invention—the bicycle! Bicycles were a popular new way to get around.
Pope came to Hartford to build a bicycle factory. Hartford already had many factories. It had workers who knew how to make things.
Pope was a success for a while. Then he realized you could only go so far on a bicycle. He realized the “horseless carriage” would be the next big thing.
The automobile was invented in 1885 in Germany. In 1893 the first car was built in America. In 1896 Pope started the Columbia Electric Vehicle Company in his Hartford factory. It was one of the first car companies in America!
Pope hired Hiram Percy Maxim of Lynn, Massachusetts. Maxim was an inventor. He had added a motor to a Pope tricycle. Some call it the first motorcycle made in America. Pope hired him to work in Hartford.
Their first decision was what kind of motor to use: gas or electric. Pope preferred electric. He thought electric cars were better. They were cleaner, quieter, and more efficient than gas-powered cars.
Maxim went to work. He needed a motor. He found one at the Eddy Electric and Manufacturing Company in nearby Windsor. He needed a car body. He worked with the New Haven Carriage Company to design one.
Columbia Mark III Phaeton, Century Magazine
The Mark III was the first model ready for sale. The factory made 10 cars. In 1897 the first one was sold. The Mark III was a success!
By 1899 Pope’s company had become the largest employer in New England. It produced 2,092 cars that year. It produced several different models.
President Roosevelt riding in Pope’s electric car. The driver is driving from the back seat (on the right). The police are riding Pope’s Columbia bicycles. 1902. Connecticut Historical Society
In 1902 President Theodore Roosevelt became the first president to ride in an automobile. He rode in a Pope electric car! It seemed like Pope Manufacturing Company was on top of the world. What could possibly go wrong?
By 1909 Columbia Electric Vehicle Co. was ruined. Pope died that year a poor man, and Maxim was a gun designer. What had happened?
Pope’s cars were amazing machines. But they were expensive. Electricity was still a new technology. Not many people had electricity in their homes. Only people in cities had electricty to charge their cars.
Pope Hartford car, c. 1910. By then Pope was also making gas-powered cars. Connecticut Historical Society
Pope also now had competition. Detroit, Michigan was becoming the gasoline-powered car capital of the world. The Ford Motor Company introduced its Model T car in 1908. The Model T was small and inexpensive. More people could afford to buy it. Gasoline was easier for people to get.
Pope’s company started making gas-powered cars. But by 1912 the Pope Manufacturing Company had closed.
Pope’s legacy lives on. In 1997 the electric Toyota Prius went on sale in Japan. In 2003 a group of engineers founded Tesla, Inc. Electric cars are now made in the U.S. once more. Tesla has sold over 200,000 electric cars. But Teslas are expensive. Not everyone can afford them.
The two leading American automakers are Ford and General Motors Company. They have started producing less expensive electric cars.
Meanwhile Tesla founder Elon Musk is creating new innovations on electric vehicles every day. Who knows what the future holds for electric vehicles?
This story is based on an essay by Bobby Shipman.
“The Horseless Carriage Arrives,” Connecticut Explored, Spring 2005
“Roosevelt Rides in an Electric Car,” Connecticuthistory.org
“Albert Augustus Pope, Transportation Pioneer,” Connecticuthistory.org
“Connecticut’s Original Electric Car,” August 2017, Connecticut Magazine
“Who Invented the Automobile,” Library of Congress’s Everyday Mysteries website
Additional primary sources:
Visit Wikimedia Commons’s website and search for Columbia Automobiles. You’ll see more pictures, including some cars that are in museums.
Columbia Electric Vehicle Company advertisement, 1901
Ad in The Hartford Courant, 1910
Story in The Hartford Courant, 1910
“Tourist’s Manual of Bicyclery,” a book published by Pope Manufacturing Company to teach people how to enjoy bicycling, 1892. Library of Congress