Bersey cab goes on display at the Science Museum
By Will Dron on July 2, 2012 3:47 PM
Electric cars aren’t exactly new kids on the block – the first examples appeared around the mid-1800s and by the turn of the 20th century, as many electric vehicles were sold as petrol or steam-powered cars. In fact, in 1899 and 1900, electric cars outsold gasoline cars in North America.
Electric cars offered a number of attractive qualities compared to petrol cars of the day – greater reliability, no vibrations or exhaust gases, and no noise to frighten passing horses. Another major advantage, prior to the invention of the electric starter motor, was that electric cars didn’t need a crank handle, which could whip around and hit the unfortunate operator. Cars such as 1909 Baker Electric, one of which is owned by Jay Leno, were particularly popular with women drivers for this reason.
EVs appealed for commercial as well as private use; in 1897, electric taxis began operating on both sides of the Atlantic. In New York, a fleet of electric cabs was established, built by the Electric Carriage and Wagon Company of Philadelphia, while in the same year, 12 electric Bersey taxis began to operate out of Lambeth in London.
Walter Bersey’s taxi was the city’s first self-propelled vehicle for hire, according to Selina Hurley of the Science Museum, London, where the car has just been put on display as part of the new ‘Climate Changing Stories’ exhibition. In a city with more than 11,000 horse-drawn cabs, catching a lift in the Bersey would have been quite a novelty.
The way in which it was recharged was also novel; more than 100 years before Better Place launched its first electric car battery swapping station in Israel, the London Electrical Cab Company was utilising a similar system in London. Bersey taxis returned to base when their power got low, and by way of a hydraulic lifting system the tired battery could be replaced with a full one in a matter of minutes.
However, with the Bersey’s operating range of around 30 miles, drivers had to carefully plan their routes to make sure they didn’t run out of power on the road. Of course, 30 miles will get you quite far around London; according to Transport for London, the average taxi trip today is just 3.2 miles. A trip to Croydon and back shouldn’t have bothered the Bersey boys – though at a top speed of 12mph, it would have taken an hour of non-stop motoring to get there.
With steady custom for his intriguing contraptions, Walter Bersey grew his cab fleet to 75 vehicles over the following two years, but their running costs were out of control. According to Wired, an expensive project saw the company generating its own electricity, while the tyres disintegrated under the weight of the vehicles and needed to be replaced regularly. The company lost £6,200 in its first year and was forced to suspend operations in 1899.
Of the 75 cars that were in operation, it is believed the Science Museum’s example is the only one remaining. According to a spokesperson for the museum, until now the car has been kept in storage at the museum’s Swindon storage hangars, and this is the first time the car has been put on display to the public.
The Climate Changing Stories exhibition opened on 27 June 2012, and will run for two years. From the museum website:
“Climate Changing Stories is new free display that combines science, imagination, artefacts and art with different time periods and perspectives to give a long view of our ever-evolving planet.
“From the climate of 19th century London to science fiction inspired visions of the future, to wind turbines and the almost obsolete incandescent light bulb, the exhibition will take visitors on a fascinating journey through some of the Museum's best-loved galleries to discover objects and stories that reflect the human capacity to adapt to the challenges of our climate changing world.”
Photo credit: Press Association / Science Museum