Des Moines and the Electric Car

Morrison Electric

Although we often think that electric cars are a new invention, they are really as old as the automobile itself. Even before Henry Ford put out his automobile there were some electric cars puttering around. But what might be even more surprising is that the first successful electric car was actually built in Des Moines, in 1888.

William Morrison grew up in Scotland but moved to Des Moines in 1880. He was a promising chemist with a fascination for electricity. In order to prove the capacity of the storage batteries he had created, he built an electric car to be powered by them. It was debuted at the Seni Om Sed parade in 1888, stunning the crowds, many of whom had never seen a "horseless carriage" before.

The vehicle had front wheel drive and could carry up to 12 passengers. It was powered by 24 storage batteries, each which weighed up to 32 pounds. They needed to be recharged every 50 miles and took 10 hours to charge, a complication that probably led to them not being mass-produced. Morrison did sell the patent to J.B. McDonald Co, in Chicago.  Morrison estimated that it cost him $21,000 to build the vehicle.

The car was exhibited in the Chicago World's Fair in 1893 but it wasn't only for show. In the evenings Morrison would charge the batteries and then zoom around Des Moines during the day, racing the streetcars. In 1895 a race was held between gasoline powered vehicles and other horseless carriages. Only two cars completed the 22 mile race. The winner, William Morrison with his electric car, at a top speed of 15 miles per hour.

Morrison himself was described as "quiet, mysterious, and at times pompous". He was known for carrying around large amounts of money in a cloth sack. One of his former associates once guessed that he had a half a million dollars on him at some periods of time, an extraordinary amount for that time (and even now). Morrison was less successful in his family life than his professional life. He married twice, both women dying young, the first of TB and the second of an unknown illness. He also had two sons, one with each wife, both of which died in infancy.

Morrison himself wasn't interested much in his car, just the electricity that he used to power it. He went on to build an electric motor boat, which he floated up the Des Moines River. He invented an electric gear shift and created numerous storage batteries. He is credited with over 20 patents for his electrical work. He moved out to California and  was working on some electric mining equipment when he died in 1927. Morrison's body was shipped back to Des Moines and he was laid to rest in Woodland Cemetery.

Additional Reading on William Morrison can be found in the Des Moines Register microfilm here at the Des Moines Public Library


"Auto Inventor Dies: Morrison, Old Resident, Makes First Electric Car", Des Moines Tribune, March 7, 1927

"Invention Here of First Electric Auto Amazed World in 1888", Des Moines Register, July 20, 1947

McClellan, Keith, "The Morrison Electric: Iowa's First Automobile", The Annals of Iowa, Spring 1963

Gatti, Ruth, "Des Moines Home to Pioneer Automakers", Des Moines Register, July 7, 1993

"D.M.'s Eldridge beat Henry Ford", Des Moines Register, June 5, 1996

"William Morrison", Des Moines Register, October 26, 2005


Photo from Western Electrician.