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Primary Sources in the Science Classroom: Electric Cars, Energy, and Engineering

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This post was co-written by Trey Smith, the Library of Congress 2015-16 Science Teacher in Residence, and Josh Sneideman, 2013-15 Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellow.

“Good bye, horses!” shouted the St. Paul Daily Globe in 1892. At the end of the 19th century, advances in science, engineering, and technology resulted in a revolution in transportation. Historical primary sources offer opportunities for students to consider energy and engineering principles related to electric cars from a century ago.

Electric auto at re-charging station, 1919
Electric auto at re-charging station, 1919

Good Bye Horses. St Paul Daily Globe, August 11, 1892.
Good Bye Horses. St Paul Daily Globe, August 11, 1892.

Begin a lesson or unit on energy and engineering with a photograph of an electric auto from 1919. Before providing any background information about the photograph, ask students to make observations, offer reflections, and ask questions. Students might wonder:

  • When was this photograph taken?
  • Which part of the vehicle is open, the front or the back?
  • Why are there cords or ropes connected to the wooden building and to objects in a wooden crate on the ground?

After students analyze the photograph support them in conducting further research. They might consult reliable secondary sources detailing the history of automobiles, including cars powered by gasoline and electricity, to discover that electric cars—and the engineering challenges and opportunities associated with them—are not all that new.

Scraps of Science. Pittsburg Dispatch, December 9, 1891
Scraps of Science. Pittsburg Dispatch, December 9, 1891

Introduce ideas about batteries and electric cars with an 1891 newspaper article in the Pittsburg Dispatch.

  • What are the characteristics of the batteries described in the article?
  • How do these batteries compare to modern batteries?
  • What are some potential trade-offs if the vehicle used more batteries? (This would be an ideal time to dig into energy transformations, energy conservation, and friction.)

Engineering constraints and competition from gasoline-powered cars stifled the development of electric cars.

Evening Star, December 3, 1895
The Motocycle Race. Evening Star, December 3, 1895

A December 3, 1895 article in the Evening Star describes a race among multiple horseless vehicles (or “motocyles,” according to the article) powered by either gasoline or electricity. The article describes the challenge of ensuring there were enough charging stations along the route of a race for the electric cars. Students might research how much farther electric cars can travel today.

Automobiles brought the end of a previously ubiquitous technology, the horse-drawn wagon. Newspaper articles often called the new technology “horseless carriages.” Primary sources address how electric cars shaped society including:

While analyzing these historical documents, students might:

  • consider which technologies in their lifetimes have radically changed how people live and work, and
  • explore why electric cars have reemerged in recent years as a potential replacements for gasoline-powered cars.

How else might looking at the history of electric cars help students explore real-world energy and engineering principles?


Comments (6)

  1. Awesome!

  2. This sounds great! I teach 7th grade U.S. history which covers this time period and industrialization (and since it’s history primary sources are a given). I think this is a great interdisciplinary activity between science and history. I love how the questions tie into modern life.

  3. I love it, please ask Trey and Josh to write more on renewable technologies. This is perfect for me middle school classroom.

  4. Who knew? I would love to see the same on wind and geo to tie it into earth science curriculum.

  5. How interesting. My students should loved it. Thanks.

  6. I wish my teachers used resources like this to stimulate my brain. The ability to look back to look forward. Love the history of the electric car. Who knew? I guess y’all did.

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