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A Columbia Victoria

Albert Augustus Pope saw the future.

In the 1870s he recognized the potential of the bicycle, and by the 1890s was manufacturing about 250,000 a year at his Hartford factory. As the 19th century drew to a close, he knew that the golden age of the bicycle was ending and the future was with the engine and automobile. He favored electricity to power his cars, as it was clean, quiet and easy to access. Though he successfully produced the first commercial electric car, the concept of an electric vehicle was at least a century ahead of its time and ultimately proved to be Pope’s undoing.

Born in 1843 in Boston, Pope joined the Union Army in 1862. In the war, he fought in a number of battles and earned the honorary title of lieutenant colonel for his actions. Working as a businessman after the war, he had his major inspiration in 1876 when he attended the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia and saw his first bicycle.

Enchanted by the invention, Pope decided to join, and ultimately lead, the two-wheeled revolution that would soon sweep the country. Pope learned all he could about bicycle manufacturing and then commissioned the Weed Sewing Machine Co. in Hartford to start producing his bicycles. Before long Pope was selling enough bicycles that he purchased the factory.

A savvy businessman, Pope understood that the success of the bicycle, and later the car, depended on high-quality roads, which, outside of big cities, did not really exist in the U.S. at the time. In 1880 he started the Good Roads Movement and the League of American Wheelmen and lobbied Congress to create a government organization in charge of roads.

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A 1901 advertisement for a Columbia Electric Co. vehicle.

In February 1893 in “A Memorial to Congress on the Subject of a Road Department,” he argued that highways were the pathway to the country’s future prosperity. “The people everywhere throughout the country are awakening to the vast importance of better highways. They more fully realize not only the great commercial advantages of good roads but they see more clearly that the material highways of the country are highways in a spiritual sense as well; that the growth of society, education, and Christianity depend largely upon good means of communication between home, school, and church, and that no nation can advance in civilization which does not make a corresponding advance in the betterment of its highways.”

By the 1890s, Pope realized that these highways would be dominated not by the bicycle but by the automobile. He created an automobile division within the Pope Manufacturing Co.

“While most manufacturers were developing new and better gasoline-powered cars, Pope was confident that clean, quiet, electric cars would be the wave of the future,” writes Gregg Mangan in an article about Pope on connecticuthistory.org. “In 1896, he founded the Columbia Electric Vehicle Co. in Hartford and, a year later, demonstrated the world’s first public production model electric-powered car. His production of 2,092 cars (some gas-powered) in 1899 accounted for nearly half the automobiles made in the United States, but his attachment to producing electric vehicles eventually became his downfall.”

A 1901 ad for one model of Pope’s electric vehicles proudly boasted the car could travel 40 miles on each battery charge with a maximum speed of 14 mph. In 1902, President Theodore Roosevelt rode through the streets of Hartford in a Pope electric car. But despite these early successes, the electric vehicles Pope favored had some fatal flaws. Batteries could not hold charges for long periods and were heavy — in the model Roosevelt rode in, the battery accounted for 40 percent of the vehicle’s weight. When raw materials became abundant in the Midwest, the costs of shipping them to New England put car manufacturers in Connecticut at a disadvantage compared to those already in the Midwest. All these factors helped give the edge to Pope’s competitor, Henry Ford.

“For a time, and thanks to Pope, Hartford was the automobile capital of the world, but the discovery of oil in Texas in 1901, combined with Ford’s achievements in manufacturing and marketing, ultimately led to Pope’s electric car’s decline,” the Connecticut Historical Society wrote in an emailed statement for this story. “Basically, Albert Pope gambled and lost. His legacy, however, remains, and Pope is still remembered as the man who, between the late 1870s and the early 1900s, put a nation on wheels.”

Pope’s companies were ruined financially by his failure to compete with Midwest automakers in the early 1900s. He died in 1909. In his obituary, The New York Times concluded unscientifically that the electric car and the financial ruin it caused were to blame. “Col. Pope had been in ill-health for months, due to the breaking down of his nervous system which followed the financial embarrassment of his bicycle company.”

More than 100 years later, Connecticut’s relationship with the electric car remains complicated. In June, for the third year in a row, a bill failed to get through the General Assembly that would have allowed Tesla to sell its electric vehicles directly to consumers in Connecticut and bypass the state’s law requiring cars to be sold by franchised dealerships. It’s yet another defeat for the electric car in the state.

The Senior Writer at Connecticut Magazine, Erik is the author of "Buzzed: Where to Enjoy the Best Craft Beverages in New England" & "Gillette Castle." His next book is with Penguin Random House & he is an adjunct professor at WCSU & Quinnipiac University.