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Great Scot! Aberdeen scientist’s family finally get the picture about electric car pioneer

Robert Davidson's family found this sepia-tinted portrait of the Aberdonian inventor, dating from the 1870s, hidden in a drawer.
Robert Davidson's family found this sepia-tinted portrait of the Aberdonian inventor, dating from the 1870s, hidden in a drawer.

It’s a poignant photograph which has lain undiscovered in an envelope in an Aberdeen cupboard, dating all the way back to the Victorian era.

But now, the family of one of the north-east’s most remarkable trailblazers have found the sepia-tinted portrait of their great-great grandfather, Robert Davidson, which leads us on a journey to the days of this energetic Granite City pioneer.

Davidson’s peripatetic life from 1804 to 1894, stretching from the Battle of Trafalgar to the Boer War, spanned a period of unprecedented change, heralding the arrival of such items as the steam engine, the telephone and the introduction of the electric light bulb.

And the Scot played his own pivotal part in the development of these new scientific advances. His experimental locomotive predated by decades Werner von Siemens’ electric tramway which was unveiled at the Berlin Exhibition in 1879 and he was prescient in recognising the potential of electric cars and trains.

The first alternating current electric passenger train powered by electricity from overhead lines, presented by Werner von Siemens at Berlin in 1879.

Automobile companies are working round the clock at the moment to create these new vehicles in a bid to reduce carbon emissions. But, almost 200 years ago, Davidson originally devised the mechanics of bringing such a plan to fruition.

It’s hardly surprising that motoring enthusiasts have been excited by the amount of new information which has emerged in recent years about the beetle-browed individual, who refused to blow his own trumpet, in the mistaken belief that his achievements would speak for themselves. That is one of the reasons his exploits are largely unknown.

An advert in the Press and Journal from March 24 1975 for Robert Davidson’s exhibition of electromagnetism.

However, a new book by Dr Antony Anderson, which has been published with the backing of the Grampian Transport Museum in Alford, has emphatically demonstrated that Davidson was a man who was generations ahead of his time.

Mike Ward, the curator at the museum, said he was very impressed with the trailblazing methods which were used by his compatriot during one of the most revolutionary periods in the history of science, technology and engineering.

Mike Ward of Grampian Transport Museum.

He said: “Robert, the third child in a family of four four boys and two girls, was the son of a shopkeeper and an Aberdeen Grammar School boy and he was encouraged to take an interest in what were viewed as the  ‘useful arts‘ and learn all about them.

“He soon proved himself to be an ingenious and innovative character who created superb engineering models to help him run his own business.

Robert Davidson attended Aberdeen Grammar School.

“He was fascinated by so many things and was one of those Victorians who kept pursuing new advances in many different fields. He was involved in crafting useful things, including the black art of making and sharpening files. He specialised in yeast propagation to help develop the emerging distilling industry.

”He made dyes for colouring cloth and, at one stage, even specialised in plants, so there were a lot of strings to his bow and he was a real entrepreneurial spirit. I think it’s amazing that he had such an impact in so many diverse areas.

Charging the battery of a Detroit electric automobile in 1919.

“His work in electromagnetism was ground-breaking and his name was associated with other great scientists of his time, including the world-renowned physicist, James Clerk Maxwell, who spent a significant part of his life in Aberdeen.

”Basically, Davidson was somebody who wanted to make abstract things useful. He took it out of the laboratory and put it to work….and he was the first to do that.

“At an exhibition in Aberdeen in 1840, it was Davidson who first showed a working electric vehicle to the public. This was no mean feat in the mid-1800s.

Walter H Bersey at the controls of his electric Landau in 1896.

“Electricity – or electromagnetism as it was called – was such a new and unknown phenomenon that science hadn’t even got as far as quantifying it.

“At that time, there were no units of electricity – no volts, amps, watts, joules or ohms as we now describe them. They just couldn’t measure it.

“And yet, here was Davidson in the north-east of Scotland making it move vehicles and carrying people, before we had any of that understanding.”

The museum has organised an exhibition which summarises Mr Davidson’s contribution to the use of electromagnetism and, in particular, its effectiveness in relation to traction and vehicles. And it has become clear that his electric carriage – which could carry two people – was the first recorded passenger-carrying EV in history.

Aberdeen engineer Robert Davidson designed the world’s first electric vehicle.

Dr Anderson’s book chronicles how the Scot was prepared to highlight his scientific work to the Scottish public and he organised a special exhibition at 36 Union Street in Aberdeen from October 2 1840 – which ran for three weeks – with an admission price of a shilling, which didn’t deter thousands of people from attending the event.

He was exhibiting a variety of devices, including a model of a locomotive carriage, which was sufficient to carry two people; a turning lathe; a small printing machine, organised through magnets; and a ‘machine for communicating electric shock, featuring the combustion of metals by Electromagnetism and other phenomena.”

One of the first electric vehicles on display at Grampian Transport Museum.

Many of the visitors marvelled at these artefacts and the Aberdeen Journal – the forerunner of this newspaper – was impressed by Davidson’s ideas and imagination when it reviewed the exhibition with positive words on October 23.

The report stated: “In the space of just one day [October 14], 1,100 people had the satisfaction of witnessing the collection.

”Our ingenious town man’s inventions continue to attract visitors from far and wide. Last week, they were inspected by Dr Hamel from Russia, a gentleman well known in the scientific world, and who expressed his huge gratification with the exhibition.”

A full-sized working replica of Robert Davidson’s reluctance motor at Grampian Transport Museum.

Davidson, himself, was an egalitarian fellow, who had no grand ambitions of amassing vast wealth nor profiting from his inventions.

Unlike the prolific Thomas Edison in the United States, who slapped a patent on anything and everything he created – and notoriously took credit for the work of others on several occasions – his Scottish counterpart was determined that his creations should be available to everybody who might be able to benefit from them.

Thomas Edison with his wife, Mina Miller Edison, and their daughter, Marion Estelle Edison.

He declared in the poster advertising his exhibition: “Mr Robert Davidson begs to intimate that he has, for the last three years, been engaged in a course of experiments on ELECTRO-MAGNETISM, with a view to devising means for the employment of the magnetic influence as a moving power.

Camille Jenatzy at the tiller of his electric racer, La Jamais Contente, celebrating his new world record for the “flying kilometre” at 65.79 mph in 1899.

”In this objective, he flatters himself that he has succeeded and he trusts the time is not too far distant when, on account of its greater cheapness and simplicity, and its perfect freedom from danger, the ELECTROMAGNETIC POWER shall have superseded steam for many or most of the purposes to which the latter power is now applied.

”Mr Davidson has declined securing to himself by patent the exclusive right to the use of this new power. He believes that all to whom the possession of a cheap, simple and safe substitute for steam power is an objective, should freely avail themselves of the advantages to be drawn from his invention.”

In short, money wasn’t the main motivation for this bright spark. Discovery and innovation were far more important in his world.

Robert Davidson’s work was crucial to the development of electric vehicles.

Mr Ward and his colleagues at the transport museum have built a model of Davidson’s 20 cell zinc iron battery and a full-size working replica of his electric engine.

It was a major undertaking to produce this vehicle with its five-foot flywheel, but it was worth the effort, given the substantial interest which the public have shown.

Mike Ward with a model of Davidson’s 20 cell zinc iron battery.

Now, mirroring what happened 180 years ago, Davidson’s endeavours have sparked fresh curiosity, especially with the publication of Dr Anderson’s book which was, in itself, a labour of love which has taken more than half a century to be published.

Mr Ward said: “The Davidson family were, and are, very helpful and, of course, they are keen to have their illustrious ancestor better recognised.

“They passed all Davidson’s records to the National Library of Scotland, which was a masterstroke and they had kept them safe and sound for many years.

A full-length version of the photograph of Robert Davidson from the 1870s. His family found this hidden in a drawer in Banchory.

“It was they who recalled Dr Anderson’s interest in the subject, back in the 1960s and 1970s, and they discovered that he had produced a manuscript, but never got round to publishing the work. At that point, those of us at GTM felt we must help him realise that ambition, both for himself and for the Davidson family.

Author Dr Anthony Anderson, left, and Stuart Davidson, a descendant of Robert Davidson.

“We fact-checked against the library material – there were masses of it – and then we proof-read the work and published the book.

“It is selling very well and a second edition in the future will include more very early photographs, including the one which has just been found in the attic.”

Dr Anderson has posed the intriguing question of why Davidson is not more widely renowned in the city where he spent almost all his long life.

Was he simply too self-deprecating for his own good? Or was he uninterested in the trappings of fame and the publicity which might have accompanied it?

The author says: “Aberdeen seems to have forgotten Robert Davidson. He is partly to blame for this lack of recognition, because he failed to document and publish his work.

”So we have had to pick our way, as best we can, through scattered records to piece together even the most approximate picture of the life of this enigmatic inventor.

”The Davidson story is by no means complete and there may still be material somewhere about him which is yet to be discovered. But that is what makes historical research so interesting, isn’t it?”

  • Robert Davidson: Pioneer of Electric Locomotion, by Dr Antony Anderson, is available from most bookshops or at the Grampian Transport Museum at