Henri Pieper US patent application, 1905 - Figure 1
Today we celebrate a unique anniversary. One hundred years ago today, US Patent No. 288,181 was granted to Henri Pieper for a "Mixed Drive for Autovehicles"--what we now call a hybrid-electric vehicle.
Here's the odd part: Monsieur Pieper describes himself as "a loyal subject of the King of Belguim." Yes, on March 2, 1909, the US Patent Office--in its infinite wisdom--granted bragging rights for the guts of a Toyota Prius to a Belgian gunsmith and inventor born in Germany.
History tells us differently, though. The first hybrid in the world is widely acknowledged to be the Lohner-Porsche of 1902, created by none other than 27-year-old Ferndinand Porsche, who would go on to be celebrated as the namesake of today's undeniably successful Porsche AG, not to mention the creator of the German "People's Car" later known as the Volkswagen Beetle.
Technical historians would quibble with this comparison, pointing out that we're comparing parallel apples to series oranges. And they'd be right.
The system described in Pieper's patent is clearly that of a parallel hybrid, in which engine torque and electric power blend together to move the vehicle. Porsche's earlier system, on the other hand, was a series hybrid like the 2011 Chevrolet Volt. In his case, a combustion engine powered a generator that sent current to electric motors in the wheel hubs, offering a range of up to 40 miles (yes, just like the Volt).
A handful of Auto-Mixte vehicles that used Pieper's sytem were built between 1906 and 1912, but like many early experiments in motive power, hybrids and electric vehicles were doomed to defeat for a century or so.
While steam, electricity, and gasoline vied head-to-head for dominance in the very early 1900s, the invention of the self-starter in 1912 gave internal combustion the nod. No longer did drivers have to crank-start their cars; given its energy content and immediate ignition, gasoline beat batteries for travel range and steam for instant-on power.
It would take another 75 years after Pieper's patent for hybrid cars to return, with the 1997 Toyota Prius (sold until 2000 only in Japan) and the 1999 Honda Insight pointing the way to a future in which formerly wasted energy is recaptured and stored in batteries to be recycled into power on demand.
So Happy Birthday, Hybrids! Or, at least, Happy Birthday-of-the-First-US-Patent-for-a-Parallel-Hybrid-System ....
Henri Pieper US patent application, 1905 - Figure 2
Lohner-Porsche series hybrid
1906 Auto-Mixte hybrid-electric car from Belgium