Over 100 Years of Going With the Current

The late Edward Hawthorne, former Hon. vice-president of the Electric Boat Association, outlines the history of electric propulsion on the Thames and describes present trends.

During 1898 electric boat activity on the River Thames was growing apace. The Immisch Electric Launch Co. and the Thames Valley Launch Co. each had about sixty electric launches for hire, there were about the same number in private ownership and most of the large boatbuilders had experience in building, fitting out and hiring electric boats.

Advertisement for an electric canoe 1892

Most electric boats were launches ranging in size from 15 to 45ft. in length. The largest on the river, and for a long time in the world, was the 65ft. eighty-passenger 'Viscountess Bury', which plied on the Thames between 1888 and 1910 when she was converted to oil and taken up to Cambridge.  The development of oil engines at the turn of the century and the effects of the First World War proved the death knell for electric propulsion - and steam.  A few boatyards maintained electric canoes and some launches for hire, but by the mid 1930s even these had disappeared from the river and there was virtually no interest in electric boats on the Thames until about 1975.

The resurgence of interest was encouraged by the import of electric outboards developed in America as trolling motors for fishermen on the lakes, and by the practical activities of Rear Admiral Percy Gick and Lord St. Davids. The former, supported by the Midland Electricity Board, took an electric Trentcraft cruiser 600 miles up the Thames and around the canals and Lord St Davids moored "Silver Sail" a small narrow boat powered by prototype Lynch outboard motors at the bottom of his garden on the Regents Canal, whence he cruised over 4000 miles between 1981 and 1991. The two of them also founded the Electric Boat Association, the first of its kind in the world.

Silver Sail - electric steel canal narrowboat

1899 Andrews river launch ‘Pike’

During the 1980s, Rupert Latham at Wroxham set out to develop the Frolic electric launch using GRP construction and an advanced electric propulsion system. To date, more than two hundred of them have been sold. The electric boat market in general was slow to materialise but has expanded rapidly during recent years. For example, in 1991, there were only two electric boats on the three-mile stretch between Cookham and Marlow; today there are more than thirty. Nine of the pre-1930s Thames launches and four canoes are still in use or undergoing restoration.

Four of the launches have been converted to steam and one to petrol but the canoe, 'Gena', still has its original motor and controls. The traditional launch design with high length/beam ratio is still the most elegant type of electric boat and the skills of building in teak and mahogany are carried on by some yards on the Thames and in Norfolk. However, the growth market is in maintenance-free GRP hulls which not only cut costs but provide opportunities to design specially shaped low wash hulls. Interest is growing in the use of cruisers up to 35ft length.

1903 electric canoe 'Gena'
picture: Mike Phillips (TTBR)

In Austria electric ferries carry up to 200 passengers on trips across lakes where petrol or diesel engines are banned. It is interesting that the original electric boats on the Thames were designed as ferry boats for use in the Pool of London. Recently Hammertons of Twickenham opened the first Thames electric ferry since the end of the last century.

Electric boating is currently enjoying a worldwide revival, yet at the turn of the century there were 100 electric launches on the Thames alone.


German physicist Moritz Hermann Jacobi presents a paper to the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences about electromagnetism as applied to machines. Four years later Tsar Nicholas I grants Jacobi enough money to design and build an electric motor to be fitted to a ten-oared shallop.

The engine Jacobi built comprised electromagnets to drive two paddlewheels (propellers were as yet unheard of). The general arrangement proved successful and the electric paddle-boat began to voyage up the River Neva, applauded by the Tsar and his Court. But the motor gave out as much nitrous fumes as smoke from a steam train. The brave pioneers, choked and asphyxiated by these sickening and suffocating fumes, were obliged to stop their observations. The following year Jacobi tried another experiment with the same boat. It was worked by a battery a fifth the size of the previous one. Following the recent formula published by British physicist William Grove, it was charged with concentrated nitric and sulfuric acid. The vessel attained an average speed of 3 mph with some 12 or 13 passengers aboard.

In August 1848 an electric boat was demonstrated on the private lake of Penllergaer near Swansea, Wales. It was propelled by a motor developed by Benjamin Hill, sponsored by John Dillwyn Llewelyn, again deriving its energy from a Grove cell.

Twenty years were to elapse before a certain Monsieur de Molins launched his electric paddleboat in the Bois de Boulogne lake. Despite her strong electric batteries (developed by Robert Bunsen and using carbon electrodes instead of platinum) the boat started slowly, disappeared behind the island which forms the centre of the lake, and did not reappear.

Disinterest continued over this promising form of motive power until a Parisian electrical precision instrument maker, Gustave Trouve, arrived on the scene. In May 1880 he patented a small 11lb (5kg) electric motor and described its possible applications (Patent N°136,560). Trouve suggested using two such motors, each driving a paddle wheel on either side of the hull. Later he progressed to a multi-bladed propeller. Modifications to this master patent date from August 1880, then March, July, November and December 1881. To quote: “It is the rudder containing the propeller and its motor, the whole of which is removable and easily lifted off the boat…”

With this invention, Trouve could not only lay claim to the world’s first marine outboard engine but, in taking the same motor and adapting it as the drive mechanism of a Coventry-Rotary pedal tricycle or velocipede, Trouve also pioneered the world’s first electric vehicle.  On 1 August 1881 Trouve made his benchmark report to the French Academy of Sciences, stating: “I had the honour to submit to this Academy, in the session of 7th July 1880, a new electric motor based on the eccentricity of the Siemens coil flange. By suggestive studies, which have allowed me to reduce the weight of all the components of the motor, I have succeeded in obtaining an output which to me appears quite remarkable.

A motor weighing 5kg [11lb], powered by 6el of Plante producing an effective work of 7kgm per second, was placed, on the 8th April, on a tricycle whose weight, including the rider and the batteries rose to 160kg [352lb] and recorded a speed of 12km/h.

The same motor, placed on the 26 May in a boat of 5.5m long by 1.2m beam [18 x 4ft], carrying three people, give it a speed of 2.5m [per second] in going down the Seine at Pont-Royal and 1.5 m [8 & 5ft] in going back up the river. The motor was driven by two biochromate of potassium batteries each producing 6el and with a three-bladed propeller.

On the 26th June 1881, I repeated this experiment on the calm waters of the upper lake of the Bois de Boulogne, with a four-bladed propeller 28cm [11 ¼in] in diameter and 12el of Ruhmkorff-type Bunsen plates, charged with one part hydrochloric acid, one part nitric acid and two parts water in the porous vase so as to lessen the emission of nitrous fumes. The speed at the start, measured by an ordinary log, reached 150m [490ft] in 48 seconds, or a little more than 3m [10ft] per second; but after three hours of functioning, this had fallen to 150m in 55 seconds and after five hours, this had further fallen to 150m in 65 seconds.

One bichromate battery, enclosed in a 50cm [20in] long case, will give a constant current of 7 to 8 hours. There is a great saving of fuel and cleanliness.”

During the 15 years that followed, it is estimated that over 100 Trouve electric motors were installed in pleasure launches. Some of these were fitted with his electric headlights and klaxons. There was, for example, the Sirene, a charming electric boat which he built for Monsieur de Nabat, arranging it so that her owner could change at will from propeller to paddles. This boat, whose owner used her three times a week during long periods, measured 29ft 6in long by 6ft beam (9 x 1.8m) and cruised regularly at between 8 ½ and 9 ½ mph (14-15km/h), her propeller turning at between 1,200 and 1,800 rpm.

To show the speed with which an electric boat could move in a race situation, on 8 October 1882 a Trouve craft was launched onto the River Aube and steered onto the race circuit only five minutes before the start. It left at gunfire and spectators noticed, not without astonishment, that in this famous race the boat covered more than 2 miles (3.2km) in 17 minutes, averaging 7mph (11km/h) and slowing down to make four turns around the buoys!

In September 1888 a Trouve boat was sent to China to fight against opium smuggling on the China Sea. 49ft (15m) long and steel-hulled, it weighed some 8 tons and the bronze prop had a diameter of about 20in (500mm). One can but wonder at the electric power necessary to shift her along.

The idea had caught on elsewhere. The iron-hulled 25ft (7.6m) Electricity, designed by the brilliant Austrian-born Anthony Reckenzaun, was built for the Electric Power Storage Company at Millwall, London, to accommodate 12 passengers. Power came from 45 Plante accumulators, modified by Messrs Sellon and Volchmar to total 96 volts and supply power for six hours at 4hp to two Siemens D3 dynamos with regulators and reverse gear, belt-driving a 20in screw propeller of 3ft pitch (500mm x 0.9m) at 350 rpm. Either or both motors could be switched into circuit at will. On 28 September 1882 Electricity made a pioneering trip on the River Thames to London Bridge.

Two years later a race took place between Electricity and the electric launch Australia from Millwall to Charing Cross Bridge and back to Greenwich. There is no record of which boat won, but apparently Australia was very slightly ahead at Charing Cross on the way upstream!

Immisch motor

Enter Moritz Immisch, German-born clockmaker turned electrical engineer. Having worked on battery-operated trams in London, in 1887 Immisch teamed up with Viscount Bury to pioneer the world's first electric hireboat-fleet. An 80ft (24m) Thames houseboat was converted to a charging station with semi-portable steam-engined dynamo. Four other stations were set up, the one on Platts Eyot Island near Hampton becoming the headquarters. From an initial six launches, by 1904 the Immisch operation had grown to some 23, all capable of carrying from 4 to 50 passengers.

The accumulators were manufactured by the Electric Power Storage Company to drive Immisch motors of from 1.5hp up to 12hp, at 65, 95 and 120 volts, and give with certainty a run of 30 miles at 6mph, half upstream and half downstream, on one charge.

In 1888 there were half-a-dozen charging stations on the Thames, but by 1902 there were over 20 on land and two floating barges. At Maidenhead alone, seven electric hireboat operations jostled for business. During the same period, over 50 British boatbuilders are known to have built one or more electric launches. Most of these were Thameside yards. Launches were also exported to Venice, Ceylon and South Africa, while Eastern princes and rajahs received sumptuously fitted-out vessels.

The Thames Valley Launch Company of Weybridge, Surrey, offered 29 launches for hire, many of which were fitted with feathering propellers. Messrs Andrews & Sons of Maidenhead had a fleet of 12 electric launches, each one named after a freshwater fish, with an additional flagship called the Angler. It was on the Angler that King Edward VII, Queen Alexandra and a royal party enjoyed the pleasures of the Thames.

Mary Gordon
The Mary Gordon - built 1898

Apart from these 100-odd launches on the 93 miles of the Thames between Teddington Lock and Oxford, a number of local corporations bought electric boats for used in their ornamental parks. In Leeds, for example, a 70ft (11m) launch called Mary Gordon was capable of taking either 75 adults or 120 children for trips on Waterloo Lake, Roundhay Park. A similar boat plied for hire at Southport. The English Lake District and Irish and Scottish lakes also had a number of launches for hire.

Elsewhere, British electrical boat pioneer Anthony Reckenzaun and his brother Frederick, emigrated to the USA and settled in Newark, New Jersey. Using experience gained with the cross-Channel Volta and other vessels, they built for their own use a 28 ft (8m) launch which they named Magnet, with a 2.5hp, 420lb (191kg) Reckenzaun motor powered by two banks of accumulators made by the Electric Accumulator Company of Newark. The vessel was reviewed by Thomas Martin, Editor of The Electrical Engineer, who described a voyage of 50-60 miles without recharging, so supporting the Reckenzauns' claim of 60-70 miles over 10 hours.

It was in 1891 that the fabulously wealthy WK Vanderbilt became the first American to order an electric boat. It was built at Charles L. Seabury's yard, measured 30ft (9m) in length and was called Alva. In terms of length, US millionaire John Jacob Astor sported the largest privately-owned electric launch in the world: the 72ft (22m) Utopia had two motors each developing around 25hp and was luxuriously fitted out like a miniature Titanic. The largest electric passenger boat in the world, however, was the 93ft (28.4m) Victory, designed by William S. Sargeant in 1904 and licensed to carry 350 passengers above Westminster Bridge.

The main reason for the decline of the quiet and clean electric launch in subsequent decades was the development and ease of refueling of the more powerful diesel engine. Since the late 1970s, however, there has been a revival of interest in electric boats for pleasure boating on the inland waterways around the world. Better underwater hull designs, lighter glass-fibre construction, improved motors and batteries and electronic control and recharge systems have given birth to a new generation which is already contributing more environmentally friendly pleasure boating for the 21st century.