Powering a boat with an electric motor is not a new idea. In fact, before boats were powered with combustion engines, they were powered with electric motors. The first known electric powered boat was built for Tsar Nicholas I of Russia around 1835. This 24 ft long boat carried 12 passengers up the Neva River at 3kts and showed the world at that time that there were alternatives to steam propulsion when there was no wind to propel a boat with sails. Motor and battery technology developed throughout the second half of the 19th century and by 1900, there were hundreds of electric boats on the waters around the world before diesel engines were ever heard of.
Among the most notable examples of early electric boats were the electric launches built in the UK to operate as ferries on the River Thames. In 1886, one of these electric powered vessels crossed the English Channel both ways in 8 hours. By the end of the 1880s there were 6 of these electric launches operating on the River Thames as charter ferries, charging along the way at charging stations that were installed at the time, and by 1900 the Immisch Electric Launch Co. and the Thames Valley Launch company had hundreds built for public and private use. Most of these boats were from between 15 to 45 ft long and the largest was the 65 ft 80 passenger ferry, Viscountess Bury. In the United States, the Electric Launch Co. (ElCo) began the tradition of building electric boats in the U.S. in the late 1880s and became most well known at the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago. At the World's Fair, 55 Elco launches transported more than a million passengers in what were regarded as very reliable, comfortable and luxurious boats.
As the 20th century arrived and combustion engines became the mode of choice for land transportation, the history and fate of electric powered boats mirrors that of electric powered cars. Just as the first cars were electric powered, once combustion engines were invented people discovered that they gave land vehicles and watercraft greater range than could be provided with electric motors and the batteries that were available at the time. At the same time oil was very cheap and plentiful and no consideration was given at all to the environmental consequences. This remained the case until about the late 1960s and 1970s, when world events led to oil shortages and people began to question the wisdom of being dependent on oil. As concern for the environment also started to grow, people began to see combustion engines as having greater downsides to society. At about this time the environmental movement in parallel with the movement to reduce dependence on oil started to consider alternatives to combustion engines and once again there was an interest in electric propulsion for cars as well as boats.In the interim years between the fall and rise again of mainstream electric propulsion, of course the concept of propelling a boat with an electric motor never died. In fact it was embraced by some, including the world's navies where electric motors have always been used to propel submarines, giving the vessel power, range and stealth while submerged. Also, many boaters on inland waterways, especially tour boats and lake fishermen have generally preferred electric propulsion over combustion because of the inherent technical advantages. Whenever there was a need for clean, quiet and reliable propulsion, electric power has always been the best choice.
Today, there are many companies that offer both inboard and outboard electric propulsion systems for boats. There are also many companies that offer purpose-built electric powered boats, in addition to some of the original companies in Britain and the U.S. such as ElCo, who are back in business and succeeding again now in a new business environment. Along with these makers of electric propulsion systems and purpose built electric powered boats many related services, such as sales agents, rental and tour services are now also forming, which is increasing the market share of electric boats in the general boating community. As trends in the world continue and as a new generation of environmentally and socially conscious boaters enters the boating community, the future of boating has a secure place for electric power.