100th Anniversary of First US Hybrid Car Patent

Happy Birthday, Hybrids! You may not have known it, but March 2 is the 100th anniversary of the granting of the first US patent for what was called the “Mixed Drive for Autovehicles.”

Henri Pieper, a German-born inventor and gunmaker in Belgium, submitted his application on November 23, 1905—and was granted a US patent on March 2, 1909. Its opening paragraph says:

“Be it known that I, Henri Pieper, a subject of the King of Belgium, residing at 18 Rue des Bayards, in Liege, Belgium, have invented new and useful Improvements in Mixed Drives for Autovehicles…The invention…comprises an internal combustion or similar engine, a dynamo motor direct connected therewith, and a storage battery or accumulator in circuit with the dynamo motor, these elements being cooperatively related so that the dynamo motor may be run as a motor by the electrical energy stored in the accumulator to start the engine or to furnish a portion of the power delivered by the set, or may be run as a generator by the engine, when the power of the latter is in excess of that demanded of the set, and caused to store energy in the accumulator.”

Voila: the gas-electric hybrid!

Today, hybrids are celebrated as fuel-saving marvels of the high-tech age—but as shown by Pieper’s US patent, the basic concept is more than a century old. And yet M. Pieper was not the first engineer to create a hybrid car.

In 1898, the 23-year-old Ferdinand Porsche built his first car, the Lohner Electric Chaise—the world’s first front-wheel-drive vehicle. Porsche’s second car design was a series hybrid (like the Chevrolet Volt, due out in 2010) in which a combustion engine ran a generator that powered electric motors in the wheel hubs. Its battery could take Porsche’s hybrid car nearly 40 miles—the same as promised by the Volt. Plus ça change

Pieper applied for his patent a year or two after Porsche built his hybrid. The patent describes processes that are now well known to hybrid engineers and mechanics—including the parallel-hybrid design, and electric assistance for the engine under load:

“As long as the amount of power required falls short of that developed by the engine, the excess is utilized in charging the secondary battery. As soon, however, as an increase in propulsion power is required, as will happen, for example, whenever the car encounters an up-grade, the slackening of the speed causes the dynamo to work as a motor, thus supplying the engine with the additional power which it requires to keep an approximately uniform speed.”

Pieper even developed a rudimentary battery- and engine-management system. He writes in the application, “I have devised an automatic regulator…for preventing the battery from being overcharged, or improperly charged, and for regulating the volume of the explosive charged in proportion to the work which the engine is called upon to perform.”

Pieper Hybrid Car Patent Figure 2

Figure 2 of Henri Pieper’s Hybrid Car Patent.

Unlike today’s hybrids, the driver of Pieper’s vehicle changed modes using a hand lever. Drivers also controlled a magnetic-disc clutch that connected the engine to a DC motor-generator, or dynamo, which in turn was connected to a gear-set that turned the rear wheels via chain drive.

The driver’s hand lever moved through positions that operated a series of mechanical switches and relays. Mode One used the dynamo as a starter motor to fire the engine, which normally powered the vehicle alone. Another mode used road motion to charge the battery—what we would call “regenerative braking.” A further mode sent battery power to the dynamo to supplement engine torque. And a last mode spun the dynamo backward, providing an electric reverse gear.

In every case, the engine’s fuel-air mixture and spark timing were controlled automatically based on the lever position. In addition, the driver could disengage the clutch, shunting all engine power from the final drive to the dynamo, to charge the batteries.

Timing is Everything

From 1906 to 1910, a few Auto-Mixte vehicles using Pieper’s hybrid system were built in Liege. Most were delivery and commercial vehicles, though at least one car chassis was shown at motor shows in Belgium.

But while Henri Pieper may have been a brilliant inventor, his timing was horrible. The year before his patent was granted, Henry Ford built the first assembly lines in Detroit to produce the Ford Model T—the first affordable, mass-production car. It would cement the primacy of the gasoline engine to power road vehicles.

The rest, as they say, is history. Steam and electric cars gradually faded from view, and by the 1930s, production of hybrid and electric vehicles—a few based on Pieper’s patent—had screeched to a halt.

One hundred years and a gazillion gallons of gasoline later, the hybrid gas-electric car has reemerged as an effective and feasible alternative to gas-only internal combustion vehicles. More than 1.5 million hybrid cars can now be found on roads around the world.

The basic concept of a parallel hybrid—still put to use in today’s hybrids like the Toyota Prius—hasn’t changed much since Pieper got his patent, but the world is a very different place. Global warming, air pollution, and erratic oil prices pose new threats. Ironically, clues to the way forward can be found by looking back a century: to the words and drawings of Henri Pieper.

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  • Jerry


  • RKRB

    Thanks for the very informative (and timely) article! Here’s to Ferdinand Porsche and Henri Pieper! And here’s top all those who left this earthly realm not knowing their ideas would one day be appreciated.

  • qqRpckyBeans

    they should make this a national holiday

  • Samie

    Agree great article!

    Sad in away but gasoline is/was king.
    If only….
    “Its battery could take Porsche’s hybrid car nearly 40 miles—the same as promised by the Volt. Plus ça change…”

    Is there a lesson here? We only think in short-term ideas hopefully EV’s will not suffer the same fate or we give up on water vapor or hydrogen vehicles that don’t need fuel or fuel that is purely renewable. Innovation over time to build on great concepts, maybe some car companies and greenies could learn from articles like this…

  • veek

    I’m not doubting the research accuracy of this great article, but it would be interesting to see how the Porsche hybrid planned to travel 40 miles on the batteries of its day. Cars of that time were primitive (even race cars had a mechanic on board), and making 40 problem-free miles on any kind of power would have been unusual.

  • Michele Cipolli

    To celebrate the event, I just bought my Honda Insight Executive today!

    Tuscany, Italy

  • Scotty

    A very nice article. It shows a couple things. One that there are few truly new ideas under the sun. Regretably, it also shows the concept of a hybrid car has never produced a business case which provides a cost savings over the life of the product. Today this still hinders the concept. Hopefully the hybrid concept, even if subsidised by the government and automakers will provide the accessability to the market to get significant real world miles on electric drivetrain technologies to drive some cost reductions by tehnology and volumes.

  • Skeptic

    Porsche’s hybrid has one very important advantage over GM’s Volt – it actually existed!!

  • otto

    We must have thrown away al lot of precious
    Gasoline and Diesel, since these concepts were
    left in favour for the T-Ford and its followers.
    It could have saved us 50 years to peakoil.
    So now peakoil is here!

  • Charles Linden

    This just goes to show what was old is new again!

  • BattryBill

    Interestingly, incandescent electric light filaments were not robust enough in 1909 for automotive use, so the lights were acetylene. The acetylene was pressurized into a canister full of asbestos and acetone and could power the lights for about 40 miles, defining the vehicle range at night before the canister was replaced.

    The range of 40 miles was probably at 10-20 miles per hour. The GM EV1 at 10-20 miles per hour had a range of over 200 miles on the VRLA batteries.

  • jhh

    A “nickel metal hydride” (or similar) battery was developed in 1901 by Thomas Edison. It was called the Edison battery, was produced by Exide, and used extensively for industrial vehicles for service indoors. Battery technology has been around a long time, too.

  • norssac

    that fuel filler neck would not get by the National Transportation Safety Board

  • jerryshapiro

    I think your readers should know WHY the hybrid was invented when it was. The reason is that it was believed at that time that the world had very little oil and was about to run out of it. At that time, for example, ALL the oil in the U.S. came from Pennsylvania… which indeed was running out of oil. So, the timing of this patent was not inappropriate. Of course, Texas and Saudi Arabia voided the immediate needs.

  • donbreit

    Just think what our of cars and trucks would be like today if big auto and oil companies were not so greedy.

  • Sophia – Hybrid Trucks

    Its make me surprised that at the age of 23 , Ferdinand Porsche had invented his first car. Next century is going to be the hybrid car’s century.

  • Igor Vishnevskiy

    Wow, humanity is so late to understand. Can you imagine?


  • christopher long-brown-dick

    real sweet 🙂

  • Jose Arce

    yup i agrre thats a good document i want a car like that

  • Engineerrob

    AHHHHH! I’m writing a report. This web-site is CLEARLY the best source for most of this info. BUT FOR THE LOVE OF EVERYTHING HOLY could you please post some APA citations for where you’re getting your info!?!?!? Or are you the original researcher? OR could you even just post this on a .edu or .gov (I’ll buy the damn domain just to shut my professor up).

  • Mr Thompson

    Peiper’s US patent may have been in 1909, but his ideas were exhibited at the Tuileries in France in 1899, based on a patent by H.J.Dowsing in May 1896. In Peiper’s original car, the transition from generator to motor was automatic. The engine didn’t have a clutch to take it out of the loop, but could be decoupled in emergencies and run solely on electric.

    @engineerrob — Google Books has several sources available for download. “The Automobile, Its Construction and Management,” translated from Gérard Lavergne by Paul Hasluck, pub. 1902, is a start.

    It’s astounding how little real progress has been made in automobile technology, especially electric, in the last century.

  • Mr Thompson

    Acetylene generators were also used. As long as you had a few chunks of calcium carbide and water, you could drive all night if you wanted to. Acetylene was a lot brighter than electric lights too, and more consistant, since they didn’t vary with voltage. In fact, other than the convenience of not having to get out and strike a match, gas lights were superior to electrics in every way!

  • dakota


  • marka patent

    Patent tamamen size ait olan fikirler, dış görünümü, yazılım, farklı dayanıklılık, farklı özelliklere sahip buluşlarınızı patent tescili ile koruma altına alınız. Patent tescili hem sizin buluşlarınızı korur hem de buluşlarınızı sizden izinsiz kullanılmasını yasal olarak engellersiniz. Tescillemiş olduğunuz buluşları ülke çapında rahat ve daha kolay kullanabilirsiniz.

  • marka patent

    Patent tamamen size ait olan fikirler, dış görünümü, yazılım, farklı dayanıklılık, farklı özelliklere sahip buluşlarınızı patent tescili ile koruma altına alınız. Patent tescili hem sizin buluşlarınızı korur hem de buluşlarınızı sizden izinsiz kullanılmasını yasal olarak engellersiniz. Tescillemiş olduğunuz buluşları ülke çapında rahat ve daha kolay kullanabilirsiniz.

  • Gonzales

    Interesting article, nice drawings, but unfortunately not as precise as it could be… The first hybrid car patent that I found dates back to 1895, french n° 244968 by Compagnie française des moteurs à gaz et des constructions mécaniques for a “car with a gas engine whose movement is transmitted to the wheels through an electric motor combined with accumulators”. Not sure if such car was actually built at that time. But Henri Pieper has definitely built and sold a hybrid car in 1899, one year before the Lohner-Porsche.

  • shawn.p

    yall are actually very wrong on the info on henri pieper the auto gun maker conspiracy if you want to know true facts or have knowledge email me at shawnyotimes@yahoo.com