TBThursday: Electric boats and Venice 1893-2019

A few weeks ago our Throwback Thursday looked at the Electric Launch Company (which is still flourishing as the Elco Motor Yacht company, a leader in electric outboards) and the introduction of their boats at the 1893 Chicago World Fair.

This week, we jump off from another excerpt in Kevin Desmond’s excellent book “Electric Boats and Ships: A History” (buy on Amazon) and follow what happened to some of those boats after the exhibition ended.

To give a quick recap, the ELCO company provided about 50 electric launches to the Chicago fair, which took place on 633 acres of grounds and canals specifically built and groomed for the widely heralded event. In regards to the electric boats, one account of the fair said:

“One of the most delightful experiences which one may have during a visit to the Fair is a voyage around the waters of the lagoons in one of the dainty electric launches. The course over which they run measures about three miles for the round trip, and there are landings at all the large buildings and principal points of interest. Without smoke, noise or odour, they plow their way rapidly along through the South Canal, the Basin, the North Canal, the Lagoon, and the North Pond. The Wooded Island is encircled, and a delightful view is had of every building.”

At the conclusion of the fair, the fleet was dispersed, and a syndicate of Italians purchased one of the craft for $2,000 (somewhere around $30,000 in today’s currency) and sent it to serve as the nucleus of a fleet of electric boats on the historic canals of Venice. The syndicate modified her slightly to look more like a classic gondola, sheathed her hull in copper to protect her from the weeds and canal water, and proudly named her ‘Venezia’.

Electric boats and ‘Venice’ seemed to go together naturally

In 1901 another fair – the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo New York – was home to a fleet of twenty-five electric boats, each with a uniformed pilot and singing gondolier on board. This wonderful musical flotilla, managed by the Abergo Baroni Catering Company’s “Venice in America” concern, gave rides to 87,500 fairgoers.

One of them was Thomas Edison, who rode in one of the craft to film a trip around the exposition. Here is a small snippet of the inventor’s account that is included in Mr. Desmond’s book.

“Our picture was made from the bow of an especially chartered electric launch which made the trip for us at a high rate of speed. The ride is a refreshing one with charming views at every turn. The Grand Canal is over a mile in length and extends around the central group of large buildings. Romantic bridges span the waterway at convenient points, statuary placed everywhere contribute to the picturesque effect.”

There must have been something in the air at the turn of the 20th century, because the Venetian canal theme also took hold in Europe. Again, from Electric Boats and Ships:

In 1895, Austrian theatre impresario, Gabor Steiner, created arguably one of the world’s first theme parks in Vienna’s Prater Park. He called it Venedig in Wien (Venice in Vienna).  The photo at the top of this post is from the extravaganza. This replica of Venice included its canals and an artificially recreated lagoon around which both gondolas and electric launches transported not only Viennese high society but also Bohemian servants and the soldiers of the Austrian-Hungarian multi-ethnic state.

Which brings us to Venice today.

In addition to chronicling the history of electric marine propulsion, Mr. Desmond recently launched a campaign and petition to urge the government of Venice to introduce measures to have all of the city’s boats converted to electric propulsion by 2028.

While the statistics about the effect of rising ocean levels and the sinking of the city’s foundations makes for attention grabbing headlines, the impact of fossil fuel boats on the canals and the city’s buildings is equally alarming.

The vaporetti (water buses) in Venice burn an estimated 21 MILLION LITRES (5 million gallons) of diesel fuel each year. In addition to the vaporetti  there are 550 water taxis, 800 or so workboats and 350 private craft. All are adding toxic chemicals to the Venetian air and waters.

The petition was started early this year, and there is now a website – VeniceAgenda2028 – that details the project and the urgent reasons to convert the city’s fleet of commercial and private motorboats to zero-emission low wash electric propulsion.

Electric marine propulsion has been in existence since 1881, almost one hundred and forty years. It has certainly gone through different periods of acceptability and viability, as detailed in Mr. Desmond’s book, but it would appear that advances in batteries and charging systems are coinciding with a growing desire to wean our transportation off its dependence on oil.

On this ThrowbackThursday we encourage you to think of a ‘FutureForwardFriday’ and visit VeniceAgenda2028 to sign the petition and help transform the water traffic of ‘La Serenissima’.


»» Check out our other Throwback Thursdays

Electric Boats and Ships: A History
Available from Amazon, including Kindle

Amazon Customer Review: “Desmond’s new book leaves no doubt that electrically powered vehicles are already a fixture on the firmament of propulsion and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future. Well illustrated, meticulously written and researched, this book is a guaranteed ‘must’ on the bookshelves of all who have interest in this subject.


DISCLOSURE: The excerpts from Electric Boats and Ships: A History have been provided by Mr. Desmond and the book’s publishers at the request of Plugboats. Plugboats receives a standard Amazon affiliate commission for any copies purchased through the links on this site.

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