The car of the future turns out to be the car of the past, according to Schiffer (Anthropology/Univ. of Arizona; The Portable Radio in American Life, not reviewed) in this peppy look at the electric car's Edwardian infancy. Schiffer begins with an astonishing statistic: In 1900, 28% of all automobiles produced in America ran on electric power. So why does an effective plug-in car currently seem like a science-fiction dream? Schiffer places this question in historical context, beginning with the 19th-century development of the steam-driven dynamo, which made electricity cheap and plentiful, and of the bicycle, which warmed the public to the idea of personal mechanical transport. In 1897, the first important electric car rolled from Pope's Manufacturing Company in Hartford, Conn., followed by a parade of battery-driven broughams and runabouts from other manufacturers, all of which offered a top speed of about 14 mph and a top distance between recharging of 25 or 30 miles. Henry Ford, meanwhile, was perfecting his cheap, durable gas-driven car, the Model T. Schiffer argues that the battle between gas and electric was, among other things, a skirmish in the war between the sexes, with women opting for the slower, safer electrics. But the truth is that gasoline motors went farther and faster than electric ones; they were also more reliable. Despite the efforts of Thomas Edison, who struggled for years to produce a more efficient battery, by WW I the electric car had become an afterthought. Nevertheless, Schiffer has an upbeat view of the future of electrics. While he admits that a battery that can go 500 miles between recharges would be ""miraculous,"" he foresees stations for rapid battery exchange lining the highways, giving rise to a new generation of nonpolluting drivers. More voltage for pro-electric forces, who can now claim that tradition is on their side.