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article number 253
article date 07-18-2013
copyright 2013 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
Electricity Gives Us Local Trains and Buses, 1870
by T. Commerford Martin

From the 1924 book, A Popular History of American Invention. Original chapter title, “ELECTRIC CARS AND TRAINS.”

TEARFULLY but bravely the young wife handed to her boyish inventive husband, “Tom,” the silk dress in which she had been married only eight years before. He needed it in his work as an inventor. It had been carefully folded away in lavender by the beautiful bride when, in 1827, Thomas Davenport, the active but studious village blacksmith of Brandon, Vt., had so far forgotten his profound interest in the “galvanic magnet” of Joseph Henry as to fall in love and “settle down.”

Only a few miles away, Professor Henry was making at the Albany Academy, his immortal discoveries in electromagnetic induction and the principles of the telegraph; and one or two of his novel magnets had been taken to the Penfield Iron Works, near historic Ticonderoga, for sifting magnetic ore. Rumor in those rural districts even had it that such a magnet could hold up an anvil, like Mahomet’s coffin, ’twixt heaven and earth; and dreaming Tom Davenport felt he must see it and get one.

But trade at the Brandon forge was brisk, a little family began to grow up around it, and even a brick home was built.

Going across Lake Champlain to Penfield one day in 1833 to get iron needed in the shop—it could have been got nearer his village—poor Davenport yielded again to the charm of those wonderful magnets. Their spell was so strong that he took the pitiful little eighteen dollars he had brought, and carried back, instead of iron, an electromagnet and some batteries to excite it. How much more he needed that cheap little equipment!

Impatient customers with broken buggies and lame horses might wait angrily around his door, while he, forgetting the smithy, handled the mysterious magnet reverently, a humble worshipper at the shrine of Nature’s secret. “Like a flash,” he says, “the thought occurred to me that here was an available power which was within the reach of man.”

Yes, it was there, and his was the superb insight of genius to detect that startling new fact. He was another Saul hunting for his father’s strayed asses and finding a kingdom—another of the immortals selected in some superhuman way to be leaders of the human race—the power-bringers.

Within a year, still neglecting his smithy, Davenport had built his first electric motor, and discovered “the production of rotary motion by repeated changes of magnetic poles,” which could be applied as a “moving principle for machinery.”

HENRY’S ELECTROMAGNET, ALLOWS DAVENPORT’S MOTOR. This photograph represents one of the first tests of Henry’s electromagnet. Current was brought to the magnet through the heavy copper strips at the left, which were connected to the wire with which the soft iron core was wound. The core was thus magnetized, and supported the weight shown on the platform below—approximately 450 pounds.
Davenport’s electric motor.

His patent of 1837, the first of its kind in America, set all this forth, and was as broad as a papal bull granting a continent to Columbus. It was said in 1891, forty years after the patent had run out, that “if it were in force to-day, upon a fair judicial construction of its claims, every successful electric motor now running would be embraced within its scope.”

Possibly by reason of poor insulation, the first little Davenport motor of 1834 did not work very well. Funds were fading away. Nevertheless another motor must be built; so into its insulation around the tiny coils of wire went the narrow strips of the delicate wedding-dress.

From that time on, never again was Davenport to know peace of mind, nor was his family to enjoy a quiet home of comfort. It is told that when Palissy, the famous French potter, closed in on the discovery of his beautiful enamel, he tore down the very woodwork lining the walls of his house and wrecked the furniture, to feed the fires of his kiln.

Madame Palissy did not quite like it. Can you blame her. In both instances, wifely devotion could go no further. It is a pity loyal Emily Davenport did not live to see how in these later, happier years, the successors of her husband by way of noble amends have brought in countless little electric motors to relieve the burden of drudgery in the household.


About this time, Jacobi, in Russia, had also begun to obtain rotary motion from electromagnets, and in 1838, with the help of the Czar Nicholas he propelled a small boat on the Neva at St. Petersburg. But meanwhile Davenport was already employing the first commutator on his motor of 1835.

A commutator is the device at the end of the revolving bunch of wires, called an armature in a motor or dynamo, literally a bunch of nozzles through which the current is collected or directed from each coil as it flies past the exciting poles. Next year he made the memorable advance of building both motors and tracks to show that a railroad could be run quite as well by electricity as by steam.

Davenport was ever as full of ideas as he was short of money. As one of its early passengers and critics, he had seen the pioneer steam railroad working since 1831 between Albany and Schenectady. It would seem that he even talked over electric traction, at Albany, with the great Henry, who kindly warned him to go slow when he proposed, in his competition with steam, to build motors up to a size of one horse-power.

At all events, when his native State had not one single mile of steam railroad, Davenport, all fire and enthusiasm, not only built his curiously prophetic little model of an electric road, but boldly asserted that such was the better way to do it. The car was shown travelling on a circular track twenty-four inches in diameter. It depended for “current” on primary batteries (dynamo-electric energy not then being available) placed on a tray at the centre of the track circle, with contact through mercury-cups; thus was foreshadowed the central power-house idea of modern operation.

Moreover, like the cars of to-day, not only did those primitive cars use the track for the return circuit, but the motors were shunt-wound, that is, the wires in the winding on the field-magnet poles were a “by-pass,” through which current was shunted from the armature. Such a motor seemed to perform the feat of “hoisting itself by its own boot-straps,” as our forefathers put it.

Top – Series wound generator. Bottom – Shunt wound generator. Where the electricity is picked up in rotating circle between the magnets you will see segments in the circle. This is a commutator with individual conductors in each segment making the generator a “dynamo.”

Beyond this, in order to raise capital for expensive trials and machines, Davenport organized, in 1837, his Electro-Magnetic Association, the first electric stock company in America, and probably in the world. Serving the great American public to-day, such companies are capitalized at a score of billions.

Surely the owners of the “one-hoss shays” might well wait outside the humble Brandon smithy while the blacksmith inventor was planning and building motors and tracks that were soon to show the way in putting horse haulage forever in the “discard.”

It is part of another story how Davenport in 1839 was the first man to apply the electric motor to printing-presses and to publish, so printed, the first electrical journal; how, too, when he died in 1851, he was applying electromagnets to the vibration of piano-strings—the first production of music by electricity.

After Davenport came a large group of far-seeing men who bravely and cleverly struggled with the problems of electric railroading. None of them realized that their trouble lay in not having a cheap supply of electrical energy, or “current.” They depended on current from “primary” batteries in which acids attacked metals, and that method involved, as it does now, enormous expense. Burning up zinc in a battery, for example, could never successfully compete in its results with the burning up of coal under a boiler, whether the steam drives a locomotive or operates an engine in a factory.

Unfortunately, none of these early workers realized that the discoveries of Faraday and Henry in magnetic attraction and repulsion could be applied not only to produce Davenport’s motor but also the more wonderful machine, the modern dynamo, now called the “generator.”

No matter how they use it, the great applications of electricity all turn to the generator as the source of their current energy. It might possibly be said without fear of contradiction that had the dynamo been invented twenty-five years or so earlier, the course of history would have been vitally changed.

Using early forms of electric cells to make a battery would hold up commercial progress of electric motor propulsion. Commercial electric power through power lines made the use of electric motors practical.


While the steam locomotive, then entering upon its triumphant career, began to traverse continents with its seven-league boots, the feeble electric locomotive was left to a stern chase for fifty years. The primitive electric car-motor, draining chemical primary batteries of their costly supply of vital energy was about as helpless as a baby sucking at its bottle.

In Scotland, in 1838, an engineer named Robert Davidson, tried out such an electric locomotive on the Edinburgh-Glasgow Railway. Patents on various modifications of the basic idea were granted in England and the United States, and many pretty little models of the Davenport type were exhibited by wandering lecturers. They rarely took in enough “gate-money” to pay the rent of the hail in which to show their scientific freaks and curiosities. Perhaps their only success was that they set thinking young geniuses such as Edison.

About 1847-8, a famous American inventor, Moses G. Farmer, who twenty years later did arrive at a clear-cut vision of the dynamo, built an admirable experimental car—using battery power, of course—which carried two passengers.

Three years after, a brilliant man, Professor C. G. Page, successor to the great Henry at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, ran a car on tracks from that city to Bladensburg, Maryland, using the current from no fewer than one hundred cells of primary battery. He actually got up to a speed of nineteen miles an hour before the jars of the overworked batteries cracked under the unendurable strain. That was the end of Page’s electric car as well as of his costly attempts to get to Baltimore.

Forty years elapsed before Leo Daft brought a successful electric car to the Maryland city, and sixty years before such cars shuttled swiftly between it and Washington in regular hourly trips.



It is to be noticed that all these early workers and experimenters dealt with railroads and not with street-railways of any kind. Utterly unknown then were such modern necessities as the “trolley,” the “L,” and the “Tube,” all of which still lay many years ahead. Perhaps they were not greatly wanted by our more tranquil forebears, when land travel, if not afoot, was done on horseback or behind the horse in a coach, and sometimes, even in towns of good size, by oxen.

Paris, one of the very first cities in the world to have a public system for lighting its streets, was also the first city to enjoy the luxury of an omnibus, or “carryall,” something akin to the stagecoach that plied on the ill-paved robber-haunted highways across France.

With Pascal, in 1662, or Baudry, in 1827, may have originated the idea of the “omnibus,” and thus also of the street-car, which is nothing more or less than a “bus” on rails. Another fruitful idea was embodied in the light railroads of the two Outrams, father and son, built in England for mines, and nicknamed “tramways” after them.

In 1830, the sprawling young city of New York had proudly reached a population of 200,000. Lively, active people they were, increasing by thousands and pushing “up-town” at the rate of several “blocks” each year. They must have street-transportation lines out to their newer suburbs. Hence that year the famous Broadway stages were started from the Bowling Green.

Not so very long ago one could still experience the perils and hardships of a ride in one of those gaudy old “stages,” in appearance much the same as a Barnum circus parade-wagon, and about as comfortable.

But ambitious Manhattan Island had no sooner thrilled with the excitement of dashing along by omnibus at six or eight miles an hour than, in 1832, it had at its service the first horse street-car line in the world. It was called the New York and Harlem Railroad, organized in 1831, and it extended a few miles up Fourth Avenue from near the City Hall to Murray Hill, where now stands the Grand Central Terminal.

THE “JOHN MASON,” USED ON BROADWAY, NEW YORK, IN 1832. The vehicle is frankly modelled after the stage-coaches of the day.

Thus in the “John Mason,” as the street-car, in honor of the first president of the company, was named, the omnibus and the “tramway” had been merged in the one vehicle on flanged wheels. As it jogged over the uneven rails before the inquiring eyes of the citizens of New York it presented the fun appearance of a couple of “stages” squeezed together.

Moreover, by a strange coincidence, this first street-car bore on the panel of its door the words “Stephenson’s Patent.” That trade-mark, however, applied not to the great Englishman who had harnessed steam for traction, but to a clever American mechanic, John Stephenson, first of the horse-car builders, a man of ready ingenuity whose business still bore his name full fifty years later.

His jolting juggernaut and the strap-rail laid on stone ties constituted the first passenger street-railway. It was not until nearly, twenty years later that another street-car system made its appearance in New York.

Then the present trolley era began with horse and mule, and between 1850 and 1855 half a dozen American street-railways were built, although not until 1860 did Europe get its first street-railway, when an erratic American, George Francis Train, secured a franchise to operate one at Birkenhead. By that time, the United States had nearly forty such railways, and over eighty more were built between 1860 and 1870.

When the first census of street-railways was taken in 1890, no fewer than 769 were in operation in the United States. That great jump forward was due wholly to the fact that electricity had at last come into its own. In furnishing energy and service for the streetcar, the horse, cable, and steam or compressed air were now obsolete and left behind.


It has been proved beyond all question that no agency but electricity can handle the surging millions of people massed in the great cities of our twentieth century. One hears a good Deal about “jitney” gasolene buses as competitors of the trolley.

Any one could soon figure out how many scores of thousands of jitneys would be needed in New York to carry those of its 6,000,000 citizens who must travel daily. From them and from people coming into town are collected every twenty-four hours more than 6,000,000 fares, giving the right on most lines to journey more than fifteen miles for five cents at a speed of twenty miles an hour.

NEW YORK (THIRTY-FOURTH STREET AND BROADWAY) IN THE NINETIES. The street-cars were hauled by cable and the elevated trains by steam locomotives.


One would like to tell more about the dynamo because it is the source of all current for its counterpart, the motor; but that is told in the chapter on “The Rise of Electricity.” No sooner was it realized that by spinning the armature coils of wire in front of the electromagnets, a ceaseless inexhaustible supply of cheap current could be obtained from them, than all the modern electrical arts sprang into being. To this is due the remarkable fact noted above that, when electricity became available soon after 1870, the street-railway industry increase six-fold in the twenty years to 1890.

Sometimes the generator which delivers current to the distant car is driven by a steam-engine, sometimes by a gas-engine, often by a water-wheel. The result is the same. We have the generator driven by power and developing electricity and then the motor receiving the electrical stream and developing mechanical or motive power.

Clerk Maxwell, the great British physicist, called the dynamo “the most important discovery of modern times.” So far as traction was concerned, however, it was only an improvement on what Davenport, Davidson, Farmer, and others had already done. To them goes the credit for the pioneer work; without their indefatigable genius the activity of the generator might have been limited.

On the other hand, with the coming of the generator we reached an absolutely new starting-point. In the same way, when artificial gas was piped for lighting, it displaced all that had before been done by oil lamp and tallow candle.

This dynamo by the Italian, Antonio Pacinotti, had multiple poles which made for a more continuous flow of electricity.


About 1875, a poor mechanic, George Green, of Kalamazoo, Mich., appears to have built one of the old-fashioned pre-dynamo street-cars, with an overhead wire from a battery. Three years later he built a bigger car, and, in 1879, at the dawn of the new era, he secured a patent with such broad trolley claims as to make him look like a Moses at the frontier of the Promised Land.

In 1877, came Stephen D. Field, who, living in hilly San Francisco, thought that electric power could be used instead of the noisy expensive cable, employed to haul cars on the stiff inclines of that city. For such severe work, equal to that of an office-building elevator, the cable has many merits. It can still be found on a few mountain roads, but even then the electric motor frequently drives the cable drum.

Stephen D. Field, a nephew of the famous untiring advocate of the Atlantic telegraph cable, was a talented, harum-scarum inventor, and as courageous as his uncle. He ordered one dynamo from Europe for his experiments, lost it at sea, then bought another, and soon found himself bankrupt on the shores of the Pacific.

Nothing daunted, the young engineer returned East full of his novel scheme, there to round up friends and funds. In 1874, he filed in the United States Patent Office what is called a “caveat,” followed up by a regular “application” the next year.

These disclosed plans for an electric railway, using current from a stationary dynamo, delivered through a third rail or insulated conductor to the car-wheels and traffic rails, which, divided into sections, formed the return circuit. Just Davenport over again, with improvements.

San Francisco gets cable car service in the 1870s.

At the same time, the Siemens firm of Berlin, one of the first great builders of dynamos and motors in Europe, were operating at a local exhibition near the River Spree, a little electric car, resulting from some abandoned experiments made by Doctor Werner Siemens. Their little electric locomotive, with third-rail supply and track return, pulled briskly for a third of a mile its train of three cars and twenty passengers at a rate of eight miles an hour. It was as much a world sensation as were airplane flights before the Great War.

Similar ventures to that introduced by the Siemens in Berlin were soon in operation at exhibitions in Brussels, Frankfurt, and Düsseldorf. On May 12, 1881, a permanent line, the first of its kind, was put in operation from Berlin to Lichterfelde; but it left out the third rail, the two track-rails being the plus (+) and minus (—) of the little system. And then the rush began in the Old World.

Overlapping the plans of Field and the experiments of Siemens came the work of Thomas A. Edison, unwearied and fresh from his glorious triumphs with the quadruple telegraph, the carbon telephone, the phonograph, the incandescent lamp, and a few other such miracles. The great inventor could not resist the opportunity of further success offered by the electric railway.


In the spring of 1880, trying out some ideas conceived over a year before, he built at the back of his Menlo Park laboratory an interesting little railroad. At this time he was still plunged deep in all the problems of his electric-lighting system.

Edison’s first locomotive was, in fact, merely a lighting dynamo used as a motor, laid flat instead of set upright; and the power from the armature shaft was simply applied to the car-axle by friction pulleys, afterward changed to pulleys and belts. The two track-rails were the conductors, one set of wheels being insulated.

It is noteworthy that the motor had a capacity of not less than twelve horse-power, and that in describing the primitive “road” the New York ‘Daily Graphic’ published a sketch of a hundred-horse-power locomotive which Edison even then, with wonted audacity, was planning for the Pennsylvania Railroad to ply between Perth Amboy and Rahway.

In fact by the time President Frank Thomson of the Pennsylvania came out to risk his life on the ramshackle “road” at Menlo Park, Edison, to use his own language, “was getting out plans to make an electric locomotive of 300 horse-power, with six-foot drivers, with the idea of showing people that they could dispense with their steam locomotives.”

Henry Villard wanted that locomotive for the wheat-fields and the mountain divisions of his grand new Northern Pacific Railroad. Of one of the demonstration trips Grosvenor P. Lowrey wrote: “The train jumped the track on a short curve throwing off Edison’s assistant, Kruesi, who was driving the engine—with his face down in the dirt. Edison was off in a minute, jumping and laughing, and declaring it was a most beautiful accident.”

“Kruesi got up, his face bleeding, and a good deal shaken; and I shall never forget the expression of voice and face when he said with some foreign accent: ‘Oh! yes, pairfeckly safe !“ That was the spirit which carried the new idea to victory.”

Speaking of some other advances of the kind at that time, Edison remarks: “In the same manner I had worked out for the Manhattan Elevated Railroad a system of electric trains, and had the control of each car centred at one place—multiple control. This was afterward worked out and made practical by Frank Sprague.” We shall speak of this later.


Electric-elevated railway practice was, as a matter of fact, first carried out in June, 1883, under the Field and Edison patents at the Chicago Railway Exposition, around the outer edge of whose gallery, over a three-foot gauge-track, ran “The Judge” locomotive of about fifteen horse-power.

This was the first electric railway constructed in America for business purposes; and its surprising success was a great advertisement. The road issued regular railway tickets and carried no fewer than 26,805 passengers in three weeks over an aggregate distance of 446 miles.

Rebuilt at the Louisville Exposition the same year, the feat was repeated on the same scale. Several aspiring young inventors lent a hand in assembling it. One of them, Frank B. Rae, afterward built many pioneer street-railways. Another was C. O. Mailloux, now president of the International Electro-Technical Commission.


Charles J. Van Depoele, born in Belgium, in 1846, acquired his mechanical and electrical knowledge under the guidance of his father, who was master mechanic in the railway shops of East Flanders. Fascinated by the batteries lying around the shop benches, young Van Depoele had soon mastered so thoroughly the principles of electricity that when only fifteen, he operated a crude electric light with current from forty cells.

But his father, impatient with such pottering, insisted he should have a real trade.Evident artistic ability led to his being apprenticed to a Paris cabinetmaker noted for his carving of altars and statuary. This did not hinder the young fellow from taking an electrical course at Lille, France, where his family now lived; here his enthusiasm aroused the interest of the teachers, although it continued to give offense to his father.

Sturdy young Van Depoele, visiting an aunt at Antwerp in 1868, and seeing his hopes blocked at home, slipped quietly away from that seaport and sailed for the United States. He headed for Detroit, which was then making its mark in furniture just as it has later done in automobiles. Being an artist to his fingertips, and knowing all about church fixtures, from pews to reredoses, he joined hands with a compatriot and there founded a factory which at times employed as many as 200 highly skilled craftsmen.

By this century, Depoele’s urban railways would continue to grow.

He did so well that he was able to bring the old people to America. Then, in 1877, he took an amusing revenge on his father by turning over to him the active management of his prosperous business. Freed from this responsibility, with unconcealed delight he spent his profits from the carving of saints on experiments in electric lighting.

Soon he evolved a novel dynamo, and with its current lit up a big arc-lamp, whose lurid glare in the overhanging fog from the lake caused a nervous citizen to turn in a frantic fire-alarm.

About 1878, Forepaugh’s famous circus came to town and Van Depoele lit it up, making an immense sensation; in 1880, he had one of the earliest American electric-light companies going at full blast. A few years later the company began to dabble in electric traction, and in 1883 it built two little roads, one of which, toward the end of the year, ran for fifty days at the Chicago Interstate Fair.

Thus began Van Depoele’s share in a new era of development, with inventions of which the United States courts said later: “Several patents cover highly meritorious inventions which have largely contributed to the successful practical operation of the trolley roads throughout the country.”

He built early roads in all parts of the United States and Canada, and when he died, in 1892, he was the grantee of some 250 United States patents in all branches of electricity.

Many improvements have been made in electric railways since those days, but his idea of the little wheel at the end of the trolley-pole—dubbed by the poet Holmes “the witches’ broomstick” still survives as a running contact under the overhead wire as the most economical and efficient method of picking up the current from the distant power-house.

Curiously enough, although Van Depoele has been called the “Father of the Trolley,” he did not coin the word. It traces back to another pioneer, John C. Henry, a young telegraph operator, with courage and ideas of his own, one of which was that of suspending the supply conductor wire over the track by means of span wires supported in turn by the poles along the line.

Henry’s first travelling contact for a line out of Kansas City to Independence, some ten miles away, was a little four-wheel carriage, which gripped onto and ran along the under-side of the overhead supply wire that fed current to the car motor.

It was virtually a baby’s toy carriage turned upside down, and was hauled by a flexible cable, string fashion, connecting to the motor, which thus “trollied” it along. At first it was called a “troller.” Then the street-car men and the passengers changed it to “trolley,” and “trolley” it has ever since remained as a general popular name for all electric street railways.

The “trolly.”


Inventors and their efforts were rapidly increasing. One or two stand out in the historic perspective of the new art, and their efforts should briefly be noted since they began to mark out distinct lines of either experiment or success. Thus there was Leo Daft, a clever English photographer, who took the first large views made in America, and later gave New York City its first power circuits for operating electric motors.

Picturesquely he named his first electric locomotives after Morse, Volta, Ampere, and Benjamin Franklin. Beginning in 1883, Daft did some very interesting work on several roads, including the New York Elevated, and one, an Adirondack hill-climber, on Mount McGregor, where General Grant died and where regular railroad coaches were hauled by electric power for the first time.

Early in the spring of 1885, Daft began to equip the Hampden branch of the Baltimore Union Passenger Railway Company. This had a third rail with track return, and it was probably the first regularly operated street-railway in the country. The conditions of the contract required satisfactory operation before payment. A distinguished scientist said that only a knave or a fool would enter into such an undertaking; but the faith of Daft and his backers was strong. They blazed the way for other “fools” crowding in behind them.

In the early part of 1885, Professor Sydney Short, a young physicist at Denver University, began an interesting number of experiments out in the foot-hills of the Rockies. The “series” system was used, in which, as in the early arc-lighting, a constant current went through all the motors in series succession on the line. After a while it was found that the “multiple” was the better way to do it, with the motors, across the current circuit, like incandescent lamps; or, to use a simple comparison, like the rungs in a ladder between the two uprights.

But Short, undiscouraged, went on to great successes in “multiple” trolleys here and in England. He was very successful also with gearless motors, in which all energy-wasting gears between the motor armature and the driven car-axle were left out.

DAFT’S AMPERE-ELECTRIC LOCOMOTIVE. The driver of the locomotive sat in the open, and situated directly in front of him were three switch-boxes. From Martins “Story of Electricity,” published by Johnson and Co.

Another method of operation and its crude “try out” must here be mentioned. Short had worked with a “conduit” system, or concealed feed-rail, to prevent any fatal human contact with the really deadly high-voltage current he was using. Evidently this also avoided the use of the overhead-wire method which, though it had many objections, was long unfairly damned in the sensational newspapers as the “deadly trolley.”

About this time, watching the successful cable street-railways of the day, with cars, like monster buckets, hooked on to the stout wire rope travelling in the slotted road-bed, two young patent lawyers, E. M. Bentley and W. H. Knight, put into operation a proposed rival. It may be regarded as the prototype of all the “conduit” street-railways operating successfully to this day on many busy thoroughfares from which the city fathers have barred the trolley overhead wires.

The two-mile stretch of the Bentley-Knight system on the East Cleveland, Ohio road gave new meanings to such words as “plough,” “slot,” “shoe,” and “conduit.” Operating quite well, even through the deep snows of the lake shore in the hard winter of 1884-5, it also may claim to have been one of the earliest lines to collect a five-cent fare as a commercial electric street-railway.


A brisk young lieutenant from Uncle Sam’s navy now burst impetuously into the electric-railway field. As jury secretary of the famous Electrical Exposition at the Sydenham Crystal Palace, England, in 1882, Frank Julian Sprague had to use the smoky old London “Underground.” He soon conceived the idea of running it electrically, as it now is run.

His clever plan was to have rigid rails overhead as well as underneath the car all in one plane, with current contact with the overhead rails by means of an upward-pressing wheel or cylinder. With that began an inventive career unsurpassed in brilliance and success.

Sprague came at the moment when the electric railway needed some great achievement to sum up all that had been done before, to enlist capital, and to shape things for the long future. Returning to America in 1883, Sprague entered the service of Edison, then improving his incandescent lighting system. But he was too full of his own ideas to be interested in those of any other man, or to bother about orders from anybody.

He cut loose! Napoleonic in temper and character, his moves and advances were made so swiftly that almost overnight the central station industry found itself with the gift from him of the motors so badly needed for its lighting circuits.

Sprague’s unique motor system.

Sprague had as business partner Edward H. Johnson, who had been associated with Edison; the two kindred spirits flung themselves violently into the trolley industry with no delay and precious little money. Some of Sprague’s first work was done on the Manhattan “L”; but mischance would have it that the great financier, Jay Gould, a little man physically, stood near the car-controller while the test car was being operated. An exposed safety-fuse “blew” with a startling flash. Gould tried to jump off at the risk of his life, and the “subsequent proceedings” did not interest him at all.

Nothing daunted by ill-luck, Sprague at once took on a street-railway job and soon had some minor work done. His great opportunity came at Richmond, Virginia, and the capital of the old Confederacy was assaulted with a Sprague determination that brooked no denial. The contract taken there would have been staggering to any but a sanguine inventor willing to gamble the very last dollar in backing up that in which he believed.

Completion was called for in ninety days of a street-railway with twelve miles of track, a central power-plant, the overhead line, forty cars with eighty motors, one on each car-axle, and all the needed controllers and appurtenances. This was nearly as many motors as were then giving uncertain railway service throughout the world. Moreover, grades of eight per cent were to be tackled, and no fewer than thirty of the cars were to be in use at one time.

The difficulties to be overcome were stupendous. The young inventor had barely signed the contract when he was
stricken with typhoid fever, and he had mighty little shot of any kind left in his locker when, in February, 1888, the road went into commercial operation.

But its success was instantaneous, as was also the effect on the public, on capital, and the whole range of electrical application. Watching those mysterious cars climb up the steep slippery grades of Richmond, an old colored man ejaculated his fervent blessing: “Fust dey freed de darky, and now dey freed de mule !”

THE SPRAGUE “MULTIPLE-UNIT” SYSTEM. At first, Sprague used ordinary street-car controllers, as here shown. The motorman manipulated a master-controller and thus controlled the motors on all the cars in the train.

“Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor, ploughboy, potboy”—runs the old song snatch. And now just such another curious grouping had occurred around the trolley. Blacksmith, telegraph-operator, photographer, navy officer, carver of furniture and wooden saints, patent lawyer, college professor had been needed in the combination of “all the talents” to which is owing the modern electric railway.

Whatever may be the method of latter-day operation, including one or two variations and developments still to be noted, fundamental principles and appliances were now all clearly established, foreseen, or promised. Little or nothing could be added except by way of achievement.

Mark Twain said that without differences of opinion there could be no horse-races. Without radical differences of opinion, the modern street-railway would not have been developed.

Many things had to be tried before they could be discarded. One was the “series” method of operation. Another was that of carrying storage batteries on the cars, for current supply, so as to get away from use of all overhead or underground wires and contact. Julien, Reckenzaum, Arnold, Edison, and others did their best to make this latter method successful, but it failed.


Arnold, who as a boy had built an operative steam locomotive when only sixteen years old, was one of the earliest men to apply alternating current to regular railroads; a wonderful development. Another ingenious plan, still favored to-day, is that of sticking to the overhead wires but giving up the use of the track as a return conductor. As far back as 1882, Doctor Finney, of Pittsburgh, devised such a scheme for omnibuses and street-cars. It has been used in a scattering way ever since; and at the time of this writing the “trackless trolley” has been adopted for the suburbs of New York City.

At first electric street-cars ran singly, usually with one motor mounted over the floor or chassis. Then the motor was slung underneath, on the car bottom or the axles. Sprague hit on the now-universal “wheelbarrow” method of motor suspension in 1885. Pretty soon, owing to the enormous growth of traffic and increase in weight of cars with steel-girder frames, two motors were the approved practice, the car often hauling one or two “trailers,” which had no motors.

A next step was linking the cars, even on the streets, into long trains, a dangerous practice, but the only way to carry the crowds of passengers unless there are elevated roads or subways that free the thoroughfare of such traffic. The train method has been a favorite with the numerous “interurban” trolley systems supplanting or supplementing ordinary steam railroads across country.


As we have seen, the elevated railway (“L”) and the subway both antedate the electric street-car. Few cities ever adopted the “L,” and those that did were compelled to endure its many disadvantages. At best a makeshift and not a great invention, the “L” will probably soon disappear, although it has done great service in sorely congested cities like New York, Berlin, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Boston. The more important inventive and engineering feat was the subway.

But, for the “multiple control” or “multiple-unit” system, credit at least is due to the “L” as also to the versatile, energetic Sprague, who offered it for New York in 1891, and in 1897, actually put it in operation on the South Side Elevated of Chicago. As Colonel H. G. Prout remarks in his life of George Westinghouse, who did as good work in using compressed air for multiple control as he had done in the air-brake: “It is elementary in the art of land transportation that when the volume of traffic is large enough there is gain in massing the cars into trains.”

Agreed, but the old-style locomotive must be dispensed with and the motive power placed in smaller units under each car. Then a highly novel and satisfactory condition arises if only the motors can but lock-step and all go off together. The train can start more quickly, stop more quickly, spread out its weight over more track, use less current for the work done, and “speed up the schedule” for all the headlong travel of city and suburb.

Modern interurban trolley-car.

Sprague in applying electric elevators to office-buildings had adopted a plan of motor control from a distant “master” switch. Using to begin with, at Chicago, ordinary street-car controllers, such as you see the motorman operate in much the same way a steersman on shipboard does his wheel or tiller, Sprague brought the operation of all of these, no matter how many or how long the train, to a master controller handled by one man. In this, his principle harked back to the massing of power and the instant application of the whole energy of it, exactly as though it were concentrated in a big locomotive instead of being distributed in small units.

THE TRACKLESS TROLLEY OMNIBUS. Vehicles of this type are used where it does not pay to lay tracks and where the traffic is not dense. The operating costs are lower than those of a track trolley-car. The seating Capacity is about thirty. This particular ’bus was built for Detroit, Mich. It follows gasoline ’bus rather than street-car design.


The application of such control in the electro-pneumatic form is best seen on the great subways of New York city, a system in extent and travel far beyond anything else in the world, and wholly impossible without electric traction. Other subways in Boston, Paris, and such cities, have followed its example, while in London, similar tubes, under American enterprise, have been put in operation 300 feet underground.

Downward, rather than upward and double-decking the streets, does the modern city find the possibility of living and travelling in layers, much as they did in the catacombs of ancient Rome.

Although as long ago as 1868 forty-two citizens of New York formed an underground railway company to build a line from the City Hall to the Harlem River, it was not until 1904 that the first of the “Tubes” got into operation. Since then the growth of the network has been incredibly rapid, and it is all tied in with the “L” system as well as with river tunnels and the main railway trunk-lines.

There are over 600 miles of “L” and Tube in the city, of which the Interborough Company’s subways total no less than 222 miles. And yet it is said that if the mileage of track could at once be doubled, people would still suffer the discomforts of overcrowding during the “rush hours.”

THE FIRST STANDARD-RAILWAY ELECTRIC TRUNK-LINE. Baltimore and Ohio electric locomotive hauling the first train under electric power in 1895.

One means of relief is suggested by travelling sidewalks. At the Columbian World’s Fair, outside Chicago in 1893, a motor-driven endless circular sidewalk was successfully operated on a long pier, where the boats landed sightseers from the city. It had two, or twin, platforms and some seats. Stepping first on the slower “walk,” the passenger could either stay there, or hop on to the other going at twice the rate, six or eight miles an hour, equal to the speed of an ordinary street-car.

This was copied at the Paris World Exposition of 1900, with American motors under the decks; the elevated “sidewalk,” which one could board at frequent stations, gave the passenger a fine view of the show and of Paris itself. More than once it has been seriously proposed to introduce the “flying” pavement into New York City, and the prediction is made that all the people who use it will jump right off to the faster “belt” as they get on the slower one.

When it is noted that the cars in Greater New York carry yearly twice as many passengers as all the steam railroads of the United States, it explains the confidence of electrical engineers that in a few years there will be no steam railroads left. A rising member of the profession once predicted that ten years later there would be no steam locomotives plying between New York and Boston.

Andrew Carnegie listening, nodded his head approvingly, but said with Scotch canniness: “Weel, it’s fine for young men to prophesy but they shouldn’t fix dates !” The process is already well advanced, and it involves no real changes in methods or conditions. Such invention as is needed is aimed rather at bringing the art abreast of the larger scale upon which everything has to be done, and this readjustment begins at the power-house itself.



The early reciprocating steam-engines driving direct current generators of a few hundred horse-power have been left behind by steam-turbine units—“turbo-generators”—of over 50,000 horse-power capacity, twice as efficient and occupying less than half the space.

Formerly the power-plants were non-condensing and stood on expensive ground at the city centre. Then they were moved to the water’s edge where condensing water was free and gave cheaper current in greater volume. Now they are being put right at the pit’s mouth so that no coal is carried, but its power essence is invisibly loaded on to a wire.

But most notably of all, water-power is being enlisted so that coal of ever-increasing costliness is saved. In 1914, coal for our railroad locomotives cost $235,231,481; in 1920 it cost just three times as much—nearly $700,000,000. Of course it is expensive to develop water-power, but a harnessed cataract is cheap to manage and maintain.

A coal-mine is soon plundered of its wealth, but Niagara has been tumbling millions of horsepower over the Horseshoe precipice for tens of thousands of years, and we have barely begun to tap its inexhaustible supply of energy and power. Getting in illimitable quantities the “white coal” of all such water-power, we can hurl their lightnings across a continent.

Where low voltages or pressure of electricity could be utilized only a few score miles with the direct current, “potentials” have been raised by means of the alternating current so that line pressures have been carried up to 100,000 and 250,000 volts; and power is already utilized several hundred miles from the spot at which it is generated.

The fog banks from the pacific Ocean caught on the Sierras spin the buckets of the turbo-generators, which convert the sparkling dewdrops into power for the electric locomotives of Southern California. The melting snows of the Rockies revolve the car-wheels of distant Denver. Similar conversions of sources of energy to electricity are going on not only in the leading countries of Europe, but in Central Asia, India, Japan, and Australia.

At present, but four per-cent of main-line railroad has been electrified in America. If fifty per-cent. of the 270,000 miles were converted there would be, to mention one item, an annual saving, chiefly in coal and tenders, of no less than 73,000,000,000 ton-miles. That volume of traffic is equal to over ten per-cent of the total revenue-producing freight handled. Meantime the good reasons that have shut the steam locomotive for human travel out of New York City are of equal force everywhere.

The electric locomotives supplied for the Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul road were magnificent creations, the largest passenger-locomotives in the world, rated at 4,200 horse-power. Moreover, as they drop down-grade they “regenerate.” That is, the motors become dynamos feeding current back into the line, so that they not only help brake their own descending train, but generously send out energy and give a lift-up grade to some sister train heavily climbing the mountains miles away. The actual saving in the total power consumption on the St. Paul road by this is from ten to fifteen per cent.

What would Thomas Davenport say of all this? Does it not outrun his boyhood dreams a century ago? Yet, did he not foresee the supremacy of electric traction?

ELECTRIC LOCOMOTIVE OF THE CHICAGO, MILWAUKEE, AND ST. PAUL RAILWAY. The Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul Railway is operated by electricity generated by water-power. The locomotives as they coast down-hill “regenerate” a certain amount of electricity on their own account, which is returned to the line. Electric meters record the amount thus returned and the road receives credit for it. Electricity keeps its own books. Courtesy of General Electric Company.
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