“Gems of Symmetry and Convenience”


Horses were subject to an almost endless variety of sicknesses. The vulnerability of the systems to animal ailments was demonstrated late in 1872, when an epidemic of a horse disease known as epizootic aphthae, or the “Great Epizootic,” swept through stables in the cities of the East. Thousands of horses died from the disease, and many more were disabled. In many places street railway service had to be seriously curtailed or discontinued altogether, and in some it was maintained only by hiring gangs of the unemployed to draw the cars through the streets. (Imagine the reaction, in 1973, of a modern labor or welfare organization to such a proposal!)

The devastating effect of the Great Epizootic served only to intensify a search that had already been going on for years to find a workable means of mechanical traction. Some of the earliest efforts had been directed toward the steam locomotive, but it proved noisy, dirty, expensive, and not particularly welcome in city streets. There were several efforts to develop “fireless engine” cars that employed the properties of compressed ammonia to power a reciprocating engine. One line developed a complicated fireless locomotive that operated on steam produced by the reaction of caustic soda with water. Others experimented with compressed air power, but all in vain.

Despite all the effort put forth, only one system of street railway mechanization achieved any degree of success in the years preceding the perfection of electric traction. This was the cable railway system devised during the early 1870’s by a San Franciscan named Andrew S. Hallidie. His cars were drawn through the streets by an endless wire rope powered by a steam engine at a central power plant. In hilly cities like San Francisco the cable cars effortlessly surmounted hills that were difficult, if not downright impossible, for horsecars. Gable railways averaged around nine or ten miles an hour, nearly double the speed of most horsecar lines. A mild boom in cable railway construction found both Chicago and San Francisco by the end of the 1880’s with cable systems of close to a hundred miles each. Altogether some two dozen American cities had installed cable railways based on Hallidie’s inventions. By 1894, the high-water mark, cable cars were hauling four hundred million passengers a year.

But the energy consumed just in moving the tremendous weight of the cable made the system relatively inefficient, and its mechanical complexities made it vulnerable to a wide variety of breakdowns. High costs —often well over $100,000 a mile—restricted cable railway construction to already well-developed urban areas, where a high volume of traffic was assured. For the more moderately travelled street railway lines, or for the needed extensions into suburban areas, the cable system failed to provide a satisfactory answer.

It might be said that the first step along the long road to successful electric transportation was taken in 1821, when English physicist Michael Faraday discovered that electricity could be made to produce mechanical motion. More often, however, credit for the first more or less direct approach to the problem is given to a young Brandon, Vermont, blacksmith and electromagnetic experimenter named Thomas Davenport, who exhibited a crude batterypowered motor as early as 1835 and only a year later used it to power a small circular railway.

A few years later a Scot named Robert Davidson successfully operated a battery-powered locomotive over the Edinburgh-Glasgow Railway. An American, Professor Moses G. Farmer of Dover, New Hampshire, demonstrated a small battery locomotive in 1847, and in 1851 Professor Charles G. Page of the Smithsonian Institution constructed a similar machine that attained speeds as high as nineteen miles an hour on a test run to a Washington suburb. But all this experimentation served only to prove that the crude batteries then available constituted an extremely unreliable and uneconomical source of power. Little further progress was made toward the advancement of electric traction until the development of satisfactory electrical generators more than a decade later.

Professor Farmer, in 1867, was one of the first to operate an electric railway with generated power. The first to do so with any degree of success, however, was the German inventor Ernst Werner von Siemens, whose generator-powered electric train was a popular attraction at the 1879 Berlin Industrial Exhibition. Two years later Siemens opened the world’s first commercial electric railway, a short one-car line at Lichterfelde, near Berlin.

Meanwhile, similar experiments were being carried out in the United States. During 1880 and 1881 Stephen D. Field, a nephew of transatlantic cable promoter Cyrus Field, operated an experimental electric locomotive at Stockbridge, Massachusetts. At almost the same time Thomas A. Edison began a series of electric railway experiments at his Menlo Park, New Jersey, laboratories. Edison’s interests were combined with those of Field a few years later in a joint firm, which successfully operated a three-ton electric locomotive at the 1883 Chicago Railway Exhibition.