- Historic Sites
“Gems of Symmetry and Convenience”
So Richmond proudly described its electric trolleys, the first truly successful system in the world
February 1973 | Volume 24, Issue 2
As electric traction drew closer to success during the early 1880’s several important new inventors entered the field. After a series of encouraging experiments, British-born inventor Leo Daft was engaged in 1885 to carry out the first commercial railway electrification in the United States, a twomile installation on a Baltimore horsecar line. The Daft electrification, which employed small fourwheeled locomotives pulling trains made up of former horsecars, worked reasonably well but lacked reliability, and a few years later the line reverted to animal power.
In 1884 John C. Henry, a former telegraph operator, built an experimental electric line at Kansas City that, if otherwise unsuccessful, was notable for the first use in the United States of current collection from a system of overhead wires. Until then all of the early inventors had fed the power through either a third rail or the running rails.
A different approach to current collection was taken by Edward M. Bentley and Walter H. Knight, who electrified a Cleveland horsecar line in 1884 with a system drawing power from underground conductors placed in a conduit beneath the street. It failed financially, but an improved version of the underground conduit system was later adopted for street railway systems in Manhattan and the District of Columbia.
Foremost among the inventors who developed the electric railway to the edge of practicality during the mid-1880’s was an immigrant Belgian cabinetmaker named Charles J. Van Depoele, who constructed his first experimental electric railway at Chicago in 1882. A onemile exhibition line on the grounds of the Toronto Industrial Exposition in 1884 was a modest success, and a year later Van Depoele was back with a bigger and better one, whose most notable feature was the first use of the underrunning trolley pole, ultimately the almost universal method of current collection on American street railways. The device consisted of a contact wheel mounted on the end of a pivoted pole, which was held against the overhead power wire by means of spring tension.
Following a hugely successful second year at the Toronto exposition, Van Depoele was swamped with contracts for new installations. By far the most important of these was the electrification of the Capital City Street Railway at Montgomery, Alabama. By the time the system was in full operation in 1886, it covered no less than fifteen miles of track, giving Montgomery the first completely electrified street railway system in the world. Although small and plagued by mechanical and electrical difficulties, Van Depoele’s Montgomery installation was at least successful enough to keep running.
At this point electric traction was finally beginning to show real promise, and the stage was set for Frank Sprague. He brought to electric railway development a considerably more scientific approach than that of the majority of the inventors and experimenters then active in the field. Born in 1857 at Milford, Connecticut, in 1874 Sprague entered the United States Naval Academy, where he developed an intense interest in electricity. Following graduation in 1878, while on a Far Eastern cruise aboard the flagship U.S.S. Richmond he produced nearly sixty inventions covering a wide range of subjects. On the U.S.S. Minnesota the ambitious young ensign developed a scheme for installing incandescent light aboard the ship, utilizing an Edison dynamo and a disconnected boiler pump.
In the spring of 1881 the Minnesota was ordered to Newport, Rhode Island, where Sprague built a novel type of dynamo, which was tested for Professor Moses Farmer, the already mentioned electric railway pioneer, then a government electrician at the Newport Torpedo Station. Later Sprague was ordered to the 1882 British Electrical Exhibition, held at the Crystal Palace in London, where he was made secretary of the jury testing dynamos and gas engines. Although he overstayed his leave by some months, Sprague regained the good graces of the Navy Department by submitting a voluminous report on the test results.
During his stay in London Sprague often rode the steam-operated underground, opened in 1863. Here for the first time he began to think seriously of the application of electricity to railway operation, conceiving the idea of an overhead power system using a type of underrunning trolley. Charles Van Depoele was developing his similar ideas at about the same time, and the two were later to become involved in a patent controversy over the matter.
In 1883 Sprague resigned from the Navy and went to work as an assistant to Thomas A. Edison, and a year later he left to form his own company and develop his electric railway ideas.