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Elihu Thomson
(29 Mar 1853 - 13 Mar 1937)

English-American engineer and inventor whose discoveries in the field of alternating current phenomena led to the development of successful alternating current motors, among hundreds of patents.

New England Magazine logo Oct 1888
Development of Electric Railways.

by Charles L. Holt

from The New England Magazine (1888)

Elihu Thomson
Elihu Thomson

[p.551] WHY does the general public exhibit, just at the present time, such a remarkable interest in things electric? Electricity is not a new discovery. Electricians and street-railway men have for several years been pondering over the possibilities presented by electricity for motive purposes; but why is it that to-day capitalists, clerks, factory-hands, and toilers of every sort are, one and all, availing themselves of such opportunities as they have for learning the mysterious forces of electricity as applied to street-railways?

Mysterious forces? Yes, decidedly so; for, to the every-day citizen, who has not given more or less special study to magnets, generators, and motors, the simple transformation of an electric current into mechanical, motive force, is a phenomenon as dark as the shades of Egypt. He sees the wonderful power of electricity as shown in experiment, and he comes to regard such a force as an agent of the Devil, or, at least, a supernatural thing that cannot be bridled, and hence is dangerous to meddle with.

The convenience of banker and bricklayer alike is not suited by the horse-car system. “Time is precious,” and in large and growing cities, where the population moves country-ward, when the labors of the day are done, to pleasanter and healthier localities than the business portions can furnish for homes, economy demands a safe means of rapid transit. Projectors of electric railways promise just this relief, and not a few cities claim to have solved the problem by means of electric railways. This, then, is why people are interested. They are hampered by the limitations of horse-flesh. Something must be done. Electric railways promise relief; but, in a business-like spirit, the people want to understand the system before they expend time and money and influence.

What are the advantages claimed for electricity over other powers for locomotion? As against animal power, it does away with expenditures for real estate and buildings for stables, and storage for hay and feed, and with expenses for insurance and taxes, and for veterinary surgeons, and a standing army of hostlers and stable-boys. Less space is required for cars on the track, and there is no wear on the pavement between rails. Indeed, experience demonstrates the fact that running expenses are a third less. To the public generally, the recommendations are these: more rapid [p.552] transit, less noise, less obstruction on crowded streets, and less liability of injury to pedestrians or passengers, as an electric car can be stopped more quickly than a horse-car,—indeed, it can be reversed instantly, almost. Add to these items the absence of disease-breeding stables, and the value of the horse-car is completely snowed under.

Many of these advantages, of course, can be claimed for cable-roads; but, to offset them, is the fact that the cost of construction of the cable-road is forty per cent. greater than that of the most expensive electric road, while the running expenses of the former are seventy per cent. greater. In the case of cable-cars, speed is limited to the speed of the cable, and when the speed is lessened, the slipping of the “grip” wears the cable rapidly. Furthermore, the direction of a cable-car cannot be reversed.

That the convenience of the public is suited better by electric railways than by any other means of conveyance, is generally admitted on the strength of the testimony of the leading men in twenty-one cities in this country, where electric railways are in constant operation. That the cost of maintenance is less, is a matter demonstrable by figures. People in general, however, are very much afraid of lightning; and many of them, regarding electricity as nothing but lightning, believe that electric railways present an element of danger in just this direction. Experience seems to indicate that this fear is without foundation. Because people have been seriously injured or killed by coming in contact with arc-light wires, it by no means follows that if by accident a person should come in contact with an electric-railway wire, he would receive serious injury. Arc-light currents have generally a potential of not less than two thousand volts, while an electric railway, on the other hand, rarely requires more than a four-hundred or five-hundred volt current. The latter current can be taken by any one without the slightest evil effects.

It is practically impossible for a passenger on an electric railway to place himself in the electrical circuit, either accidentally or intentionally ; and, even if he should so place himself, no harm would be done. Then, too, no danger arises from proximity of other wires, as the railway-wires run in the middle of the street. Furthermore, in case of fire, they are out of the way of firemen.

Professor William B. Anthony, formerly professor of physics at Cornell University, in a recent address before the New York Electric Club, spoke as follows of the danger presented by electric wires in the streets:

“The amount of danger in any case is very well measured by the number of casualties. How many have been injured in New York by the arc-light wires? Five! Five in ten years! Half a man a year! Three of these occurred this spring within a few weeks of each other. The deaths were chronicled under great head lines. The death-dealing wires came in for a daily column. The mayor was called upon to account for his neglect to [p.553] order the wires under ground, and the public were led to believe that death was following every one upon the street with a lasso of line wire attached to a three-thousand-volt-power dynamo. But instead of these cases indicating such a great danger, it was their very rarity that made them so noticeable. A death by an electric-light wire was a new item of news, something to be served up in the finest style, and the reporters made much of it.

“Since I promised your president to give you a talk upon this subject, about three weeks ago, I have seen six cases of death or severe injuries by horse-cars. In every case the item was confined to a bare statement of the fact in the finest type, and without the slightest attempt at display. Some twenty-five deaths, and over a hundred and thirty severe injuries, have occurred from vehicles in the streets of New York since Jan. 1st. If deaths or injuries by electric-light wires were as common in occurrence, these too would be chronicled in the finest type, in the least conspicuous place on the page.

“No doubt there is danger in the electric-light wires, but the danger to people generally in the city is extremely small. The danger in crossing the street is thousands of times as great. The danger on the railroad-train, on the steamer, on the ferry-boat, in eating your lunch, or drinking your soda-water, is far greater; yet you do these things without a care for the consequences. The other day I read of two or three persons being killed by fallen bricks blown from a chimney, but the paper said nothing about a proclamation by the mayor ordering all chimneys taken in.”

In an article of this kind, the work of Professor Elihu Thomson deserves careful consideration, not only because of what he has already accomplished, but also because of what we have a right to expect from him in the future; for he is a young man still, with the best part of his life before him. Those who know about it say that he owes much to his father, who was the possessor of unusual mechanical insight and skill.

Elihu Thomson was born at Manchester, England, in 1853. His father was an out-and-out Scotchman, and his mother was English with an admixture of French blood two generations back. When he was five years old, his parents came to America and settled in Philadelphia. Here the boy showed great interest in machinery of every sort, and spent a great deal of time in drawing, even before very much constructive ability had manifested itself. When he was seven years old, he entered the schools of Philadelphia; and shortly after he had passed his eleventh birthday, he was ready to enter the Central High School; but the regulations required that each scholar, when he entered the high school, should be at least thirteen years of age. Strange as it may seem, this regulation was, perhaps, the making of Professor Thomson; for, during the two years in which it was his chief duty to grow old enough to enter the high school, there [p.554] happened to fall into his hands a book describing experiments in electricity, and giving directions for making an electrical machine, with a wine-bottle for a friction cylinder. Now the boy had never seen such a machine, and knew absolutely nothing about electricity till he got hold of this book; but see where his remarkable ingenuity and innate push led him. He made the machine at once, and it did its work; it produced electricity. Then, following his text-book, he made Leyden jars and other statical electric appliances. He got out a Morse telegraph circuit complete, with instruments and batteries, and the magnets were wound with wire, every inch of which was insulated by winding cord about the copper. He had never seen such a thing as insulated wire. In this way he went on with his rather crude experiments, till, when he graduated from a four-years’ course at the high school, he was said to have mastered about all that was then known of electricity, as well as of chemistry.

As soon as he had finished his course in the high school, he went into an analytical laboratory in Philadelphia, and there spent six months in testing ores, at the end of which time he was called back to the high school to become assistant in the department of chemistry. This position gave him charge of the chemical laboratory and apparatus, as well as the conduct of a large part of the instruction. In 1875, while still at the high school, he was made professor of chemistry at the Artisans’ Night School of Philadelphia, where his chief duty was to deliver scientific lectures. In 1876, at the age, just remember, of twenty-three years, Professor Thomson received promotion to the chair of chemistry and physics at the high school, where he was to have charge of the two-years' course in chemistry, and also of the instruction in mechanics and in the properties of solids. Professor Houston had then, and has even now, charge of the instruction in other branches of physics.

Professor Thomson was a ready worker, and therefore his school duties did not require all his time. His leisure, however, was by no means wasted. He started a good many lines of investigation and experiment. For one thing, he became infatuated with organ construction. He built a good pipe-organ that had four sets of pipes and electro-pneumatic key action. He made his own zinc and wood pipes, keys, valves, sound-board, bellows, and, indeed, all the essential parts. Then he went into lathe-work in metal, and the grinding of lenses and specula; and he made a compound microscope,—compound achromatic object-glasses, eye-pieces, condensers, and all. Later he made photographic lenses, and also a large variety of electrical devices, ranging from a Holtz machine to a dynamo-electric apparatus.

During the term of the Franklin Institute, in 1876-77, having been appointed lecturer, he gave courses on electricity, using very often, for purposes of illustration, apparatus of original design and construction. [p.555] For this object he made his first successful dynamo; making patterns, winding, etc., of dimensions sufficient to run a small arc-lamp. He began to feel increased interest in the subject of electric lighting. He devoted every spare moment to experiments with dynamos and lamps. It was at this time, too, that, as a result of preparing himself for a careful lecture on centrifugal force, he was led to get up, with Professor Houston, a machine [p.556] for the continuous separation of substances of different densities. The invention was applied specially to the separation of cream and milk; and, after a patent had been obtained, it went into well-nigh general use in large creameries.

The next winter Professor Thomson and Professor Houston served together on a committee of the Franklin Institute on dynamo-electric machines. Dynamos were carefully tested, and the results were published. The report of the committee called special attention to the advantages of thoroughly laminating armature cores, and also to the economy of working with a high external resistance of the dynamo, as compared with a low internal resistance.

In 1878 Professor Thomson attended the Paris Exhibition, where he made a zealous study of the Jablochkoff lighting system, which was then attracting great attention. Fired with a new lease of enthusiasm, he returned to America; and that year and the following, he, with Professor Houston, applied for several patents on electric-lighting apparatus. Mr. George S. Garrett of Philadelphia built some machines and lamps under license, and put a few plants in operation. Then the American Electric Company of New Britain, Conn., took hold of the matter. In 1880 this company, which is now known as the Thomson-Houston Company of Lynn, Mass., obtained the services of Professor Thomson as electrician, and a wonderful system of electric lighting took its start.

Among the buzz and whirl of the machinery at New Britain, Professor Thomson soon found himself just as much at home as he had been in the quiet schoolroom or laboratory. Here his genius soon found itself hand in hand with that excellent business management which was immediately attended with an enormous extension of business that placed this company’s enterprise in the foremost rank of electrical industries.

In 1883 the company occupied its new factory at Lynn, and Professor Thomson kept himself busier than ever. As a result of his undertakings in arc-lighting, incandescent-lighting, motor work, induction systems, etc., there are almost two hundred United-States patents, more than one hundred and fifty of which have been taken out since he left Philadelphia. And this isn’t all. Many patents are still hanging in the Patent Office; and there are also many promising private sketches, note-books, drawings, and models, that have accumulated during the past eight years. One of the latest things that Professor Thomson has won success in is the system of electric welding, for which he has devised an apparatus that renders the system generally available.

It seems strange, that, with all the wear and tear due to the great demands on Professor Thomson’s time and energy, he has found opportunities to contribute to scientific journals, and to deliver lectures. In 1886 he read a paper on electric welding, before the Boston Society of [p.557] Arts, and his essay was translated into more languages than any other scientific paper of that time. His paper entitled “Novel Phenomena of Alternating Currents,” which was read before the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, in 1887, is generally regarded as the most striking and valuable contribution that has yet appeared in the literature on that subject. Only a few months ago, also, a most thorough and scholarly report on the insulation and installation of electric-light plants was given before the National Electric Light Association.

Professor Thomson is a member of the American Philosophical Society, the Franklin Institute, the Boston Society of Arts, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He was recently elected, for a second time, vice-president of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, and is also an honorary member of the Boston Electric Club.

Double Motor Truck
Double Motor Truck

In appearance Professor Thomson exhibits quiet dignity, and in bearing and general disposition he is modest to a fault. He is a most excellent extemporaneous speaker; his mental grasp of any theme on which he attempts to speak, and his ready command of terse yet graceful [p.558] English, insuring eager listeners to every address that he makes. In 1884 he married Miss Mary L. Peck. There are now two Thomson boys.

The pioneer in electric-railway work on this side the water was Charles J. Van Depoele, a Belgian, who first opened his eyes in the year 1846. At a very tender age he dabbled in electricity, and became so thoroughly infatuated with the subject that he entered upon a course of study and experiment at Poperinghe. In 1861, while at college, he produced his first light with a battery of forty Bunsen cells. Later, he removed to Lille, France, where he attended regularly the lectures and experiments of the Imperial Lyceum, from 1864 to 1869. In the last-mentioned year he came to this country and took up his residence in Detroit, where he soon exhibited his lights and other electrical appliances.

Car on Crescent Beach Road
Car on Crescent Beach Road

One day in the year 1874, while he was experimenting in Detroit with electric generators and motors, there suddenly flashed across his mind the idea that a train of cars could he run by electricity. He had several scientific friends to whom he at once mentioned his thought, but they were inclined to be sceptical. They did not shake his convictions, however, for soon after this, on several occasions, we find him in his shop at Detroit, demonstrating the power of an electric motor by running an ordinary rip-saw to saw lumber. He would shift the belt of his ten-horse-power engine from the main shaft, driving the machinery, to a large dynamo, which drove another dynamo, belted as a motor to the main shaft. As soon as the engine was started, and the generating dynamo began to get up some speed, the current generated was transmitted by two wires to the motor, and the motor started up immediately, increasing or decreasing in speed, according to variations in the speed of the generator.

[p.559] Mr. Van Depoele and his friends were so enthusiastic over this discovery that the matter of making an experiment upon some piece of street-railway in Detroit, to show what could be done by way of driving cars by electricity, was pretty thoroughly agitated. Detroit, however, was at just that time greatly excited over the electric light, and so a sufficient amount of capital could not well be got together to give the railway scheme a trial.

Later, Mr. Van Depoele removed to Chicago, where the subject of electric railways was taken up again,—this time in earnest. In February, 1883, an experimental plant was put in, including a track four hundred feet long, The car was fitted up with a three-horse-power motor, and the rails were used as one side of the circuit, while the other side consisted of copper wire suspended on a level with the tracks, midway between them, by means of boards with V slots cut in them. On the bottom of the car were fastened two small wheels, into which the copper wire was laid. As the car moved along, the wheels would lift the wire out of the V slots, in approaching them, and drop it after passing the slots. The current came from a generator in a shop just across the street. This plant was run successfully several weeks, and an important principle was settled.

At the Chicago Inter-State Fair, which opened Sept. 10, 1883, an elevated electric railway was operated without a hitch some fifty days. The track was lifted above the ordinary level, the rails being carried on the top of the structure, the car being suspended below the axles, instead of above, as in the case of ordinary railway-cars.

In July, 1884, Mr. Van Depoele made arrangements to run an electric railway at the Toronto Annual Exhibition, from the entrances to the main building,—a distance of about three thousand feet. Here he tried the underground or conduit system, which also proved a complete success for all the purposes of the exhibition. A slim wooden box was fastened midway between the rails, and kept in place by means of iron brackets screwed to the cross-ties. The box was slit longitudinally the whole length of the track, and both sides of the slit were protected by iron strips, thus preventing any wearing of the wood. Two copper strips were placed on opposite sides of the box,—one of the strips being the positive conductor, and the other the negative. Two insulated conducting brushes entered the box through the slit, from the bottom of the car, making contact, one with the positive conductor, the other with the negative. These brushes were in turn in electrical communication with the motor and current regulator, so that the car, in traveling, always kept the circuit unbroken between the brushes. The motor used, which was of thirty horse-power, propelled three cars, carrying two hundred people at each trip. A forty-horse-power generator supplied the current. So much for the first experiment with the conduit system.

The next plant of importance was put in at Minneapolis in the winter of 1885-86, for the purpose of operating over a portion of the Minneapolis, [p.560] Lyndale, and Minnetonka Railroad. The plant consisted of a sixty-horse-power generator and a fifty-horse-power motor. The rails were utilized for one side of the circuit, and an overhead copper wire for the other side. The success of this road was regarded as phenomenal when it was put in operation, especially with reference to the ascending of grades and the turning of curves. One stormy day, so it is said, a steam-dummy started from the car-house with a motor car and a large open car to convey them to the road, where electrical connection could be had. As it neared the latter point, the dummy “got stuck.” The dummy was dismissed, and electrical connection made, when immediately the motor car ploughed its way through the snow, and cleared the track in a short time.

The overhead copper wire, which served for one side of the circuit between the generator at the power-station and the motor beneath each car, was suspended from brackets fastened to poles at a height of about twenty feet from the ground. A “trolley” or traveler ran freely back and forth on the wire, the latter being supported from the brackets from below. The trolley was a metal frame with grooved wheels resting on the wire, the whole being so arranged that the centre of gravity was well below the wire, so that the trolley remained upright, and held to the wire. The current was conveyed from the main conductor to the motor beneath the car by means of flexible wires running from the trolley to the motor. As the car moved, the trolley was drawn along, thus keeping up a constant metallic contact.

This is practically the overhead system, as it stands to-day. On the Thomson-Houston roads, the trolley comes in contact with the conductor from below, in which case the trolley is supported by a flexible arm, fastened to the top of the car. Then, again, when the track is in the middle of the street, instead of at the side, two lines of poles instead of one are used and the poles are connected in pairs by wires running from pole to pole across the street. From these cross wires, directly over the middle of the track, is suspended the main conductor, along which the trolley runs, as in the former case. On wide streets, a single line of poles is sometimes placed between the two tracks.

Roads are running successfully on one or another form of this system, at Appleton, Wis.; Binghamton, N.Y.; Detroit, Mich.; Fort Gratiot, Mich.; Jamaica, N.Y.; Lima, O.; Port Huron, Mich.; St. Catharines, Ont.; Scranton, Penn. (three lines); Ansonia, Coun.; Dayton, O.; Wheeling, W. Va.; Windsor, Ont.; Crescent Beach, Mass.; Revere, Mass.; Syracuse, N.Y.; and Washington, D.C.

The road at Appleton is run wholly by water-power, the plant consisting of a pair of turbines capable of developing a hundred horse-power, and actually driving a sixty-horse-power dynamo. The grades encountered on this road run as high as nine per cent. At Scranton there are two things worth [p.561] noticing. In the first place, Scranton is a city that boasts of more than sixty thousand inhabitants, yet the use of overhead wires throughout the city is allowed. The other point worthy of note is, that the road is operated from the electric-light station. The road is four miles long, and has twelve grades averaging more than six per cent. The road pays the electric-light company nine dollars a day for running the sixty-horse power generator, i.e., fifty-four dollars and seventy-five cents per horse-power per annum, or about one cent per horse-power per hour. The Detroit road is a suburban line, on which the cars have been run at a speed of twenty-seven miles an hour. At St. Catharines, the company has leased water-power from the Canadian Government on the Welland Canal, paying about one dollar per horse-power per annum. At the water-wheel, over four hundred horse-power is available; so the company has arranged to run, with the surplus, several motors along the line for manufactories. With this income, the net cost to the company for power will be about thirty cents per car per day.

Washington, D.C., is running three cars on two and one-seventh miles of track, over the Eckington and Soldiers’ Home Railway. This line starts at the corner of New-York Avenue and Seventh Street, north-west, and runs along New-York Avenue, out to the Soldiers’ Home in Eckington. The poles are not deemed unsightly. On the contrary, they are regarded as highly ornamental. They are of iron, and of the following design: At a height of twenty feet from the ground, an arm or bracket makes out from the pole, and from the end of this bracket or cross-piece the main conductor is hung. Then at a height of six feet above the cross-piece or bracket, a cluster of incandescent lights is arranged at the top of the pole. Where the track is double, the pole, which is itself of ornamental design, is set between tracks, and a cross-piece is used for the hanging of the wires; where the track is single, a bracket is used. The poles are set a hundred and twenty-five feet apart.

In the middle of last month, the West End Street Railway Company of Boston the largest street-railway system in the world - signed a contract adopting the Thomson-Houston system, and work was at once begun on the line from Harvard Square, Cambridge, to Arlington. This was a financial arrangement of enormous proportions, inasmuch as the change on the part of the West End Company from horse-power to electricity means an investment up in the millions. It means that eight thousand horses will be got rid of.

The one thing in all the mechanism of an electric railway that wins the admiration of a man versed in the mysteries of machinery is the work done so silently, and yet so completely, by the motor. The motor is indeed a wonder among wonders. It is not to be supposed, by any means, that all motors are alike in efficiency. The earlier forms were very crude in construction, and rather bungling to manage; but so rapid has been the improvement in [p.562] them, that to-day they may be regarded as completely developed, except that from time to time certain niceties of detail will doubtless claim attention, as a matter of convenience rather than of necessity.

Since, in explaining the work of a motor, it is necessary to take some special motor as an example, we will take that which, by reason of its complete mechanism and ingenious details, has found its way beneath most of the electric-railway cars now in use in this country. We refer to that manufactured by the Thomson-Houston Company.

It is a principle that needs no further explication, that, when the generation of power is confined to large stationary plants, vastly greater economy is obtained than when the power is supplied from several smaller plants. The beauty of electricity as a power is, that it can be transferred from one point to another, the energy of a steam-engine at the central station being distributed among the several cars on the line of the road in such a way that each car, at each point of the road, receives just so much power as is actually needed at that point. In the case of a cable railway, on the other hand, seventy-five per cent. of the energy supplied at power-stations is used up in simply dragging the cable. The energy of the engine at the power-station of an electric railway is converted by means of a dynamo into electricity at the station, and carried by stationary metallic conductors along the whole length of the line; and the car as it moves along draws off the electricity in such quantity as is needed, by means of metallic connection between the main conductor and the motor fastened to the axles under the car. The motor then takes the current of electricity, and converts it into mechanical power, so that the wheels of the car move.

It is well to remember that the dynamo at the power-station and the motor beneath the car are practically one and the same machine, working in directly opposite ways. The dynamo converts mechanical energy into electric, and the motor converts back electric energy into mechanical.

The characteristic that has brought the Thomson-Houston motor into so great general favor is that it combines high efficiency with substantial and tasty mechanical design. Careful experiments have several times recently been made with these motors to test their efficiency. The results show for the fifteen-horse-power motor an average of more than ninety-one per cent., that is, less than nine per cent. of the energy imparted to the motor is dissipated. Less than five years ago, the best dynamos and motors gave an efficiency of only seventy-five per cent. The wire coils became heated, and the journals too, for that matter; so that a machine could not be depended upon to run more than about fifteen hours on a stretch. Then the armatures and the commutators would burn out. In short, there was always something wrong. Now the Thomson-Houston Company have succeeded in making a dynamo and a motor that, after making all reasonable allowances beyond those actually indicated in experiments, give for [p.563] a hundred horse-power at the engine sixty-five horse-power at the car-axle. This is very much greater than the efficiency of steam as applied to railroading.

How is this remarkable efficiency obtained? Simply by paying careful attention to the electric and magnetic proportioning of the motor. The magnetic circuit is very short, and of ample section, and therefore of low resistance, and the magnetic poles are so formed as to convey the magnetism into the armature with the least possible loss. In the engraving it will be noted that the poles of the field-magnets, the cores of which are round in section, project upward, enclosing the armature. By this means, a high peripheral velocity causes a rapid cutting of the lines of force, in consequence of which, also, the armature is capable of exerting a powerful rotative force, or “torque,” such as is needed in railway-cars.

As the armature is short, the necessity for a long, rigid shaft is avoided. The coils of the motor are wound on bobbins, slipped over the core, so that it is very easy to change or replace a coil. The field-magnets, which are relatively of very high resistance, are wound in shunt to the armature; so that the amount of electricity required to energize the field-magnets is reduced to a very small fraction of that absorbed by the motor. The winding on the armature is of very low resistance, which, with the careful construction of the armature core, makes it impossible for the armature to become heated, even when greatly overloaded. The motor is started and stopped by means of a rheostat, which is inserted in the armature circuit in such a way that all of the resistance is introduced when the motor is started. In this way, an abnormal flow of the current through the armature is prevented, and the car starts gradually. As the speed increases this resistance is cut out, until, when full speed is attained, no resistance remains in the circuit. The counter-electromotive force of the armature regulates the flow of the current, as the load varies.

In most motors two pairs of brushes are used,—one pair for each direction; but the Thomson-Houston motor uses but one pair of brushes, whether the car moves forward or backward. They need not be shifted at all, and at the same time they run without any “sparking” whatever. The brushes are self-feeding, and the bearings self-oiling. All that is necessary is that care be taken to place the brushes properly before the motor starts, and also to supply the oil-cups with oil about once a week. This done, the machine will take care of itself. The current is controlled, the car is reversed, and the brakes are applied, from either platform. For the prevention of accidents from lightning, the Thomson-Houston Company supplies each car with a lightning-arrester, and is said to be the only company that thus far has made this important move. This device is covered by their patents.

All this would seem to indicate that motors have got beyond the [p.564] experimental stage, and have come to stay. In this connection it may be of interest to note a few sentences of a report made in the early part of the present year by Capt. Griffin of the Corps of Engineers, assistant to the engineer commissioner of the District of Columbia, pursuant to a request from a Senate committee for information and suggestions as to the feasibility of adopting an electric-railway system for the District of Columbia. After going into a careful, detailed résumé of what had been accomplished by electricians in the matter in hand he said, by way of conclusion:—

“A careful review of the recent developments in electrical tramways, and the present condition of electrical science, must convince any unprejudiced investigator that the electric motor is now ‘beyond the experimental stage, and well established in the practical commercial domain. In other words, it is an incontrovertible fact that electrical energy offers a much cheaper and far more satisfactory motive power for tramways than either cables or horses.

“There are about twenty-five hundred street-cars in use in the United States, requiring one hundred and twenty thousand horses for their service. About one-fifth of these, or twenty-four thousand horses, are more or less disabled annually. They either die, or drag out the remainder of their existence in other service. This is a frightful showing, and a change to some other form of motive power is called for on humanitarian grounds, as well as to serve the comfort and convenience of the public. Electricity not only furnishes a cheap and satisfactory power, but it also gives a brilliant light to the cars, rings the alarm-bells, and signals the driver.

Very few people have any adequate idea of the great amount of electric-railway business that has sprung up in this country “almost in a night.” Take the company already referred to, as an example. A few brief months ago the Thomson-Houston Company thought of little else, and were known for little else, than their electric-lighting system. To-day the electric-railway department bids fair to rival the lighting branch of their business. They have bought up the Van Depoele patents; have secured the services of Mr. Van Depoele; and have added two new buildings to their already enormous factory at Lynn, Mass., which is now by far the largest in the world. Nineteen roads are in operation to-day, using this system alone.

The Thomson-Houston Company has signed contracts for equipping ten roads that are in process of construction now at the following places: Des Moines, Iowa; Wichita, Kan.; Omaha, Neb.; North Adams, Mass.; Lynn, Mass.; Danville, Va.; Hudson, N.Y.; Seattle, W.T.; Bangor, Me.; and Boston. The Riverside and Suburban Street Railway Company of Wichita, Kan., will operate two miles of track with three cars. At North Adams, Mass., the Hoosac Valley Railway Company will run six cars over five miles of track. At Lynn, the Lynn and Boston road will try electricity on its Highland Line, where grades run as high as twelve and [p.565] one-half per cent. There will be one and seven-eighths miles of track, and two cars. The Danville (Va.) Street Railway Company will operate two miles of track, with four cars. The Hudson (N.Y.) Street Railway Company will run three cars over two and one-half miles of track. At Scranton, Penn., three roads are operating fourteen miles of track under the Thomson-Houston system. The Scranton Passenger Railway Company has just contracted for an extension of a mile and one-half. The Scranton Suburban Railway Company has ordered ten new trucks, and the other company—the Nay-Aug Crosstown Railway Company—has ordered four. At Seattle, W.T., five miles of road, with five cars, will be in running order by the first of January next. The Street Railway Company of Bangor, Me., has contracted for a road four and one-half miles long, with four cars, using a single overhead conductor. The Des Moines Broad Gauge Railway Company is equipping seven and one-half miles of track with eight cars, with this system; and the Omaha and Council Bluffs Railway and Bridge Company will soon have a model road in operation, with nine miles of track and twelve cars.

Besides the overhead and the conduit systems, there is what is known as the “storage system,” in which the power is furnished by a storage battery or accumulator. In this system each car is independent of every other car, carrying its own power wherever it goes. It seems to be the general verdict, however, that the storage battery is not yet sufficiently developed to prove satisfactory, since, although this method of running is perfectly safe, still it is slow, clumsy, expensive, and uncertain.

There are several other systems in use to a greater or less extent, but they are all modifications, in one way or another, of the three already mentioned. The storage system has met with practically no favor whatever. The underground or conduit system is correct in principle; but wherever it is possible to use overhead wires, they had better be used, as a conduit is comparatively expensive in first cost, and much more exacting in the matter of running expenses than is the overhead system. In densely populated cities, however, with narrow streets, where permission cannot well be granted to erect poles, the conduit system will be found to work to the sufficient satisfaction of all concerned. The system in which an overhead conductor is used has proved satisfactory wherever it has been put in operation,—to passengers, stockholders, and city fathers alike.

Text and images from Charles Holt, 'Development of Electric Railways', The New England Magazine (Oct 1882), 6, No. 36, 551-566. (source)

See also:
  • Science Quotes by Elihu Thomson.
  • 29 Mar - short biography, births, deaths and events on date of Thomson's birth.
  • Charles Van Depoele - Biography from The Mechanical News (1892).
  • 27 Apr - short biography, births, deaths and events on date of Charles Van Depoele's birth.
  • Innovation as a Social Process: Elihu Thomson and the Rise of General Electric, by W. Bernard Carlson. - book suggestion.

Nature bears long with those who wrong her. She is patient under abuse. But when abuse has gone too far, when the time of reckoning finally comes, she is equally slow to be appeased and to turn away her wrath. (1882) -- Nathaniel Egleston, who was writing then about deforestation, but speaks equally well about the danger of climate change today.
Carl Sagan Thumbnail Carl Sagan: In science it often happens that scientists say, 'You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken,' and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion. (1987) ...(more by Sagan)

Albert Einstein: I used to wonder how it comes about that the electron is negative. Negative-positive—these are perfectly symmetric in physics. There is no reason whatever to prefer one to the other. Then why is the electron negative? I thought about this for a long time and at last all I could think was “It won the fight!” ...(more by Einstein)

Richard Feynman: It is the facts that matter, not the proofs. Physics can progress without the proofs, but we can't go on without the facts ... if the facts are right, then the proofs are a matter of playing around with the algebra correctly. ...(more by Feynman)
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