Boys' Life of Edison - W. H. Meadowcroft

Edison's Electric Railway

It is quite likely that many of our young readers have never seen a horse-car. This is not strange, for in a little over twenty years the victorious trolley has displaced the old-time street-cars drawn by one or two horses. Indeed, a horse-car is quite a curiosity in these modern days, for such vehicles have almost entirely disappeared from the streets.

The first horse railroad in the United States was completed in 1827, and it was only seven years afterward that a small model of a circular electric railroad was made and exhibited by Thomas Davenport, of Brandon, Vermont. Other inventors also worked on electric railways later on, but they did not make much progress, because in their day there were no dynamos, and they had to use primary batteries to obtain current. This method of generating current was far too cumbersome and expensive for general use.

In 1879, after dynamos had become known, the firm of Siemens exhibited at the Berlin Exhibition a road about one-third of a mile in length, over which an electric locomotive hauled three small cars at a speed of about eight miles an hour.

This was just before Edison had developed the efficient commercial dynamo with low-resistance armature and high-resistance field, which made it possible to generate and use electric power cheaply. Thus we see that Edison was not the first to form the broad idea of an electric railway, but his dynamo and systems of distribution and regulation of current first made the idea commercially practicable.

When Edison made his trip to Wyoming with the astronomers in 1878 he noticed that the farmers had to make long hauls of their grain to the railroads or markets. He then conceived the idea of building light electric railways to perform this service.

As we have already noted, he started on his electric-light experiments, including the dynamo, when he returned from the West. He had not forgotten his scheme for an electric railway, however, for, early in 1880, after the tremendous rush on the invention of the incandescent lamp had begun to subside, he commenced the construction of a stretch of track at Menlo Park, and at the same time began to build an electric locomotive to operate over it.

The locomotive was an ordinary flat dump-car on a four-wheeled iron truck. Upon this was mounted one of his dynamos, used as a motor. It had a capacity of about twelve horse-power. Electric current was generated by two dynamos in the machine-shop, and carried to the rails by underground conductors.

The track was about a third of a mile in length, the rails being of light weight and spiked to ties laid on the ground. In this short line there were some steep grades and short curves. The locomotive pulled three cars; one a flat freight-car; one an open awning-car, and one box-car, facetiously called the "Pullman," with which Edison illustrated a system of electromagnetic braking.

On May 13, 1880, this road went into operation. All the laboratory "boys" made holiday and scrambled aboard for a trip. Things went well for a while, but presently a weakness developed and it became necessary to return the locomotive to the shop to make changes in the mechanism. And so it was for a short time afterward. Imperfections of one kind and another were disclosed as the road was operated, but Edison was equal to the occasion and overcame them, one by one. Before long he had his locomotive running regularly, hauling the three cars with freight and passengers back and forth over the full length of the track. Incidentally, the writer remembers enjoying a ride over the road one summer afternoon.

The details of the various improvements made during these months are too many and too technical to be given here. It is a fact, however, that at this time Edison was doing some heavy electric railway engineering, each improvement representing a step which advanced the art toward the perfection it has reached in these modern days.

Electric Railway


The newspapers and technical journals lost no time in publishing accounts of this electric railroad, and once again Menlo Park received great numbers of visitors, including many railroad men, who came to see and test this new method of locomotion.

Of course, in operating this early road there were a few mishaps, fortunately none of them of a serious nature. In the correspondence of the late Grosvenor P. Lowry, a friend and legal adviser of Mr. Edison, is a letter dated June 5, 1880, giving an account of one experience. The letter reads as follows:

"Goddard and I have spent a part of the day at Menlo, and all is glorious. I have ridden at forty miles an hour on Mr. Edison's electric railway—and we ran off the track. I protested at the rate of speed over the sharp curves, designed to show the power of the engine, but Edison said they had done it often. Finally, when the last trip was to be taken, I said I did not like it, but would go along. The train jumped the track on a short curve, throwing Kruesi, who was driving the engine, with his face down in the dirt, and another man in a comical somersault through some underbrush. Edison was off in a minute, jumping and laughing, and declaring it 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 in which he said, with some foreign accent: 'Oh yes! pairfeckly safe.' Fortunately no other hurts were suffered, and in a few minutes we had the train on the track and running again."

This first electric railway was continued in operation right along through 1881. In the fall of that year Edison was requested by the late Mr. Henry Villard to build a longer road at Menlo Park, equipped with more powerful locomotives, to demonstrate the feasibility of putting electric railroads in the Western wheat country.

Work was commenced at once, and early in '882 the road and its equipment were finished. It was three miles long, and had sidings, turn-tables, freight platform and car-house. It was much more complete and substantial than the first railroad. There were two locomotives, one for freight and the other for passenger service.

The passenger locomotive was very speedy and hauled as many as ninety persons at a time. Many thousands of passengers traveled over the road during 1882. The freight locomotive was not so speedy, but could pull heavy trains at a good speed. Taken altogether, this early: electric railway made a great advance toward modern practice as it exists to-day.

There are many interesting stories of the railway period at Menlo Park. One of them, as told by the late Charles T. Hughes, who worked with Edison on the experimental roads, is as follows:

"Mr. Villard sent J. C. Henderson, one of his mechanical engineers, to see the road when it was in operation, and we went down one day—Edison, Henderson, and I—and went on the locomotive. Edison ran it, and just after we started there was a trestle sixty feet long and seven feet deep, and Edison put on all the power. When we went over it we must have been going forty miles an hour, and I could see the perspiration come out on Henderson. After we got over the trestle and started on down the track Henderson said: 'when we go back I will walk. If there is any more of that kind of running I won't be in it myself.'"

The young reader, who is now living in an age in which the electric railway is regarded as a matter of course, will find it difficult to comprehend that there should ever have been any doubt on the part of engineering experts as to the practicability of electric railroads. But in the days of which we are writing such was the case, as the following remarks of Mr. Edison will show:

"At one time Mr. Villard got the idea that he would run the mountain division of the Northern Pacific Railroad by electricity. He asked me if it could be done. I said: 'Certainly; it is too easy for me to undertake; let some one else do it.' He said: 'I want you to tackle the problem,' and he insisted on it. So I got up a scheme of a third rail and shoe and erected it in my yard here in Orange. When I got it all ready he had all his division engineers come on to New York, and they came over here. I showed them my plans, and the unanimous decision of the engineers was that it was absolutely and utterly impracticable. That system is on the New York Central now, and was also used on the New Haven road in its first work with electricity."

Mr. Edison knew at the time that these engineers were wrong. They were prejudiced and lacking in foresight, and had no faith in electric railroading. Indeed, these particular engineers were not by any means the only persons who could see no future for electric methods of transportation. Their doubts were shared by capitalists and others, and it was not until several years afterward that the business of electrifying street railroads was commenced in real earnest.

In the mean time, however, Edison's faith did not waver, and he continued his work on electric railways, making innumerable experiments and taking out a great many patents, including a far-sighted one covering a sliding contact in a slot. This principle and many of those covered by his earlier work are in use to-day on the street railways in large cities.

The early railroad at Menlo Park has gone to ruin and decay, but the crude locomotive built by Edison has become the property of the Pratt Institute, of Brooklyn, New York, to whose students it is a constant example and incentive.

Down to the present moment Edison has kept up an active interest in transportation problems. His latest work has been in the line of operating street-cars with his improved storage battery. During the time that this book has been in course of preparation he has given a great deal of time to this question.

Some years ago there were a number of street-cars in various cities operated by storage batteries of a class entirely different from the battery invented by Edison. We refer to storage batteries containing lead and sulphuric acid. These were found to be so costly to operate and ' maintain that their use was abandoned.

Mr. Edison's new nickel and iron storage battery with alkaline solution has been found by practical use to be entirely satisfactory for operating street-cars, not only at a low cost, but also with ease of operation and at a trifling expense for maintenance. Of course there have been many problems, but he has surmounted the principal difficulties, and there are now quite a number of street-cars operated by his storage battery in various cities. These cars are earning profits and their number is steadily increasing.