John Speller's Web Pages Frank J. Sprague

John Speller's Web Pages - US Railroads

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Frank Julian Sprague (1857-1934) grew up in New England and graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis in 1878. While in the Navy he became an expert on electric dynamos. In 1883 he was persuaded to resign his commission in the Navy and to go to work for Thomas Edison. The following year, however, he left Edison’s employment to found his own company, the Sprague Electric Railway & Motor Company. By 1886 he had patented two important inventions, a spark-free electric motor with fixed brushes, and regenerative braking, which saved power by returning energy to the electrical supply when a vehicle was braking. He went on to produce an improved sprung trolley for collecting power from overhead lines, and put his ideas into operation in 1888 by building the Richmond Union Passenger Railway, which was the first successful street railway in the world. Within a year over 100 schemes for electric railways making use of Sprague’s equipment were under construction in North America, Europe and elsewhere. In 1890 Sprague sold his company to Thomas Edison and in partnership with Charles Pratt started the Sprague Electric Elevator Company. He sold this company to the Otis Elevator Company in 1896, and started yet another company, the Sprague Safety Control & Signal Corporation, which produced the first successful Automatic Train Control system, as well as acting as a consultant to New York Central Railroad during the electrification of the lines into Grand Central Terminal, for which with William J. Wilgus, he designed the Wilgus-Sprague bottom contact third rail system. He also developed the first control system to allow the operation of electric multiple unit trains, first used on the South Side Chicago Elevated Railway in 1897 and soon after on the Third Avenue Elevated Railway in Manhattan. Sprague returned to the Navy as a consultant in World War I, and then started another elevator company, before selling out to Westinghouse and retiring.
Frank Julian Sprague (1857-1934)
One of Sprague's original electric street cars on the Richmond Union Passenger Railway, 1888
An original Sprague electric multiple unit train on the South Side Chicago Elevated Railway, 1897
Prototype "S-1" Class electric locomotive, built by ALCO-GE for the New York Central & New Haven Railroad in 1904
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