FreightWaves Classics/Pioneers: Page’s electric locomotive is rolling

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The first successful demonstration of a full-size electric locomotive took place on April 29, 1851 (171 years ago today). The locomotive was designed and built by Charles Grafton Page.

Background

Dr. Charles G. Page.  (Photo: Smithsonian Institute)
Dr. Charles G. Page. (Photo: Smithsonian Institute)

Born in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1812, Page developed an early interest in electricity. He earned a science degree from Harvard University in 1832, then went to medical school in Boston. After graduating from medical school in 1836, he began a medical practice in Salem. However, he remained “relentlessly curious about electricity” and continued to conduct electrical experiments.

Page and his parents left Salem and resettled in northern Virginia in 1838. He established a new medical practice but also worked as an examiner for the United States Patent Office. He was also a professor of chemistry at Columbian College (now George Washington University).

His interest and enthusiasm for electrical experiments never wavered. Through his experiments and special electrical inventions, he developed a scientific understanding of the principles of electromagnetism. He applied this science to the US Patent Office, to the benefit of other inventors, and to his own dream of developing electromagnetic locomotion. Page’s work had a lasting impact on telegraphy and on the practice and policy of patenting scientific innovation.

Scientific experiences

Page sought to increase the electrical voltage above the normal low voltage of a battery for medical purposes. He improved the inductive coil to obtain a higher voltage, building an efficient instrument and naming it the “dynamic multiplier”. In his device, the electrical flow was started, stopped and interrupted, which had the effect of causing the inductive coil to produce a very high voltage. A side effect of Page’s device was that when “the flow of electricity stopped in the electromagnet due to the interrupting instrument, a tone could be heard”. Page named this uniquely tone galvanic music. Alexander Graham Bell and others developed telephone technology based on this particular electro-acoustic sound.

Among Page’s many contributions were an automatic circuit breaker and one of the first electric motors, which he invented in 1838.

The locomotive

During the 1840s, Page developed his axial motor. It used an “electromagnetic solenoid coil to pull an iron rod into its hollow interior. Moving the rod opened a switch which prevented current from flowing through the coil; then not being attracted, the rod came out of the coil, and this cycle repeated itself again. The reciprocating back and forth motion of the rod (in and out of the coil) was “converted into rotary motion by the mechanism.” Page demonstrated how this engine was capable of running saws and pumps, he later successfully petitioned the United States Senate for funds to produce an electromagnetic locomotive based on his axial engine design.

Page made a presentation to the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1850 regarding his progress which impressed a number of leading scientists.

Page axial motor.  (Image: public domain)
Page axial motor. (Image: public domain)

With government funds as well as personal money (which led him into debt), Page built and tested the first full-size electromagnetic locomotive. Page built and tested a series of engines which were revisions of the axial engine which had different dimensions and mechanical characteristics, which he tested extensively.

The power to propel the first all-electric locomotive was provided by 100 large electrochemical cells (acid batteries with expensive zinc and platinum electrodes, with fragile clay diaphragms between the cells). They were placed under the “floor of the car in an oblong trough between the driving wheels”. Each cell was 100 square inches with a pair of electrode separators. The electromagnetic “motor” of the locomotive was capable of developing 20 horsepower.

Disadvantages

While Page had focused on locomotive propulsion, the vehicle itself was not very well built. It was built like an ordinary passenger car; it had a body 15 feet long with a vaulted roof and was 6 feet wide. The locomotive superstructure supported the front end with four ordinary 30-inch steel wheels; the rear was supported by two 5-foot-tall drive wheels. The locomotive’s woodwork was built by a house carpenter who had never seen a car being built. Moreover, the driving wheels of the locomotive were assembled by mechanics who were not accustomed to making such complicated mechanisms; the wheels were misaligned.

The test

Page and engineer Ari Davis left Washington on the 21,000-pound locomotive/railroad car. There were several passengers on board. Page had planned to ride a branch line of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad between Washington and Baltimore (about 40 miles) and then back to Washington. However, the trip to Baltimore ended in Bladensburg, Maryland (about nine miles from Washington) due to several issues that arose.

(Image: American Polytechnic Journal - 1854/Wikipedia)
(Image: American Polytechnic Journal – 1854/Wikipedia)

The main setback involved short circuits resulting from high voltage sparks emanating from the electric coils despite their isolation. Shortly after the trip, Page wrote: “Another serious difficulty encountered was the rupture of the porous cells of the battery, causing a mixture of [the] acids, and the interception of much of the power. Although Page and Davis attempted to fix these flaws, they were unable to do so; instead, they shunted the locomotive to Washington from Bladensburg.

Many of the battery cells’ fragile clay separators cracked and broke from the jolts and jolts caused by the locomotive engine. Additionally, zinc consumption was enormous, so both of these maintenance issues meant that running a battery-powered locomotive was too expensive for commercial application.

Success (sort of) then hard sledding

Despite its problems, the locomotive was able to travel as fast as 19 miles per hour and reached Bladensburg in just 39 minutes. “Rapid Progression of Electro Magnetic Power,” was the title of a Weekly National Intelligencer article about the experimental voyage. Page’s “demonstration of his locomotive marked an important step in replacing steam power with electricity as a means of propelling vehicles forward”.

However, the failure of Page’s electromagnetic locomotive test meant that other inventors eventually found other methods of producing electrically driven locomotion. Page never stopped believing in the potential of his design for an on-board electrical source to power locomotives.

The Bladensburg, Maryland historical marker.  (Photo: F, Robby/hmdb.org)
The Bladensburg, Maryland historical marker. (Photo: F, Robby/hmdb.org)

To prepare the locomotive for its 1851 trial, Page had gone into debt, owing $6,000 (equivalent to more than $220,000 today). He was in a “desperate situation, financially and emotionally”.

During his lifetime, Page published over 100 papers in three distinct periods: the late 1830s, mid-1840s, and early 1850s. The first period (1837-1840) is particularly important in developing his analysis capabilities. More than 40 of his articles have appeared in the American Journal of Science; some were reprinted at the time in William Sturgeon’s Annals of Electricity, Magnetism, which was printed in Great Britain. The Catalog of the Royal Society of Scientific Papers (volume 1800-1863) also records many of Page’s papers (however, this list is incomplete).

The Civil War had a devastating impact on Page’s scientific work as well as his legacy. In 1863, Union soldiers stationed near Page’s home randomly broke into his laboratory. Most of his equipment, inventions and laboratory notebooks were destroyed. Additionally, some of Page’s other inventions he had donated to the Smithsonian Institution were destroyed by fire in 1865. As a result of these events, very few of Page’s handmade devices still exist.

A commuter rail electric locomotive used by the Southeast Pennsylvania Transit Authority.  (Picture: Siemens)
A commuter rail electric locomotive used by the Southeast Pennsylvania Transit Authority. (Picture: Siemens)

Legacy

Page’s many contributions to science have been lost to history, and most of his experimental work and notes have disappeared. In his later years, Page suffered from debt and a terminal illness, as well as “isolation from the mainstream scientific community.” He made a last ditch effort to get credit and status for his accomplishments. Page applied to Congress for a retroactive patent on his late 1830s inventions (the spiral conductor, circuit breakers, and the double helical coil).

Special legislation passed by both houses of Congress and signed by President Andrew Johnson authorized what was later called “The Page Patent”. Page died a few weeks after the law was signed (in May 1868). So, rather than die with it, the patent played a key role in the telegraph industry. Page’s attorney and heirs successfully argued that the patent covered the mechanisms involved in “all known forms of telegraphy”.

An interest in the patent was sold to the Western Union Co. The company and Page’s heirs fared well with the retroactive patent.

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