The first successful demonstration of a full-sized electric locomotive took place on April 29, 1851 (171 years ago today). The locomotive was designed and built by Charles Grafton Page.
Born in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1812, Page developed a strong interest in electricity early in life. He earned a degree in science from Harvard University in 1832 and then went to medical school in Boston. After graduating from medical school in 1836, he began a medical practice in Salem. However, he stayed “relentlessly curious about electricity” and continued to conduct electrical experiments.
Page and his parents left Salem and resettled in northern Virginia in 1838. He set up a new medical practice but also worked as an examiner for the U.S. Patent Office. He was also a chemistry professor at Columbian College (which is now George Washington University).
His interest and enthusiasm for electrical experiments did not wane. Through his experiments and special electrical inventions, he developed a scientific understanding of the principles of electromagnetism. He applied this science at the U.S. Patent Office, benefiting other inventors, and his own dream of developing electromagnetic locomotion. Page’s work had a lasting impact on telegraphy and in the practice and politics of patenting scientific innovation.
Page sought to increase electrical voltage above the normal low voltage of a battery for medical benefits. He improved the inductive coil to gain higher voltage, building an effective instrument and naming it the “Dynamic Multiplier.” In his device, electrical flow was started and stopped and interrupted, which had the effect of making the inductive coil produce a very high voltage. A side effect of Page’s device was that when “the flow of electricity stopped in the electromagnet because of the interrupter instrument, a tone could be heard.” Page named this unique tone galvanic music. Alexander Graham Bell and others developed telephone technology based on this peculiar electro-acoustic sound.
Among Page’s many contributions were a self-acting circuit breaker and one of the earliest electric motors, which he invented in 1838.
During the 1840s, Page developed his axial engine. It used an “electromagnetic solenoid coil to draw an iron rod into its hollow interior. The rod’s displacement opened a switch that stopped current from flowing in the coil; then being unattracted, the rod reverted out of the coil, and this cycle repeated again.” The rod’s reciprocating back and forth motion (into and out of the coil), was “converted to rotary motion by the mechanism.” Page demonstrated how this engine was able to run saws and pumps. He was then successful in petitioning the U.S. Senate for funds to produce an electromagnetic locomotive that was based on his axial engine design.
Page made a presentation to the American Association for Advancement of Science in 1850 regarding his progress that impressed a number of leading scientists.
With the government funds as well as personal money (which caused him to go into debt), Page built and tested the first full-sized electromagnetic locomotive. Page constructed and tested a series of motors that were revisions of the axial engine that had different dimensions and mechanical features, which he tested thoroughly.
The power for propelling the first all-electric locomotive was furnished by 100 large electrochemical cells (acid batteries that had electrodes made of zinc and costly platinum, with fragile clay diaphragms between the cells). They were placed under the “carriage floor in an oblong trough between the driving wheels.” Each cell was 100 square inches with a pair of electrode dividers. The locomotive’s electromagnetic “engine” was capable of developing 20 horsepower.
While Page had focused on the locomotive’s propulsion, the vehicle itself was not very well constructed. It was constructed like an ordinary passenger coach; it had a 15-foot-long body with an arched roof and was 6 feet wide. The locomotive’s superstructure supported the forward end with four ordinary 30-inch steel wheels; the rear was supported on two 5-foot-high driving wheels. The locomotive’s woodwork was built by a house carpenter who had never seen a train carriage being built. In addition, the locomotive’s drive wheels were assembled by mechanics who were not used to making mechanisms that complicated; the wheels were misaligned.
The test run
Page and engineer Ari Davis left Washington on the 21,000-pound railroad locomotive/railcar. There were several passengers on board. Page had planned to run on a spur 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 at Bladensburg, Maryland (about nine miles outside Washington) because of several problems that arose.
The key setback involved short circuits that resulted from high-voltage sparks that emanated from the electrical coils – despite their insulation. Shortly after the trip Page wrote, “Another serious difficulty encountered was the breaking of the porous cells in the battery, causing a mixture of [the] acids, and the interception of a large portion of the power.” Although Page and Davis attempted to repair these defects, they were unable to do so; instead the maneuvered the locomotive back to Washington from Bladensburg.
Many of the fragile battery cell clay dividers cracked and broke because of the jarring and shaking caused by the locomotive engine. Moreover, the consumption of zinc was enormous, so these two maintenance issues meant that running a battery-operated locomotive was too costly for a commercial application.
Success (of a sort) and then rough sledding
Despite its problems, the locomotive was able to travel as fast as 19 miles per hour and reached Bladensburg in only 39 minutes. “Rapid Progression of Electro Magnetic Power,” was the headline for an article in the Weekly National Intelligencer about the experimental trip. Page’s “demonstration of his locomotive marked a milestone in the replacement of steam with electricity as the way to propel vehicles forward.”
However, the failure of Page’s electromagnetic locomotive test run meant that other inventors eventually found other methods to produce electrically driven locomotion. Page never gave up believing in the potential of his design of an on-board electric source for locomotive power.
To prepare the locomotive for its 1851 trial run, Page had gone into debt, owing $6,000 (the equivalent of more than $220,000 today). He was in “desperate straits, financially and emotionally.”
During his life, Page published more than 100 articles in three distinct periods: the late 1830s, the mid-1840s and the early 1850s. The first period (1837-1840) was particularly important in developing his analytic skills. Over 40 of his articles 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 Royal Society Catalogue of Scientific Papers (1800-1863 volume) also records many of Page’s papers (however, this listing 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. In addition, some of Page’s other inventions that he had donated to the Smithsonian Institution were destroyed by a fire in 1865. As a result of these events, very few of Page’s handmade devices are still in existence.
Page’s many contributions to science have been lost to history, and most of his experimental work and notes are gone. In his final years Page suffered from debt and terminal illness, as well as “isolation from the mainstream scientific community.” He made one final effort to secure credit and status for his achievements. Page petitioned Congress for a retroactive patent on his inventions of the late 1830s (the spiral conductor, circuit breakers and the double helical coil).
A special act 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 legislation was signed (in May 1868). So rather than dying with him, the patent played a key role in the telegraph industry. Page’s lawyer and heirs argued successfully 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 did well because of the retroactive patent.