THE career of a great inventor amd engineer like ' Frank J. Sprague, graduate of the Naval Academy and successful pioneer in the modern art of electric traction, stands out with peculiar distinction. There may be, or may have been, notable sons of Neptune in other fields, but in the electrical he has certainly few rivals from the sea; and in the department of electric traction none. This is hardly to be wondered at, for it is a curious twist of fortune that takes a man from the trackless deep and sets him laying track all over the face of every continent. On May 16th, • Mr. Sprague received from the American Institute of Electrical Engineers the Edison gold medal—its second award—for his achievements in traction, horizontal and vertical; and in accepting this new and rare honor, he remarked that the reason why he won it was that Edison had refused to keep him as an assistant in the early days of electric lighting. The picturesque details will be noted a little later. The point to be made here is that the cause or reason is not carried back far enough to be altogether adequate. The fact is that when Sprague left the navy, there was no navy to leave. The result was a general exodus carrying into electricity such men who have made their mark in it as Sprague, Greene, Duncan, Weaver, Shallenberger, and many another. Had they had the new ships to command they would all have stuck to the ship, Sprague included; and someone else among them would now be the rulers of Taft's navy. There would have been plenty of room for all their electrical engineering in the application and use of the modern diversified electrical equipment. The advocates of peace and of a small navy ought not to lose this opportunity of showing, as they can irrefutably, that the absence of a fleet was the main cause of giving the world its useful trolley system. Another cause, going just a little farther back, was that Mr. Sprague was born in Connecticut. Winning entrance to the Naval Academy In a competitive examination, and graduating in 1878, Mr.. Sprague was already electrical_ in his tastes and aptitudes. Even then he was inventing, and made a special trip to show Edison a new wrinkle in telephony. Menlo Park was doing quite a little business of its own in telephonic invention, the details of which when brought to Mr. Sprague's notice convinced him that he would have to get up rather earlier to • catch the worms. Nothing daunted—for every aspiring youth in those days invented a telephone—he took up gladly the duties of his profession, and sailed for the Far East on the old U. S. S. “Richmond.” While serving on the Asiatic squadron he acted as the special correspondent of the Boston Herald in recording the travels of General Grant and the wonderful reception* given the old soldier in the Orient. This was congenial occupation to a man gifted with unusual powers • of observation and expression—but the note books not used up in this fashion were devoted to data of all kinds of electrical theory and invention. The present writer has seen some of them and realizes what a nuisance Sprague must have been to his messmates. It may have been due to their intervention that he was Shifted to the training ship “Minnesota,” where his didactic qualities had full play. His next appointments were to the navy yards of Brooklyn and Newport. Farmer, the electrician, was doing his notable work for the torpedo station at Newport, and no one could come within touch of that noble spirit without being stimulated to thought and invention. Mr. . Sprague was greatly impressed with the possibilities of electric lighting; and at :a time when no naval ship anywhere had the incandescent lamp, proposed to get away from the old methods so disagreeable and dangerous. He asked Edison for the loan of one of those long-waisted “Z” dynamos, prototype Itt the modern skyscraper, but when he said that it was to be hitched to an antique single-cylinder flywheel pump, Edison demurred. The irregularity of the pump engine might have made Sprague the inventor of the Ardois signaling system, but Edison had an intense aversion to seeing his lamps flicker. Sprague let himself loose on new arc lamps, continuous current machines without commutators, and a double wound armature with internal field, the several circuits being connected to a field to give various series and parallel combinations. He was slowly finding himself. That there was real inventive ability developing in the man is evident from the fact that in 1881, watch- ing the action of a large Ruhmkorff induction coil, he suggested connecting the high tension coil to a balloon and the ground, and in case of discharge to get larger currents of low potential from the primary without using the circuit breakers. Had he been master enough of his technique to “follow through” Sprague could easily have hit then upon the transformer. Then came the memorable Paris Electrical Exposition of 1881, and Sprague was crazy to get there. He secured a detail to the U. S. S. “Lancaster,” bound for the Mediterranean as flagship, with leave at his own expense on his arrival abroad. This in itself was an invention. The exhibition was closed, however, when the “Lancaster” passed the Pillars of Hercules; but as there was another electrical show in 1882, at the Crystal Palace, near London, young Sprague, by sheer nerve and audacity, got his leave extended, and landed in England, with $20, an unnecessarily large sum for one so resourceful. Taking up his work in connection with the exhibition—a landmark in English electrical history—he was made a member of the jury of awards, and at his own request was attached to the dynamo .electric machinery section. T'he section made him its secretary. Here he was at once in his element, meeting the great men of the day, revelling in the study of apparatus, and free to ask any question that occurred to his preter-naturally inquisitive mind. In the midst of this delicious “joy ride,” Sprague was peremptorily ordered to rejoin his ship at Naples, but though scared at the idea of a court martial, he begged off, once more got leave, made a splendid report to the Navy Department on the exhibition and never went back. That report is one of the very scarce electrical “treasure trove,” and at once stamped Sprague as an engineer of quality. In London Mr. Sprague—barely an ensign yet—met Mr. E. M. Johnson. “There is but one Edison and Johnson is his prophet,” said an English journal with equal truth and flippancy; and Johnson has always had a keen eye for talent. He took kindly to young Sprague and sent him across the Atlantic to Edison, just as he did that other distinguished leader, Samuel Insull. This was May, 1883, and Sprague was ordered off to help in the construction at Sunbury, Pa., of the first overhead three-wire system of incandescent lighting. That job was soon followed up by his being put in charge of the first three-wire underground station at Brockton, Mass. There Sprague made calculations for the distribution network of other Edison central stations then going on rapidly, but he regarded it as almost an impertinence to be bothered about them, for he was working out his first electric motor. Here was the parting of the ways. Edison has always wanted associates who were all his own, on whom his dominating personality could be impressed, who would help carry out his prolific ideas and not incidental inventions of theirs. When Edison invited him to take up the subject of electric power transmission as an adjunct to Edison stations, Sprague replied airily and haughtily that he, too, had given a little thought to that, and meant to work it out from a personal point of view. Needless to say, Sprague was invited promptly to resign. With equal promptitude he did; organized his own motor company, and in 1884, at the first American electrical exhibition in Philadelphia, made an enormous sensation by the exhibition of his new motors. They not only gave a tremendous stimulus to central station development, as a source of supply of electrical energy, but set going a furore as to electric traction. Sprague stationary motors for industrial power are in use to this day; but for the inventor the possibilities of the field were soon worked out, and he threw himself with redoubled energy on the big problem of transportation, to which his thoughts had been directed ever since 1882. The year 1887 marks an epoch in electric traction tliroughout the world. Sprague's first real street railway was that for St. Joseph, Mo., but the vital point was reached when he took with confidence and even a light heart the contract to equip and operate a new system at Richmond, Va., with no fewer than forty cars. All was crude but the goal had been reached, and with one great, mighty leap, the trolley came into its own. Meantime the Sprague interests had been consolidated into those of the Edison General Electric and thO) General Electric Company, with undoubted benefit to the public and the art, hut leaving Sprague outside the breastworks. They do say that his name was chipped off the castings. The writer has never seen any evidence of such mutilation, put even if true it didn't make any difference; for Sprague was not chipped a bit. On the contrary, he bobbed up serenely with a brand new system of electric elevators, and having tackled grades of 15 per cent blithely, now dealt deftly with those of 100 per cent. Here Mr. (Continued on page 877.)
This article was originally published with the title "Frank Julian Sprague"