Frank Julian Sprague: Electrical Inventor and Engineer

Frank Julian Sprague: Electrical Inventor and Engineer


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Frank Julian Sprague invented a system for distributing electricity to streetcars from overhead wires. Within a year, electric streetcars had begun to replace horsecars, sparking a revolution in urban transportation. Sprague (1857–1934) was an American naval officer turned inventor who worked briefly for Thomas Edison before striking out on his own. Sprague contributed to the development of the electric motor, electric railways, and electric elevators. His innovations would help transform the urban space of the 20th century, enabling cities to grow larger and skyscrapers taller. The Middletons’ generously illustrated biography is an engrossing study of the life and times of a maverick innovator.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253353832
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 09/25/2009
Series: Railroads Past and Present
Pages: 336
Product dimensions: 7.30(w) x 10.10(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

William D. Middleton is the author of more than 20 books and many hundreds of articles on rail transportation, engineering, and travel topics. He is editor (with George M. Smerk and Roberta L. Diehl) of Encyclopedia of North American Railroads (IUP, 2007).

William D. Middleton III is a contributor to the Encyclopedia of North American Railroads (IUP, 2007).

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Frank Julian Sprague

Electrical Inventor & Engineer

By William D. Middleton, William D. Middleton III

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2009 William D. Middleton and William D. Middleton III
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-35383-2



Milford, Connecticut, is now a city of more than 50,000 residents, lying some 10 miles southwest of New Haven and stretching along the shores of Long Island Sound. Milford grew large only in the recent past with the growth that followed World War II, but it has been there a long time. What became Milford, named after the English city, was purchased by English settlers from the chief of the local Paugusset tribe in 1639, making it the sixth oldest community in Connecticut. Even today Milford retains much of the character that dates to the nineteenth century and before. The Wepawaug River winds down through the town and into the oyster-rich estuary of Long Island Sound. Just west of the river, Milford's carefully maintained "town green" — the second longest in all New England, boast the residents — stretches a block wide and six blocks long. The green of the square is intermingled with trees and monuments from Milford's — and America's — past.

A century and a half ago Milford had scarcely 2,500 residents, and the working population was occupied with farming, oystering, shipbuilding, and a few industrial plants, while the Long Island Sound shore served as a beach resort for residents of New Haven and Bridgeport. The young David Cummings Sprague came to Milford about 1852 to become a plant superintendent for a hat manufacturing firm, one of many in the southwest Connecticut area centered on Danbury that made the state a major supplier of hats. Born in Wardsboro, Vermont, in 1833, D. C. Sprague was one of ten children born to Joshua Sprague, who was of the eighth American generation descended from Ralph Sprague. The latter had left England from the hamlet of Upwey in Devonshire in 1628.

Only 19 years old, David Sprague married Frances Julia King in 1842, and the young couple established a home in Milford that was reputed to have been the refuge of two English regicides who fled to New England and were hidden in a Milford cellar in 1661 after being condemned to death for the execution of Charles I. The Sprague family had encountered the profound disappointment of the death of their first child, Sieber or Seaver, who died at birth in April 1856. But three years later the family's first surviving son, Frank Julian Sprague, was born in Milford on July 25, 1857, followed by another son, Charles May Sprague, on April 30, 1860.

The Sprague family was abruptly changed early in 1866, when Frances died suddenly from a hemorrhage on January 31. David Sprague soon decided that he would seek his fortune in the West, while the two boys were taken off to North Adams, Massachusetts, where they would be left in the care of David's older sister, Elvira Betsy Ann Sprague. The loneliness and uncertainty of this abrupt change in their lives was suggested many years later in a reminiscence of her early school life by Mrs. Susan Amelia Shove, who wrote in the Milford News in July 1932:

One day word came that sudden death had taken the mother of one of our little boys. Soon after, the father decided to move his family from Milford and the little fellow came for his books. I can see him now, a pathetic figure standing in the doorway, with spelling book, reader and slate under his arm, while we at the teacher's bidding all shouted in unison: "Good-bye Frank!" That boy was Frank J. Sprague, seven years old, just my age.

North Adams was very different than Milford. Located in the far northwest corner of Massachusetts, North Adams, unlike shoreline Milford, was just about as far as one could be from the coast and still be in New England. The area was first laid out in 1739 by early settlers who saw the prospects for water power from the Hoosic River, which flowed through the town on its way to the Hudson River. North Adams was built in the low-level "notch" that carried the river northward through the town between the great Hoosac Mountain to the east and Saddle Mountain to the west. The earliest construction of dams and mills began not long after 1750 along the Hoosic River just above the Main Street bridge. The first carding of wool into rolls began in 1804, and by the end of the Civil War the growing mill town was manufacturing and finishing a wide variety of wool and cotton material, while other manufactures included such industries as shoes, a blast furnace to make cast iron, an iron and brass works, and a tannery. Typical New England mill buildings of brick or stone construction, often four or five floors in height, were erected along the river and its dams. By 1870 Adams had grown into a city of some 12,000 residents, with close to two-thirds of those living in North Adams.

In most respects North Adams was much like other New England mill towns of the time, but during the years that the two Sprague boys lived there it was also the site of one of the most ambitious American construction ventures of the nineteenth century. Construction of the Erie Canal had established a water connection from the Hudson River to the Great Lakes, and Massachusetts, anxious to establish its own connection to the west, had begun to think about developing a low water canal between Boston and the Hudson River. Loammi Baldwin, an engineer of internal improvements and canals, had completed a study in 1826, and had found by far the most favorable grades on the northern route across Massachusetts led through the passage along the Deerfield and Hoosic rivers, but this was blocked by the formidable Hoosac Mountain at North Adams. Nevertheless, Baldwin recommended the route and a tunnel as the best one to follow. The plan for a canal later became a plan for a railroad, and some preliminary work had begun on the nearly 5-mile-long Hoosac Tunnel in 1850, but the technology and equipment then available were inadequate to the task. The construction work was still underway and far from complete almost 20 years later. By 1870, though, the work was finally making headway, and North Adams was the center for tunneling workers, housing as many as 700 men, many of them with their families as well, from the United States, Canada, and Europe. New compressed air drills and nitroglycerin were finally enabling progress to be made through the stubborn tunnel. A whole factory for making nitroglycerin was set up at North Adams in 1868.

Not much is available to tell us about the lives of the two Sprague boys in North Adams, but what there is suggests that they did quite well there. Anna Sprague, later Mrs. Anna Parker, clearly took her responsibilities for the boys seriously.

"She was a woman of the finest New England type and of striking beauty," Frank Sprague wrote of her years later.

Living in a modest, frugal way, as an occasional school teacher, with great sacrifice she devoted herself to her charges with sanity of judgment, but with a high regard for much needed oversight. She was indeed a stern disciplinarian, but I think that something vital must have been instilled in me by this devoted woman which race inheritance alone could not account for, something which was augmented by my later career in the Navy.

Frank Sprague, in particular, seems to have been well known around North Adams. In an article describing the young man's growing success (he was then only 28 years old) in electricity, the writer for an August 1885 article for the North Adams Transcript spoke of him as a schoolboy who was "bright-eyed, laughing and irrepressibly mischievous," and went on to describe his outgoing personality:

He was a rollicking, good-natured chap. Constantly saying and doing provoking things which to a casual observer might indicate a careless, unambitious disposition, but to get offended at him or his pranks was impossible. His laugh would banish all feeling of irritation caused by his mischief.

The Transcript writer continued:

His boyhood wasn't the most comfortable one in the world, so far as those things which come from ample resources are concerned, and he early learned the lesson on self-reliance. This was probably the most valuable training he received, for one of his strong personal characteristics is confidence in his own powers and dependence on his own exertions; and this is not inconsistent, either, with the fact he isn't afraid to ask for anything if he wants it, and is unconscious of objections or difficulties.

Both Frank and Charles attended the North Adams Public School and, later, Drury High School. Drury was originally established in 1840 as a private school, the Drury Academy, under a bequest from Nathan Drury, and was later established as a free high school. Frank Sprague proved to be a good student, particularly in mathematics. "Young Sprague attended the public schools here and was a remarkably bright, apt pupil"; according to the Transcript writer, "in fact, he was easily the smartest boy of his age in town."

Knowing of Sprague's ability in science and mathematics, his high school principal had urged him to apply for the excellent free education provided by the Naval Academy or West Point. Sprague applied for what he thought was the examination for West Point, but when he arrived in Springfield, Massachusetts, in June 1874 to take it he found that it was for the Naval Academy. He took the competitive examination anyway, and stood highest among 13 candidates in the four-day examination. "A career afloat was far from my ambition," Sprague later recalled, "but having won out I decided to at least try it." It would prove to be a fortunate one for Sprague, for there was probably no better choice than the Naval Academy for someone so strongly oriented to mathematics and physics.

Having done well in the competitive examination, Sprague was also recommended by such diverse figures as the North Adams probate judge; the pastors of both the Congregational and M. E. (Methodist Episcopal) churches; and Walter Shanly, the contractor for the Hoosac Tunnel construction. "His uniform good scholarship, gentlemanly deportment and faithfulness in the performance of his duties have won for him the esteem of his teachers and associates," wrote Isaac W. Dunham, superintendent of schools and principal at Drury. The 11th District, Massachusetts, Congressman Henry L. Dawes quickly recommended him for the appointment.

Frank and Charles had never enjoyed the close companionship of their father after he had left for the West in 1866, but there was at least some occasional contact. Learning of Frank's appointment to the Naval Academy, his father sent his warm congratulations in a letter he wrote from Denver on July 9, 1874:

My Dear Son Frank,

I received yours of June 23rd informing me of your success in getting appointed to the Naval Academy, and you can hardly imagine how glad I was to hear it, the more so that you got it without rich and influential friends to aid you, which some of the others undoubtedly had, I congratulate you heartily on your success, I wish your poor Mother was alive to be proud of her noble boy: but she is doubtless looking down from above with joy at your past and hope for your future success. If I had had the choice I could not have chosen a profession that would have pleased me better, and I hope and feel that you have a very bright future before you, who can say but you may carve out a name in the country's history equal to a Perry or a Farragut.

Your Father, D. C. Sprague.

To pay his expenses in getting to Annapolis, Sprague borrowed $400 from contractor Walter Shanly and a local bank, which he would carefully repay just as soon as he was able, and set out for Annapolis in September 1874. On his way, Frank Sprague got his first glimpse of the great city of New York, which would become his home for most of the rest of his life. Sprague wrote about this first visit many years later:

I landed here in '74. The New York of that day was not the great metropolis of the present. There were no bridges, no river tunnels and no subways. There were no telephones, electric lights, no electric cars or elevators. Transportation was by horse-drawn streetcars or buses, while automobiles were still of the dream world. On the corner of 42nd Street and 5th Avenue was a great stone reservoir, and the vast territory running north of 72nd Street was largely barren and the home of goats and squatters.

I little dreamed that I should ever in any way be a factor in the city's growth, but determined to make the most of this, my first visit, I climbed half-way up Trinity steeple to get a panoramic view of the city. Now that territory is occupied by a forest of skyscrapers, and all one can see from that vantage point would be across the cemetery.

The story is told, too, of Sprague's great interest in architecture in New York City, as evidenced by his first look at St. Patrick's Cathedral, which was still under construction. Unable to gain access to the building from the workmen, he was told that only the architect or the Cardinal could grant it. Demonstrating what came to be his customary forthrightness, he promptly rang the bell for the attendant priest-secretary and asked to see the Cardinal. Cardinal McCloskey took an interest in the young man and quickly gave him a card that permitted him to roam through the cathedral as he wished.

On September 29, 1874, Frank Sprague successfully met the Naval Academy's requirements and accepted his appointment as Cadet Midshipman, and on October 3, 1874, he was sworn into the naval service.



When Frank Sprague began his appointment as a midshipman at the Naval Academy, it was not, in some respects, the best time to be committing to a career with the United States Navy, for it was in the midst of a long period of decline. During the Civil War the Union Navy had built the greatest navy in America's history. At the end of the Civil War the navy had some 626 ships in commission — 65 of them ironclads — but with the war won, and no threatening rival in sight, Congress was unwilling to support and maintain this great fleet. Its size steadily declined, with only 48 wooden hulled and obsolete vessels in service by 1880. Admiral David D. Porter, the navy's senior officer, compared them to "ancient Chinese forts on which dragons have been painted to frighten away the enemy." By 1878 the number of enlisted men had dropped to no more than 6,000, the lowest level in more than 40 years, and most of these were foreigners. There were not enough spaces for all of the officers who had graduated from the Naval Academy, and those that were assigned to ships had to wait considerable lengths of time for opportunities for new assignments or promotions. It was not until 1883, when Congress finally appropriated funds for the navy's first steel ships, that modernization of the antiquated fleet began.

But if the larger navy was stuck in the doldrums, the post–Civil War Naval Academy in contrast was experiencing a remarkable period of change and growth that would be as great as any time in the nineteenth century. Expansion and improvement began in 1865 with the relocation of the Naval Academy back to Annapolis from its temporary Civil War location in Newport, Rhode Island. The old buildings in Annapolis were refurbished and an extensive construction program for new buildings was begun. Rear Admiral David D. Porter, who had a long career and a brilliant Civil War record, was appointed as Superintendent of the Naval Academy in the fall of 1865.

Porter quickly began radical alterations to the academy. The curriculum was greatly modified, with additional emphasis being given to such topics as physics, history, mechanics, astronomy, English composition, and law. The old guard of professors had largely been replaced by a faculty of accomplished young officers who brought the experience of the Civil War to their teaching. The organization of the academy was almost completely modified, and Lieutenant Commander Stephen B. Luce was appointed Commandant of Midshipmen. Luce, a consummate seaman who was revered by the midshipmen who served under him, wrote the book Seamanship, which was the academy's text for the next 40 years, and later founded the Naval War College. Porter established an honor system, encouraged athletics, and established social activities. When he left the superintendent's post at the end of 1869, taking up President Grant's request to reorganize the Navy Department, the Naval Academy had been raised to an unprecedented peak of efficiency.

Frank Sprague became a cadet midshipman in October 1874 at a time when the Naval Academy would begin yet another period of growth and improvement. Rear Admiral Christopher R. P. Rodgers, who had served as the Commandant of Midshipmen in 1861, took office as superintendent in September 1872. Rodgers took on the assignment with the aspiration of building on the work of his predecessors to bring the academy to a new standard of excellence, and he largely succeeded.


Excerpted from Frank Julian Sprague by William D. Middleton, William D. Middleton III. Copyright © 2009 William D. Middleton and William D. Middleton III. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Foreword by John L. Sprague

1. A Boyhood in New England
2. The Midshipman Inventor
3. Sprague and the New World of Electricity
4. Triumph at Richmond
5. Sprague and the Electric Elevator
6. Frank Sprague and the Multiple Unit Train
7. Electrifying the Main Line Railroads
8. The Naval Consulting Board and the Great War
9. Sprague and Railroad Safety
10. A Diverse Inventor
11. An Inventor and Engineer to the End
12. Epilogue

Appendix A. Frank Julian Sprague Patents
Appendix B. Frank Julian Sprague Honors and Awards
Appendix C. Common Electrical Terms
Selected Bibliography

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