Facilitating Urban Transportation

Frank Sprague was born in Connecticut in 1857. When his mother died when he was young, he was sent to live with an aunt. He was excellent in math and wanted to attend West Point. He got the highest grade on the entrance exam, but there was a problem. The exam he took was for Annapolis. He decided to attend the Naval Academy and was commissioned as an ensign in the Navy when he graduated.

The Navy launched his invention career, but he decided to leave the Navy as soon as he fulfilled his obligation. An associate of Thomas Edison’s helped Frank get a job with Edison. Frank and Edison clashed over where Frank could best use his talents. Frank wanted to work on motors while Edison thought them to be boring. After just one year Frank quit his job with Edison and started his own company.

At the time, American cities had exhausted their limits to growth. There just wasn’t a way to move people. London had solved the problem with underground tunnels. The trains hauling people used coal-fired steam engines to pull the trains. Frank saw an opportunity and developed a motor to power the trains. His motors were what made the subway system in New York City a practical reality.

With the transportation limit of cities resolved, there was another problem. Buildings were limited by the practical height they could achieve. The hydraulic elevator systems were slow and took up a lot of space. Frank and a colleague developed elevators that replaced hydraulics with motors. These elevators were much more advanced than anything that existed at the time.

Frank made another contribution to urban development with the electric street car. At the time, horses were the main source of power for street cars.

Over two centuries later, Frank’s innovations are still present in light rail and rapid transit systems in use today. Without his innovations, it’s hard to imagine how the shape of cities might have evolved.

While Thomas Edison is well known, the name Frank Sprague is largely forgotten. One could argue that Frank’s contributions to our current society are just as significant. Many of our hidden heroes remain unknown, but they should be just as celebrated as their contemporaries are.

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“The story of civilization is, in a sense, the story of engineering – that long and arduous struggle to make the forces of nature work for man’s good.” – L Sprague de Camp (science fiction writer)

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