IEEE Book Features a Pioneer of Electric Transportation

Frank J. Sprague designed the first electric streetcar system

7 April 2014

It would be hard to get from Point A to Point B by train or by subway without the contributions of Frank J. Sprague. He designed and helped build more than 100 electric railway systems across the United States, as well as a few in Italy and Germany.

Sprague—president of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, one of IEEE’s predecessor societies, in 1892 and 1893—is the focus of the new IEEE History Center book The Birth of Electric Traction: The Extraordinary Life of Inventor Frank Julian Sprague. Written by Frank Rowsome Jr. and edited by John Sprague, the paperback is available at Barnes & Noble and


Until the late 19th century, horse-drawn carriages and coal-driven elevated trains were the popular mode of transportation in many cities. With his extensive knowledge of electric motors, Sprague envisioned an electric train that would offer commuters a faster and more convenient way to travel. In 1887, with financial backing from venture capitalists, he obtained a contract from the city of Richmond, Va., to build a new electric trolley line to replace the city’s limited and often unreliable horse-drawn carriages.

Sprague Photo: IEEE History Center

Sprague convinced his backers and the city’s politicians that electric traction, in which train cars would be powered by electricity from overhead wires, could solve the city’s transportation problem. Small versions of electrified railways had made appearances during that decade at international electricity exhibitions in Berlin and Paris. But they were strictly tourist attractions, not permanent transportation systems, and were dismantled soon after the exhibitions closed.

Even though the project took just over 90 days to complete, it was no easy task. The railway route covered 19 kilometers, and train cars had to travel up and down steep hills and around sharp curves. The most common way at the time to move freight and passengers over steep hills was with cable cars: cables fastened underneath train cars were pulled by a stationary engine at the far end of the line. But such trains, requiring an expensive infrastructure, wasted a lot of electricity. Only about 18 percent of the system’s power was used to move the cars—the rest was expended moving the heavy cables.

The Sprague system consisted of 40 individual streetcars, each outfitted with two electric motors that conductors could control with a single switch inside the car. It was powered by an overhead wire that supplied enough electricity so that all the cars, which carried up to 100 passengers, could run at the same time. Called the Richmond Union Passenger Railway, it went into service on 2 February 1888.

Within a decade, horse-powered rail and cable-drawn vehicles in major cities were all but obsolete. After evaluating Sprague’s Richmond installation, Boston built the world’s second electric rail system. Other cities soon followed. By 1890, Sprague Electric Railway and Motor Co. received contracts for 110 electric railway systems in Germany, Italy, and the United States. By 1905, more than 32 200 km (20 000 miles) of streetcar tracks were laid in the United States alone. Sprague also served on New York City’s Electrical Traction Commission, which planned and supervised the electrification of trains coming in and out of the city’s Grand Central Station.

In 1910 Sprague received the AIEE Edison Medal, only the second given, for “meritorious achievement in electrical science, engineering, and the arts.” In the presentation of the award, AIEE’s president, Dugald C. Jackson, said, “When Sprague invaded Richmond in 1887, resolutely plunging into a pool of difficulties from which only unceasing fertility of invention and tireless industry could extricate him, he woke the world of transportation to an acknowledgment that the electric railway, though an infant, had a future.”

The Richmond railway was discontinued on 25 November 1949. It was named an IEEE Milestone in Electrical Engineering and Computing in February 1992.

For more information on Sprague’s life and career, visit the IEEE Global History Network website.

This article was written with assistance from the IEEE History Center, which is funded by donations to the IEEE Foundation.

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