frank sprague

What stuns me about this photo (taken in 1897) is how shockingly little has changed. You can still access the subway from the very first entrance and egress points on Boston Common. I’ve no doubt that some of the tiling in the vestibules is authentic to the time, as the MBTA doesn’t make improvements or upgrades until absolutely, totally necessary.

Frank Julian Sprague, circa early 1900s, pioneer of electrification and referred to as the “father of electric traction”. Often considered the inventor of public transportation, Sprague made enormous contributions in the areas of control and safety, without which mass transit would not be possible. Sprague developed automatic signal and brake control for railroads, and an auxiliary train control to take charge if the driver made a mistake and was active in the planning and construction of New York City’s subway system, and in the electrification of Grand Central Terminal. Sprague’s son, Robert Sprague, was the founder of Sprague Electric, a long running electric manufacturer in Quincy, MA.

Robert’s son John Sprague (Frank’s grandson) is giving a talk on the history of Sprague Electric on Sunday, June 8th, 2014, at the Williamstown Museum in Williamstown, MA.

The IEEE History Center Press is proud to unveil its latest publication The Birth of Electric Traction: The Extraordinary Life of Inventor Frank Julian Spragueby Frank Rowsome Jr., available in paperback and Kindle editions from Amazon.com.

Frank Julian Sprague has often been called the inventor of public transportation. In addition to his developments in electric traction, Sprague made enormous contributions in the areas of control and safety, without which mass transit would not be possible. Sprague developed automatic signal and brake control for railroads, and an auxiliary train control to take charge if the driver made a mistake. He was active in the planning and construction of New York City’s subway system, and in the electrification of Grand Central Terminal.

Sprague believed that “Transportation is the key of civilization…for without it our existing social structure would collapse.” Among Sprague’s other achievements are the introduction of electric elevators and of electric power units suitable for machine tools, printing presses, dentist’s drills, and labor-saving conveniences in the home.

Rowsome’s engaging and colorful biography not only gives a detailed view of Sprague as a person, but also Sprague’s approach to design and problem-solving. Numerous personal, and sometimes quite humorous, anecdotes bring Sprague, his assistants, and the early history of electric railroads to life.

Frank Rowsome Jr. is probably now most famous for The Verse by the Side of the Road (1966), but he was also managing editor of Popular Science Monthly and later became NASA’s chief of technical publications.

Program for the 1902 Annual Dinner of the AIEE (American Institute of Electrical Engineers), the predecessor of IEEE.  Guglielmo Marconi was the guest of honor. This program (the original of which is in the IEEE Archives) is autographed by Marconi, AIEE members  Alexander Graham Bell, Frank Sprague, Elihu Thomson,  Michael Pupin, and Charles Steinmetz, and British General Counsel Percy Sanderson.