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Frank J. Sprague

AKA Frank Julian Sprague

Born: 25-Jul-1857
Birthplace: Milford, CT
Died: 25-Oct-1934
Location of death: New York City
Cause of death: Illness
Remains: Buried, Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, VA

Gender: Male
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Inventor, Business
Party Affiliation: Republican

Nationality: United States
Executive summary: Streetcars and express elevators

Military service: US Navy (1874-83)

Frank J. Sprague studied at the US Naval Academy, and in his Navy years became fascinated with his era's telecommunications and transport mechanisms, even serving as a judge in two separate European competitions for improvements to dynamos and gas engines. After his military service he briefly worked as an assistant to Thomas Edison. His first major invention was a high-power, constant-speed, non-sparking electric motor with applications for industrial machinery, and he also devised improved re-generation and braking systems. In 1884 he established the Sprague Electric Railway and Motor Company -- though as yet he had no railway, only an idea combining electric energy, a spring-loaded trolley pole and wire-and-wheel suspension system, and his electric motor to provide horseless street transport. Sprague was not the first to conceive of such a system, but he was the first to make it work as practical transport, building the Richmond Union Passenger Railway in Richmond, Virginia in 1888.

After several years of theoretical work and experiments, it took Sprague and his men only about 90 days to plan the route, lay a dozen miles (19 km) of track, construct the 375 horsepower steam and electric plant, and motorize 40 formerly horse-drawn cars. The first test runs were made in November 1887, and regular service began on 2 February 1888. The first runs were not without difficulties, including frequent mechanical and electrical problems, the indignity of a horse reigned to the trolleys for the additional pulling power needed to climb the tracks' steepest incline, and the further embarrassment of seeing broken-down trolleys towed away by mule. With some tinkering, though, the system was soon made reliable, and came to be seen as far superior to horse or horse-drawn transport.

Within two years, Sprague had contracts to construct 113 street rail systems, and the within a decade horse-drawn streetcars had virtually disappeared from America's cities, replaced by an estimated 13,000 miles of urban streetcar tracks. He designed a multi-unit train control system in Chicago, where he built the first of the city's elevated "L" electric railways. He engineered the electrification of New York's Grand Central Station, and with William Wilgus he co-invented the "third rail" system of powering electric trains for the New York Central Railroad. Sprague Electric Railway and Motor Company was eventually merged into Edison General Electric, which subsequently became General Electric.

In addition to revolutionizing urban rail systems, Sprague made key improvements to elevator technology, designing systems capable of carrying substantially heavier loads much more quickly than earlier elevators, which had been generally powered by hydraulics or steam. His Sprague Electric Elevator Company emerged as a key competitor to Otis Elevator until the two companies merged, and he later invented a method for running two elevators in the same shaft -- a 'local' elevator on lower floors, and 'express' service to higher floors -- and sold that patent to Westinghouse.

Father: David Cummings Sprague (b. 3-Jul-1833, d. 25-Sep-1896)
Mother: Frances Julia King Sprague (m. 1852, d. 31-Jan-1866)
Brother: Seaver Sprague (d. infancy)
Brother: Charles May Sprague (Sprague Electric Elevator Co. executive, b. 30-Apr-1860, d. after 1913)
Wife: Mary A. Keatinge Sprague (m. 1885, div., one son)
Son: Frank D'esmonde Sprague (civil engineer, b. 29-Mar-1888)
Wife: Harriet Chapman Jones Sprague (b. 7-Jan-1876, m. 11-Oct-1899, d. 1-Oct-1969, one daughter, two sons)
Son: Robert Chapman Sprague (President of Sprague Electric Co., b. 3-Aug-1900, d. 27-Sep-1991)
Son: Julian King Sprague (Sprague Electric Co. executive, b. 14-Jun-1903, d. Sep-1980)

    High School: Drury High School, Milford, CT (1874)
    University: US Naval Academy, Annapolis (1878)

    Sprague Electric Elevator Company Founder & President (1892-95)
    Sprague Electric Railway and Motor Company Founder & President (1884-90)
    Western Electric Assistant to Thomas Edison (1883-84)
    The Boston Herald Special Correspondent (1878-80)
    John Fritz Medal 1935 (posthumous)
    American Association for the Advancement of Science
    American Institute of Consulting Engineers
    American Institute of Electrical Engineers
    Franklin Institute
    IEEE Edison Medal 1910
    Benjamin Franklin Medal 1921 (by the Franklin Institute)


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