Archives:The Mechanization of Urban Transit in the United States Electricity and Its Competitors

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During the last quarter of the nineteenth century, three principal technologies competed to mechanize urban street transit in the United States: steam, cable, and electricity. These technologies competed with each other, with the existing horsedrawn streetcars, and with a variety of less-developed alternatives. Electricity proved the ultimate victor, not just for street railroads but also for subways, elevateds, and many commuter railroads. Two factors help explain this substantial investment in electric traction despite the uncertainty in comparative costs. First was the substantial enthusiasm that Americans had for the new electrical technologies, an enthusiasm that gripped profit-minded street-railroad entrepreneurs as well as the general public. In addition, electric traction also benefited from the structure of the emerging electrical equipment industry, which supported the development of the electric streetcar in part to improve the profitability of electric lighting systems by providing a daytime load.

Citation and Link to Full Article

Eric Schatzberg, "The Mechanization of Urban Transit in the United States Electricity and Its Competitors," in Technological Competitiveness: Contemporary and Historical Perspectives on Electrical, Electronics, and Computer Industries (Piscataway, NJ: IEEE Press, 1993), 225-242.