Frank J. Sprague

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Frank J. Sprague: Biography

Born 25 July 1857
Died: 25 October 1934

Frank J. Sprague was born in Milford, Connecticut, on 25 July 1857. He was one of the early developers of electric motors and electric traction. His unflagging spirit and courage both as an inventor and as a financial manager had much to do with the successful development and operation of the electric trolley, the constant speed motor, the multiple unit, regenerative and remote control systems, and considerable equipment for elevator operation.

Sprague early demonstrated his ability as a "financier" by borrowing money to attend the United States Naval Academy. It was while attending the Academy that the telephone was invented and his interest was aroused in things mechanical and electrical. He carried on experiments in his free time, and in 1883 he resigned from the Navy and began his career as an electrical engineer, assisting Edison for one year. During this time he devised a mathematical system for determining the characteristics of central station distribution of electricity.

In 1884, he established his own enterprise, the Sprague Electric Railway and Motor Company, and immediately began the application of motors to all kinds of stationary work, equipping the first electrically trained gun on the S.S. Chicago. In 1887 he undertook a contact with the City of Richmond, Virginia, to plan, finance, and put into operation a street railway, the first successful system to be operated. Although the Richmond venture lost him money in the short term, it gained him critical attention. Within two years his firm had received more than a hundred contracts for similar work all over the country, and in Italy and Germany as well. In 1890 his company was absorbed by Edison General Electric.

Sprague then moved on to other challenges. Among Sprague's achievements are the introduction of electric high speed and home elevators --in 1892 he formed the Sprague Electric Elevator Co., which became part of the Otis Elevator Co. --, the development of the automatic signaling and brake train control systems, and the invention of the method for operating elevators on the same rails in a common shaft. He took a keen interest in electrical traction in general, advocating underground rapid transit through the whole period of its development in New York City, and serving on the Grand Central Electrification Commission for the electrification of railroads. Sprague was also a pioneer in design and production of miniature electric power units suitable for machine tools, printing presses, dentist's drills, and labor-saving conveniences in the home.

Sprague was quite active in the American Institute for Electric Engineers (AIEE), serving at various times as committeeman, and as vice president in 1890-92. He represented the AIEE and the Inventors Guild on the U.S. Navy Consulting Board, and was engaged in developing fuses and air and depth bombs during World War I. He was a member of many technical societies, president of the New York Electrical Society, the American Institute of Consulting Engineers, and the Inventors Guild, and the recipient of many awards. He received the Edison Medal in 1909, "For meritorious achievement in electrical science, engineering and arts as exemplified in his contributions hereto."

Sprague was married twice, to Mary Keatinge and to Harriet Chapman Jones. He had three sons and one daughter. He died on 25 October 1934 and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.