Once a practical means of generating electrical power--the dynamo--had been perfected around 1870, experimentation with "electric traction," as this form of motive power came to be called, blossomed. Distinguished scientists and inventors such as Edison, von Siemens (whose firm still builds electric railway equipment today), Daft and Van Depoele all tried their hands at creating a successful electric tramcar design. During the late 1870s and into the '80s, experimental vehicles carried passengers at a number of industrial exhibitions and on the tracks of existing horsecar systems in a few cities. All displayed great promise, but were still hampered by the inventors' collective inability to perfect workable methods of power transmission, gearing, and motor apparatus. The real challenge was in designing components which would stand up to the rigours of start-and-stop urban passenger service.
Credit for developing a practical, successful electric streetcar goes to a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, one Frank J. Sprague. While still serving in the Navy, Sprague found time to tinker with that marvel of the age, incandescent lighting. The young Sprague later served as an assistant to none other than Thomas Edison himself, at the famed inventor's Menlo Park, New Jersey facilities. There, Sprague observed some of Edison's exmeriments involving electric traction. Edison soon lost interest in that particular field, but not so with Sprague, who soon formed his own company to advance the state of the art.
Sprague and his assistants worked tirelessly to solve the problems which had plagued their contemporaries: in particular, how best to transmit power from the dynamo to the cars, and how to rig the cars' motor mounting and controls. By 1885, Sprague had devised what seemed to be promising solutions to both problems. First, the inventor devised a means of mounting his electric motors on the axles of the streetcar's truck--the frame which houses the wheel/axle assemblies and associated gearing and which supports the carbody. Sprague contrived the motor mounting so as to allow the motors to power the driving wheels smoothly and consistently over varying track and roadway conditions.
Secondly, Sprague created a successful trolley pole for current collection. This contraption consisted of a long, think pole mounted to the roof of a streetcar using a spring- loaded base. To the outer end of the pole was attached a small, grooved wheel--rather like the pulley-wheels commonly seen in overhead garage door installations. The spring-loaded base kept the trolley pole apparatus pointed upwards at a constant tension, and in contact with a network of live wires, suspended above the centreline of the tracks. In this way, power could be easily transmitted from the dynamo, tucked away in the powerhouse, to tramcars out on the lines. The term trolley derives from an eariler device, the troller. This was a little wheeled carriage which rolled over a set of wires (as opposed to under, à la Sprague), towed along behind the tram by a flexible cable connection--the same cable through which it fed power to the car. This impractical device faded in the wake of Sprague's superior trolley pole, but the name stuck, and trolley progressed from a slang term to a perfectly acceptable synonym for streetcar.
None of these developments was entirely new, and Sprague fought at least one bitter pattent infringement lawsuit over the trolley pole, which inventor Van Depoele claimed, not without some justification, as his own; in 1885, Van Depoele and Toronto inventor John Joseph Wright had designed an under-running trolley pole for use on their Industrial Exhibition Electrical Railway, an experimental line operating on the grounds of the Toronto Industrial Exhibition (forerunner of today's Canadian National Exhibition). No, Sprague may not have invented the electric streetcar, but it may fairly be said that he perfected it. His firm soon landed a potentially lucrative, if daunting contract to electrify the Richmond Union Passenger Railway in Virginia. The deed would consist of outfitting the company with 30 electric tramcars and related equipment, operating over 12 miles of track with gradients as steep as eight and ten percent.
After a tireless effort, Sprague and company had the system up and running by 1888. Despite recurring technical problems early on, Sprague's team got the bugs worked out and kept the cars running, making various adjustments and improvements daily. Sprague's contract called for a system which could accommodate a maximum of 30 cars in operation at any one time, no small feat given steep grades and the railway's many sections of absolutely execrable track. Sprague's work passed with flying colours when it was demonstrated that the infrastructure could, in fact, accomodate 40 cars.
Sprague's success with the Richmond installation more than proved the viability of electric traction as a successor to both the horsecar and the cable car. More than 200 electric streetcar systems, comprising some 1,200 miles of track, had been built in the U.S. alone by 1890, and the rise of electric trams in other nations was soon to follow.
The transition to electric operation in Canada began at about the same time, but proceeded at a slower pace overall. In 1891, the population of Canada was only 4.8 million, contrasted with America's burgeoning throng of 60 million. By 1893, there were 30 electric railway (tramway) companies in Canada, operating some 256 miles of track. A seven mile electric line was running in St. Catharines, Ontario was early as 1887, but electrification in the major centres was still a few years off. The west coast cities of Victoria and Vancouver went live in 1890, followed by Ottawa in 1891. Mighty Montreal and Toronto did not electrify until 1892. While electric streetcars generally replaced horsecars in central and eastern Canada, many young western cities had been too small to support public transit in horsecar days. For these towns, the new electric ushered in their first urban transit service--in many cases after the turn of the century.