IEEE Power & Energy Magazine - November/December 2015 - 88

history

John L. Sprague

a Sprague invention
multiple unit train control

T

THE GROUP OF 12 MEN GaTHERing in the basement of the 1892 construction site didn't look like anything
special. They just seemed like some
hard-working types in rough suspendered pants and with a hat or cap on
their heads. But they were special since
some of them had been part of the team
that had completed the world's first
major commercially successful electric street railway system in Richmond,
Virginia, four years earlier. Now part
of the Sprague Electric Elevator Company, they were facing a new challenge
in the brand new Postal Telegraph
building rising in New York City at
the intersection of Murray Street and
Broadway. Their task was to install
what would be, at that time, the most
advanced bank of electric elevators in
the world, two express and four locals
rising 14 stories above the city.
Frank J. Sprague and his partners,
Charles H. Pratt and Edward H. Johnson, had been able to wrestle the contract away from the hydraulic trust
(companies such as Otis Elevator)
based on the Richmond success and
by agreeing to a seemingly impossible
contract that stipulated performance
improvement in every aspect over hydraulic systems and at half the operating cost. The contract also stipulated
that if the electrical system failed to do
this, the Sprague Company would replace it with the latest hydraulic elevators at no cost to the customer. Frank
Sprague had sealed the deal when

The development and expansion of safe and efficient local and longdistance railway travel played a major role in the creation of the modern
world, and many inventors and engineers contributed to that development and expansion. One of the most accomplished was the distinguished inventor and electrical engineer, Frank Julian Sprague, whose
technological achievements are, in some cases, still in use today. This
article, authored by John L. Sprague, Frank's grandson, discusses multiple unit (MU) train control, one of Frank Sprague's most important and
ingenious inventions. With MU train control, electric power is supplied
to each car, making each one a powered and independent system. All of
the railroad cars can be controlled from one or more locations throughout the train.
Born in 1930, John L. Sprague, holds an A.B. degree from Princeton University and a Ph.D. degree from Stanford University, both in chemistry. He
served as a line officer in the U.S. Navy during the Korean War, including
two years in Naval Electronics. He joined the Sprague Electric Company in
1959 as a research scientist and retired as CEO in 1987. Since then Sprague
has headed a small consulting firm, John L. Sprague Associates, now headquartered in Williamstown, Massachusetts. John, an IEEE Life Member, has
authored or coauthored more than 20 articles, primarily in technical journals,
and holds six U.S. and three foreign patents. He coauthored "A Frank Sprague
Triumph: The Electrification of Grand Central Terminal," a "History" article
that appeared in the January/February 2013 issue of this magazine. John's
first book, Revitalizing US Electronics: Lessons from Japan, was published
by Butterworth-Heinemann in 1993. He edited The Birth of Electric Traction,
the Extraordinary Life and Times of Inventor Frank Julian Sprague, a book
written by Frank Rowsome and published in 2014 by the IEEE History Center
Press. More recently, John authored Sprague Electric, An Electronics Giant's
Rise, Fall, and Life After Death, a book published this past April by the IEEE
History Center Press.
We are honored and pleased to welcome John Sprague back as our guest
history author for this issue of the IEEE Power & Energy Magazine.
-Carl Sulzberger
Associate Editor, History

Digital Object Identifier 10.1109/MPE.2015.2458756
Date of publication: 20 October 2015

88

ieee power & energy magazine

1540-7977/15©2015IEEE

november/december 2015



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