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The Southeast Museum presents:

Technology and the Railroads

Technology has played a large role in the development of railroads from powering engines and designing cars and track systems to communication.

Horse. Steam. Diesel. Electric.

Trains have been around since the sixteenth century as wagons pulled along wooden tracks.  The power behind these early trains came primarily from horses and humans.  The first reliable steam locomotive was designed by British engineers George and Robert Stephenson in 1829.  Their locomotive named the Rocket soon became the prototype for steam engine locomotives.  

The accident rate of steam engines compelled the State of New York to pass legislation in 1903 prohibiting the use of steam locomotives in Manhattan after July 1, 1908. The State hoped to force the railroads to electrify their lines, as electric trains were considered safer. In 1923, the Kaufman Act furthered this directive, as it specifically stated that only electric powered trains would be permissible within the New York City limits. These acts helped to speed up the development of diesel as well as electric locomotives.

Diesel

Dr. Hermann Lemp, who worked for General Electric, completed the first prototype diesel locomotive in 1917.  It was still a few years before a commercially successful diesel engine was developed. The New York Central was the first railroad to test a diesel locomotive in 1924.  Diesel engines were cheaper to make and maintain and became the most popular of the engines.  As time moved on, other forms of transportation proved to be faster and more comfortable.  Automobiles and airplanes soon became the preferred mode of travel. The 1950's saw American rail track reduced from 224,300 miles to 162,700 miles.

Electric

Thomas Davenport demonstrated the first electric powered locomotive in 1835. Davenport died in 1851, never seeing his invention put to practical use.  The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad electrified an overhead three-mile strip of track in 1895.  This was the world's first electrified main line. Frank J. Sprague developed the concept of the multiple unit design (MU's) in 1897.  Sprague created a master controller, which allowed one engineer to control a string of cars from the lead or head car.  In effect, the entire train operated as one unit.  Limited electric service started in 1906 and slowly expanded until it became the prevalent method of powering engines.

1997-99 Southeast Museum