A Frank Sprague Triumph
The Electrification of Grand Central Terminal
William Wilgus, Chairman of the Electric Traction Commission (ETC), which planned and supervised the early 1900s electrification of Grand Central Terminal in New York City, sent this warm, handwritten note to the widow of one of its most influential members, electrical inventor Frank J. Sprague, who had died seven years earlier. It accompanied a copy of Wilgus’s record of the project, “The Grand Central Terminal in Perspective,” which had been published in the Transactions of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) in 1941.
Harriet Chapman Jones Sprague was Frank Sprague’s second wife and 20 years his junior when they married. She bore him three children and dramatically changed his life (see Figure 1).
But she was much more than just the widow of an old friend and associate. A woman of letters, Harriet was a close friend of Clara Clemens, and she introduced Frank to a whole new society including Mark Twain, author Oliver Herford, and Columbia Drama Professor Brander Matthews. Later in life, she became an important rare book collector and Walt Whitman expert. However, her greatest passion was defending the legacy of her husband. Her short 1947 monograph, Frank J. Sprague and the Edison Myth, was one of the earliest of a small but growing chorus of voices that questioned the widely held image of Thomas Edison as the “Wizard” who had invented just about everything, including the electric trolley car and railway. She died in Williamstown, Massachusetts, on 1 October 1969 at the age of 93.
In the record of the Grand Central electrification, Wilgus credits Frank Sprague as being the first person to recommend use of electricity as motive power, as well as being one of the ETC’s most influential members. Further, the document discusses the importance of multiple unit (MU) railway cars for suburban travel. The MU control system was Frank Sprague’s most important invention. The record also describes the joint invention by Wilgus and Sprague of the under-running third rail, another key element in the project. Besides being an entrepreneur and inventor, Frank Sprague was a hands-on engineer, inevitably deeply involved in the details of every project as well as usually its leader. Therefore, his role as a team member and a consulting engineer on the ETC was a different and not always comfortable experience.
Frank Julian Sprague
Frank Julian Sprague was born in Milford, Connecticut, on 25 July 1857 but grew up in North Adams, Massachusetts, with relatives after his mother died in 1864 and his father left to seek a fortune in the West. He attended Drury Academy, where he excelled in math and science, and then the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, graduating in 1878 near the top of his class with honors in math, chemistry, and physics. During five years on active duty in the Navy, he showed a strong flair for electrical science, and in 1883 he joined Thomas Edison to work on electrical distribution systems for lighting. The relationship quickly soured, and he resigned less than a year later to form his first company, the Sprague Electric Railway and Motor Company (SERM).
SERM served as the platform for his pioneering work on direct current (dc) electric motors, and in 1888 in Richmond, Virginia, he successfully completed the first commercial electrification of a street railway system. Incidentally, Sprague’s 1888 Richmond Union Passenger Railway electrification was named an IEEE Milestone in Electrical Engineering in 1992, with the milestone nomination having been made by the IEEE Richmond Section. After selling SERM to Edison General Electric, later the General Electric Company (GE), Sprague turned to electrification of vertical transportation systems. In 1891, with Charles Pratt, he formed the Sprague Electric Elevator Company (SEEC), which did ground-breaking work in elevator technology before being sold to Otis in 1898. While working on an installation in the new 14-story Postal Telegraph building on Broadway in New York City, he jury-rigged a system for simultaneously controlling multiple electric elevators from a single central control, the forerunner of his MU control system. For railway applications, the MU system was first installed in 1897 in Chicago, Illinois (see Figure 2).
MU technology revolutionized urban transportation systems, was a key element in the new Grand Central, and to this day is still widely used throughout the world.
The Sprague Electric Company (SEC) was formed in 1898 to commercialize MU control systems and, after bitter but successful patent litigation against GE, SEC was purchased by GE in 1902, making Frank Sprague a wealthy man. Although his productive days were far from over, subsequent business ventures such as the Sprague Safety Control and Signal Company (1907), Sprague Dual Elevator (late 1920s), and Sprague Sign Company (early 1930s) largely drained his financial resources. He also served with distinction on the Naval Consulting Board (chaired by Thomas Edison) during World War I, and when he died on 25 October 1934 of pneumonia at the age of 77, he was widely recognized worldwide as the “father of electric traction” (see Figure 3).
During his career, Sprague was an active member of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers (AIEE), a predecessor organization of today’s IEEE. This included serving as vice president in 1890–1892 and as president in 1892–1893. Among his many honors and awards was the AIEE Edison Medal, presented to Sprague in 1910 “for meritorious achievement in electrical science, engineering, and arts as exemplified in his contributions thereto.”
William John Wilgus
When William Wilgus was given responsibility for improving and updating Grand Central Station and its approaches in 1899, he already had years of hands-on railroading experience but limited formal education and only, in his words, “modest experience with electrical problems.”
Wilgus was born in Buffalo, New York, on 20 November 1865 where he attended Buffalo Central High School and finished his formal education with a Cornell University correspondence course in drafting. Between 1885 and 1895, he served in a number of different and increasingly responsible railway positions starting with the Minneapolis & Northwestern Railroad and ending as chief engineer of the Buffalo Terminal Railway Company (a subsidiary of the New York Central Railroad). The New York Central needed someone in New York City with Wilgus’s civil engineering background and in 1897 named him resident engineer for the line. Later he became chief engineer and finally vice president in 1903 with supervisory responsibility for all construction work and real estate. It was in this capacity that he undertook the Grand Central project. He proved to be an excellent planner and manager and, as demonstrated with the ETC, skilled at creating consensus within a diverse group of strong willed individuals, often with conflicting positions and ideas.
Following the Grand Central project, Wilgus became a distinguished consultant on construction for a number of different, primarily railway, systems. During World War I, he served in England and France in logistics, rising to the rank of colonel within the American Expeditionary Force. Wilgus served as president of the ASCE Metro Section in 1920–1921. He died in 1949 at the age of 83.
Grand Central Depot
Having gained control of the New York and Harlem, Hudson River, and New York Central railways between 1863 and 1867, Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, in 1869, envisioned creation of a massive terminal between 42nd and 45th Streets where the three lines ended at an open steam locomotive yard and train shed. Initially named the Grand Central Depot, entrance from the north was through a depressed four-track open cut along Park Avenue (then Fourth Avenue) starting at 56th Street. When opened in the early 1870s, the depot could handle more than 130 trains a day and was hailed by the press as an engineering marvel (see Figure 4).
A continuing series of modifications and expansions followed, but, by 1900, the Depot, now named Grand Central Station, had become nearly overwhelmed by the growth of New York City and its 3.4 million inhabitants. It wasn’t just the terrible smoke, dirt, and soot that fouled the adjacent real estate as steam locomotives approached the yard, there was also real danger of collision if a train missed a stop signal hidden by airborne debris.
Frank J. Sprague had, for years, unsuccessfully tried to persuade one of the New York City railroads to incorporate his railway-related inventions. When he first visited William Wilgus in 1899, his purpose was to encourage Wilgus to electrify the New York Central’s Yonkers branch using MU cars. The two men became friends immediately, and Wilgus quickly envisioned even broader electrification as a possible solution to the Grand Central problems. He prepared a comprehensive proposal that was presented to and approved by the New York Central Railroad board of directors in June 1899 but was not funded.
Then, on 8 January 1902, an incoming New York Central train missed an obscured red signal and slammed into a stopped New Haven train, killing 15 people. In the uproar that followed, regardless of cost or feasibility, the New York State Legislature ruled that, by July 1908, use of steam locomotives in Manhattan was prohibited, in effect forcing implementation of the electrification solution. Characteristically optimistic, Frank Sprague argued for complete electrification north and east of the station. In fact, prior to the collision, electrical consultant Bion J. Arnold (later a member of the ETC) had run independent tests on 12 different electrical systems and concluded that electrification, at least between Grand Central Station and Mott Haven, 5 mi (8 km) north on the Harlem River, was feasible. All William Wilgus had to do was make it happen. It was a huge and complex undertaking.
The Electric Traction Commission
Because of his own limited understanding of electrical systems, one of Wilgus’s first actions was to appoint an independent commission (the ETC) to create and manage the entire Grand Central electrification project as well as oversee the electrification of the main New York Central and related passenger rail lines into New York City. The commission became official on 15 December 1902, and, in addition to Wilgus (chairman) and Sprague, the membership included independent electrical consultants Bion J. Arnold and George Gibbs and, from within New York Central, electrical engineer Edwin B. Katté and motive power superintendent Arthur M Waitt (who was soon replaced by John F. Deems). Of the commission members, Frank Sprague had far and away the most direct experience with electrical transportation systems and power distribution. Also, because of Sprague’s strongly held opinions, it took great skill on the part of Wilgus to gain consensus following the inevitable disagreements.
There were a number of key interrelated issues to be resolved before the project could proceed. How far out should the electrification go? Should the power source be GE’s well-established medium voltage dc or the promising new, but relatively untried, high voltage single phase alternating current (ac) championed by Westinghouse? How should the power source be distributed, by overhead pantograph collectors or third rail? And, of course, how was the construction going to be financed?
One of the earliest decisions, strongly supported by Wilgus and Sprague, was to electrify all the way to North White Plains on the Harlem line, a distance of 24 mi (38.6 km), and to Croton-on-Hudson on the Hudson Line, a distance of 33 mi (53 km). Sprague also strongly recommended 660-V dc over ac. For the Grand Central electrification he proposed 11,000-V ac power connected from the power plant to the substations using overhead high voltage wires and then converted to 660-V dc with converters for the third-rail system or later on the locomotives themselves. While ac motive power promised lower up-front and operating costs, construction expenses would be higher because of the deeper cut required by the overhead power feed. Even more importantly, there were a number of different, still unproven, and competing ac systems being proposed, and traffic in and out of Grand Central had to keep running during the construction phase.
Considering its maturity, of the two approaches, Sprague felt dc was the only safe choice, as did Wilgus and the other railroad insiders Katté and Waitt/Deems. But Arnold and Gibbs balked, wanting further evaluation of ac. After heated debate, consensus was finally reached to employ 660-V dc distributed using an over-running third rail. This was later replaced by the far superior Wilgus-Sprague standard under-running third rail, invented by Wilgus and Sprague in 1905, and still in use today within parts of the former New York Central system now operated by the Metro-North Railroad. The over-running third rail (where the pickup shoes on the train cars contact the top of the energized third rail) suffered from several major problems, including the relative ease of possible electrocution by the exposed rail and malfunction during inclement weather such as snow, sleet, and ice. The Wilgus–Sprague invention elegantly solved these shortcomings by hanging the rail from brackets and surrounding it on both sides and on the top with a flexible insulating material (see Figure 5).
MU cars would handle suburban travel, offering major cost savings and also eliminating the engine turn-around that had so enlarged and clogged the original locomotive yard. Nonetheless, as actual electrification began, the dc/ac debate was far from over in the electric railway industry, which was still barely out of its infancy.
On one side, dc was championed by GE, which not only held significant Sprague-related patents but also had the only main line railroad experience, with seven years of freight and passenger operation through the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad tunnel under Howard Street in Baltimore. On the other side, ac had Westinghouse, which held the primary ac patents of Nikola Tesla, as well as those of several European interests. However, the single phase ac system promoted by Westinghouse had been installed only on the Washington, Baltimore, and Annapolis interurban line by 1902.
The rhetoric soon turned personal, and Sprague was drawn in when George Westinghouse, in a January 1903 letter to Engineering Magazine, implied that the ETC chose dc because one of its members (Frank Sprague) was a GE consultant. As part of the sale of Sprague Electric, Frank Sprague had negotiated a long-term consulting position with GE, but he did so as a free man, not beholden to GE or any other organization. George Westinghouse didn’t know this man, and for a person with Sprague’s credentials and moral character, there could be no greater insult. In the inevitable angry exchange that followed, Westinghouse did nothing to persuasively advance the ac case.
Wilgus presented his detailed plan to New York Central President W.H. Newman in March 1903, and it was approved on 3 June 1903. It envisioned a new Grand Central Terminal with a two-level, 57 track underground platform system, and 70 acres (28.3 hectares) of above-ground real estate on top of the newly covered underground system, which provided space for the terminal and for additional office and residential buildings. Wilgus proposed sale or lease of the “air rights” over the underground terminal tracks to help defray the cost of the project, which was originally estimated at US$43,460,000. According to Wilgus’s 1941 report, the modified estimate had grown to US$72 million by November 1906.
Construction began almost immediately as hundreds of buildings were demolished along the northern route to the proposed new terminal. A new fleet of 180 MU Sprague-GE cars (as the cars were called after GE bought the Sprague Electric Company) were introduced for suburban travel, and testing of the electric locomotives started in 1904. The locomotives included many innovations, one of which was a gearless “bipolar” motor, apparently based on earlier Sprague concepts. As late as 1981, some of these locomotives were still in use in the Grand Central Terminal yards.
Power was supplied by two railroad generating stations (one at Glenwood in Yonkers and the other at Port Morris in the Bronx) to conversion substations that supplied 660-V dc traction power. Substations were a standard technology for street railway and utility companies, a technique that Frank Sprague had first proposed in 1886 in a report to the Edison Electric Illuminating Company of New York.
Limited electric train service from Grand Central began in September 1906, but Grand Central Terminal and electrification of the tracks all the way to Croton-on-Hudson were not completed until 1913, long after both Sprague and Wilgus had left the scene (see Figure 6).
The Grand Central Terminal installation operated with minimal problems. MU cars quickly assumed the commuter runs, while the electric locomotives took over long-distance trains in the electrified zone (see Figures 7 and 8). The New Haven Railroad was a different story because of New Haven’s decision to use 11,000-V ac overhead motive power on its own tracks from New Haven, Connecticut, to the junction with the New York Central system at Woodlawn, New York. From that point on, entry to Grand Central required third-rail 660-V dc. For through trains, the New Haven switched to Pennsylvania Station in 1917, but trains terminating in New York used Grand Central Terminal. This required the New Haven trains to lower the overhead pantograph collectors and unfold shoes to connect to the New York Central third rail.
There were serious operational deficiencies as well. Single-phase ac technology was still being developed, the installed system had little in the way of power factor compensation, and regulation was limited. Also, overhead catenary wire suspension and the pantograph power collectors both suffered from a variety of mechanical problems. As a result, the New Haven line had major start-up problems, and, initially, New York Central locomotives had to be used to pull the New Haven trains between Grand Central and Woodlawn, with steam power retained on the New Haven property. In the first months, the situation appeared so bleak that New Haven management threatened Westinghouse with litigation if the problems weren’t resolved. In time the difficulties were overcome, but the initial problems underscored the acumen of Frank Sprague’s insistence on the superiority of dc traction for Grand Central Terminal.
Eventually, however, when all the battles had been fought and problems solved, the Grand Central electrification could only be crowned an outstanding success. In the report that William Wilgus sent to Harriet Sprague in 1941, he ended the Grand Central story with a discussion of what he believed were the many related benefits. Obvious ones included greater safety, improved customer service, added revenue for the New York Central Railroad, and, along with an improved general image of railways as means of transportation, beautification of this core part of Manhattan. A massive, polluted, open steam locomotive yard was replaced by the terminal, other fine buildings, and parkland along the center divider of the street that was then renamed Park Avenue.
Passenger use of the terminal also improved dramatically from roughly 19 million in 1906 to more than 50.6 million in 1930 (although it did drop off during the Great Depression to 35.7 million in 1936 and just under 40 million in 1939). Wilgus also calculated that real estate values between 1906 and 1930 in New York City and Westchester County had increased by nearly US$1 billion. In New York City alone, this increased tax revenues by an annual US$14 million, all because of the electrification. While lauding the success of the project, several write-in comments on the report argued that at least some portion of all these improvements was due to the general population growth and that the greatly improved highway system had also helped contribute to the health and growth of Westchester County and other suburban areas.
C.E. Smith, vice president of the New Haven Railway, also used the write-in platform to crow about the New Haven’s ac power decision. Smith noted, “The electrical engineers and management of the New Haven Railway were bold indeed to venture into a new and relatively untried system of electrification…now that this system is almost universally preferred for long distance, heavy traction, railway electrification.” He wisely chose to overlook all the start-up problems this created for the rest of the project. Wilgus countered with a restatement of the same reasons why the ETC had originally chosen dc, arguing correctly that at the time and with the then state-of-the art of both ac and dc, there was only one prudent choice. He was magnanimous in adding that, if faced with the same decision nearly 40 years later in 1941, the result might have been different.
In the aftermath of this success, it is unclear how Frank Sprague viewed his role as a consultant on the ETC. Even as the world moved toward high-voltage ac, he still maintained a personal preference for dc, believing that the high-voltage dc system would ultimately be cheaper. And largely because of the success of the Grand Central installation, GE introduced an overhead catenary wire “high-voltage” dc system in 1907. It received a major endorsement when, in 1913, a 3,000-V dc system was adopted by the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul, and Pacific Railroad for 656 mi (1,056 km) of rail line across five mountain ranges. Subsequently, it became a showpiece for GE as the system was selected by railroads in South America, Mexico, southern Europe, the former Soviet Union, and Japan. Today, 1,500-V high-voltage overhead dc is retained in commuter operation in Chicago, Illinois, and Frank Sprague’s medium-voltage dc remains the universal standard for transit systems.
Sprague also continued to favor third rails to overhead collectors, even when the voltages reached 1,800-V dc, or even higher. However, because of the potential dangers involved, practitioners tended to favor overhead for such voltages, which eventually led to the 1918 closure, for lack of business, of the Standard Third Rail Company, which Wilgus and Sprague had jointly formed in 1911. Nevertheless, a half century later the Bay Area Rapid Transit system in San Francisco, California, adopted 1,200-V third rail power because of its greater efficiency.
As Frank Sprague’s role on the ETC was winding down in 1906, he turned to his next challenge, one that would consume him over the next 24 years. In the 1902 collision that directly led to the Grand Central electrification, the signal system apparently operated properly. However, the safety system failed because the operator didn’t stop the train, unable to see the signal that was obscured by smoke and steam. This was anything but an isolated incident as railroads spread across the country. For example, in 1900 American railroad fatalities totaled nearly 7,900, more than 1,000 of which resulted from collisions, a considerable number of which were directly due to faulty signal systems or human error. After studying the fatality reports, Frank Sprague concluded that the only possible solution was an automatic train control (ATC) system that automatically stopped any train that overran a stop signal for whatever reason.
In 1907, he formed the Sprague Safety Control & Signal Corporation and by 1913 had a working pilot system. A year later he filed a comprehensive patent application. However, due to delays caused by World War I and continuing litigation with signal competitors, it would take another 16 years before the patent was finally issued in October 1930 (see Figure 9).
The Sprague system was beautifully conceived and reliable, but by then the market had passed him by, and he was off on other ventures. Although by then his competitors also supplied signal systems with automatic train stop, because that feature was neither legislated nor universally adopted, the danger still remained wherever ATC wasn’t installed. Finally, nearly 80 years later, after another deadly collision, in 2008 President George W. Bush signed a railroad safety act requiring an updated version of Sprague’s ATC on intercity commuter and Class I railroads by 2015. How many lives were lost unnecessarily during those 80 years is unknown. Frank Sprague did not live to see the mandating and implementation of such a safety system. However, as he looked back toward the end of his life at his many accomplishments, this was the work of which he was most proud.
Widely considered the most famous railroad terminal in the world, Grand Central Terminal is one of the few public spaces to have been replicated in part in a movie studio. MGM once had a simulated set of track gates for filming arrival and departure scenes in an era when the “luxury limited” defined travel at its best. Over the years, the station itself was the backdrop for scenes in numerous films, the most famous being Alfred Hitchcock’s 1959 classic film North by Northwest with Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint. Others included the 1942 mystery film Grand Central Murder with Van Heflin and Patricia Dane.
Passenger traffic peaked at the close of World War II but then declined with the development of faster or more convenient forms of transportation by air and highway. Over time, the terminal declined as did the industry that gave it purpose. Proposals were made that would have placed a large building above it, and those proposals were followed by more drastic schemes that would have demolished Grand Central entirely.
The demolition of Grand Central’s less renowned west side rival, Pennsylvania Station, gave focus to a strong landmarks preservation movement that engaged numerous public figures, the most famous of them being Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, in a lengthy and hard-fought battle to preserve Grand Central. Victory in that struggle saved the terminal, but it was by then a drab and unsightly space that only echoed the grandeur of its past. In the 1990s a major renovation transformed the terminal into a grand public space that was not only a welcoming sight for riders of the Metro-North Railroad that provides regional commuter operations (see Figure 10) but also a location for retail establishments and access to hotels and commercial structures. It was designated a National Historical Landmark in 1976 and placed on the National Register of Historic Places, and in 2012 it was named a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark by the ASCE. On its upcoming centennial on 2 February 2013, Grand Central Terminal will once again display the grandeur evident upon its opening a century ago (see Figures 11 and 12).
For Further Reading
W. J. Wilgus, “The Grand Central Terminal in perspective,” ASCE Trans., vol. 106, p. 992–1051, 1941.
H. C. J. Sprague, Frank J. Sprague and the Edison Myth. New York: William-Frederick, 1947.
F. Dalzell, Engineering Invention, Frank J. Sprague and the U.S. Electrical Industry. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010.
W. D. Middleton and W.D. Middleton III. Frank Julian Sprague, Electrical Inventor and Engineer. Bloomington, IN: Indiana Univ. Press, 2009.
P. Connor, “The underground electric train,” Underground News, vol. 523, pp. 270–273, July 2005; vol. 524, pp. 325–330, Aug. 2005; vol. 525, pp. 404–408, Sept. 2005; vol. 526, pp. 486–491, Oct. 2005; vol. 527, pp. 534–539, Nov. 2005.
Frank J. Sprague Papers (1874–1939), New York City Public Library, Rare Books and Manuscripts Division, accession number *88 M 28.
Frank J. Sprague Seventy-Fifth Anniversary Books. Williamstown, MA: Chapin Library, Williams College, 1932.
C. T. Hutchinson, Frank J. Sprague Seventy-Fifth Anniversary Program, New York City, New York, 25 July 1932. Erie, PA: Ashby Printing Co., 1932.
P. Israel, Edison: A Life of Invention. New York: Wiley, 1998.
W. D. Middleton, Grand Central: The World’s Greatest Railroad Terminal. San Marino, CA: Golden West, 1977.
K. C. Schlichting, Grand Central Terminal: Railroads, Engineering, and Architecture in New York City. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 2001.