Frank J. Sprague

Frank J. Sprague

Frank Julian Sprague (1857–1934) was educated at Drury High School in North Adams, Massachusetts, and at the United States Naval Academy. In his free time he applied his mechanical and mathematical talents to problems of electrical engineering. In 1883 he resigned his naval commission to join the Edison Laboratory in Menlo Park, New Jersey, but left Edison in 1884 to found the Sprague Electric Railway and Motor Company, one of several firms he would establish to develop and market inventions. An important early achievement was a motor which maintained constant speed under varying load. In 1887–8 his firm installed an electric streetcar railway in Richmond, Virginia, a success which led to further contracts in the United States and abroad. Together with Charles R. Pratt, Sprague produced an electric elevator with improved capacity, speed, and safety, which in turn made taller buildings commercially feasible. Later Sprague devised a control system for railways in which each car of a train carried an electric traction motor and all of the motors could be controlled by a motorman through relays. These and other engineering milestones underlie today’s urban high-rise environment and rapid transit systems.

On July 25, 1932, to mark his 75th birthday, friends and colleagues of Frank J. Sprague gathered in New York and paid tribute to the “Father of Electric Traction”. At that meeting he was presented with six volumes containing congratulatory letters and accompanying photographic portraits. Among the more than 400 writers were Charles Francis Adams, Secretary of the Navy; author and artist Oliver Herford; President of the United States Herbert Hoover; radio pioneer Guglielmo Marconi; book collector A. Edward Newton; General John J. Pershing, U.S. Army; Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Governor of the State of New York; Carl F. von Siemens of the German Government Railways; Gerard Swope, President of the General Electric Company; author Booth Tarkington; inventor Nikola Tesla; and J.H. Van Alstyne, President of the Otis Elevator Company. A list of contributors to the letters may be read on this page of our web site.

Two books about Frank J. Sprague are available in Schow Science Library at Williams College: Frank J. Sprague and the Edison Myth (1947) by Harriet C. Sprague, and Engineering Invention: Frank J. Sprague and the U.S. Electrical Industry (2010) by Frederick Dalzell. Another important source is Frank Julian Sprague: Electrical Inventor and Engineer by William D. Middleton and William D. Middleton III (2009).

Thanks to Mr. John L. Sprague of Williamstown, Massachusetts, a grandson of Frank J. Sprague, the 1932 albums of letters and portraits are now held in the Chapin Library, together with three guest books from the home of Frank J. Sprague and his wife, Harriet, containing autographs, inscriptions, and sketches by their many distinguished visitors. Members of the Sprague Family have been donors to the Chapin Library since the mid-20th century: through their generosity, we have acquired collections of books and manuscripts by important American authors, including George Ade, Gelett Burgess, Oliver Herford, Edwin Markham, Carolyn Wells, and Walt Whitman.


The Sprague albums are available for use in the Archives/Chapin reading room in Sawyer Library, Room 441.

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This page was last updated on 16 September 2014