Trains and Technology: The American Railroad in the Nineteenth Century - Vol. 1

By Anthony J. Bianculli | Go to book overview

5
Locomotive Appliances and Appurtenances

Lighting the Way

During the first years of railroading in the United States, trains were not run at night. Usually, trips were only a few hours long, seldom longer than a day, and passengers preferred daytime travel. Additionally, since there were no really effective means to light up the oncoming track at night, and safe passage was highly dependent on visual scanning of the track before the train, trains were confined to daytime operation. Horatio Allen had, in 1831, constructed “an inclosure of sand, and kept on the sand, a structure of iron rods somewhat of urn shape. In this structure was to be kept up a fire of pine-wood knots.”1 This rudimentary “track illuminator” as it was called, was built on a platform car, which was then pushed before the locomotive. It was not intended to light up the track for the benefit of the train's engineer; rather, it was to warn of the train's coming. The first headlight was used on a locomotive of the Auburn and Syracuse Railroad around 1838, and the Boston and Worcester Railroad was perhaps the first road to establish a practice of night running. Aware that freight trains were delaying the passenger consists during the exclusively daytime operations, in 1841 the road began to schedule freight trains to run during the nighttime hours. To meet the need for lighting, a large oil lamp with shiny, built-in reflectors was mounted at the front of the locomotive. A headlight described as being made of “a series of tin and mercury-glass reflectors behind the foot high lens,” which projected “a beam of light… 50 to 100 feet down the track,” was said to be affixed to a locomotive of the Schenectady and Troy Railroad, probably in the early 1840s.2

At the time, animal or whale oil was used for lighting. Following its discovery in the United States, petroleum was applied to locomotive headlights, but it was soon discovered that petroleum products—kerosene, coal oil, and others— smoked excessively. This objection was overcome in the early 1860s and many engines were equipped with “kerosine” headlights. A headlight of a “modern” locomotive of the mid-1860s was expected “to show in a dark night sufficient light to enable the time to be seen on a watch, the observer standing 1000 feet or nearly a quarter of a mile in front.”3 Even at this range, it is unlikely that an engine running at speed could stop in time before striking any obstruction that might be revealed by the light. This being the case, an oil headlight, figure 5.1, was of little more utility than as a warning device like Horatio Allen's “track illuminator.” A further shortcoming was that oil-burning headlights were susceptible to blowing out as a result of winds, or even the forward progress of the train.4

Professor Grant invented a calcium lamp, which was tested on a locomotive in 1849, but although it lit the track for up to one-half mile, nothing came of it. Gas lamps were also tried with various degrees of success. Oil was eventually supplanted by acetylene, which, in turn, was replaced by electricity. The first appearance of an electric headlight was in 1851, but it was an anomoly; electric headlights were uncommon until the early 1890s when a few carbon arc lamps, powered by steam-driven generators, were to be found. Specifically, until 1899, there were only about twenty-five electric headlights in use, countrywide. One of the antecedants of the twentiethcentury Mars headlight that traced an elliptical path to the front and sides of the track was a socalled “cross-eyed headlight” installed on a crack train of the New Haven road. This 1896 appliance was really two headlights “arranged that each will throw light across the other's rays.” for

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Trains and Technology: The American Railroad in the Nineteenth Century - Vol. 1
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page 3
  • Contents 7
  • Preface: Comments from the Cab 9
  • Acknowledgements 13
  • Introduction 15
  • Locomotives 25
  • General Description of the American Steam Locomotive 27
  • 1: Introduction to Motive Power 33
  • 2: Motive Power Infancy, 1830–1850 38
  • 3: Motive Power Adolescence, 1850–1875 104
  • 4: Motive Power Maturity, 1875–1900 135
  • 5: Locomotive Appliances and Appurtenances 205
  • Notes 217
  • Bibliography 230
  • Index 237
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