The Early Years

Thomas Parker was born at the top of Lincoln Hill, Coalbrookdale, Shropshire, on 22nd December, 1843. His career began in the foundry at the Coalbrookdale Ironworks where his father worked as a moulder. At the time he was just 9½ years old. He soon became a moulder, like his father, and realised that in order to get on in the world he needed an education. He left Coalbrookdale in 1862 and studied at Birmingham and Manchester. In 1867 he returned to Coalbrookdale and soon became a manager at the ironworks, and later a chemist in the bronzing and electroplating department.

In 1876, in collaboration with Philip Weston, Thomas invented the Parker and Weston Patent Steam Pump. This was his first major invention. He also designed and built a large dynamo for the firm's electro-plating department, and invented the "Kyrle" open grate, the first open grate in which anthracite coal could be burned. For this invention he was awarded, in 1881, a Silver Medal by the Smoke Abatement Committee of the International Smoke Abatement Exhibition, at South Kensington. He also invented a gas engine, known as “Robinson’s” which was made by Tangys.

Young Thomas Parker. Courtesy of Gail Tudor.

Thomas began to make his own accumulators, as lead-acid cells were called, and began to cooperate with Paul Bedford Elwell, who ran the Patent Tip and Horseshoe Company in Wolverhampton. This work led to a patent being taken out in 1882, by Thomas Parker, in conjunction with Paul Bedford Elwell, for an improvement to the standard design.

Thomas took out several patents for improvements to alternators, and in 1881 was involved in the electric tramway at Portrush, in Northern Ireland. This was the first electric tramway in the world to be powered by hydro electricity.

In June 1882, Paul Bedford Elwell and Thomas Parker jointly registered a patent for "Improvements in dynamo electric machines", and in August they took out another patent for "Improvements in electric lighting and apparatus associated herewith".

Thomas decided to join forces with Paul-Bedford Elwell, in Wolverhampton, to form the first company in the Midlands to manufacture electrical equipment. He left Coalbrookdale in October 1882 and moved to Wolverhampton.

Elwell-Parker Limited

Paul Bedford Elwell had a large factory on the corner of Walsall Street and Commercial Road in Wolverhampton, and so Thomas joined him there. In 1883, they designed, built, and installed dynamos and electric lighting for the Trafalgar Collieries in the Forest of Dean. This was the first underground electrical installation in the country, if not in the world. They also produced dynamos for the Manchester Edison Company, and in 1884 founded the Wolverhampton Electric Light, Power, Storage and Engineering Company. The name was soon changed to Elwell-Parker Limited, after an infusion of fresh capital.

Elwell-Parker’s products included accumulators, dynamos, alternators, and transformers. In 1885 Sir William Preece, speaking before the Royal Society of Arts, said that the revival of the electricity industry in this country was due to the efforts and success of Mr. Parker, and writing in the Royal Society of Arts Journal, he praised Mr. Parker for winning a place for Britain in the fast developing electrical industry.

Thomas surrounded by Elwell-Parker products. Courtesy of Gail Tudor.


One of the first large orders secured by the new company was for the design and construction of the electrical plant for driving the Blackpool Tramway, the first English electric tramway of any size.

The trams used a conduit system, where the power was picked-up from a slot between the rails. The conductor was composed of two copper tubes of elliptical shape, attached to iron studs. The studs were supported in porcelain insulators, that were mounted on blocks of creosoted wood in the sides of the channel. At each end of the car there was a switch box, with resistance coils placed under the platforms, by which means the strength of the current and speed of the car could be regulated. 

To reverse the direction in which the car was travelling, the direction of the current through the armature was reversed. The shunt-wound field coils were always magnetised in the same direction.

A section of conduit as used at Blackpool.

The only surviving original Blackpool tram. As seen at the National Tram Museum, Crich.

Each car was driven by a single bipolar, reversible motor, the drive being transmitted by an open chain to one of the two truck axles. Work began on the motors and dynamos in 1884.

The first tram ran on 2nd July, 1885, this was the first electric tram to run along an English street. The system was a great advance on any other electrically powered transport system at the time. It did have some defects however. Often at high tide, it was completely covered in water and sand, when the wind blew in from the sea; and many times it was under several feet of snow. The switchgear became crusted with sodium and chlorine salts and so could be unreliable.

One of the original trams still survives at the National Tram Museum, Crich. It was converted to run on an overhead wire, and ended its career as a service vehicle. Originally Blackpool tram number 3, it later became tram number 4.

Thomas Parker remained as the tram company’s consulting engineer until 1892.

After the inaugural run, the Mayor of Blackpool and his guests retired to a celebration dinner in honour of the opening of the new tramway.

After the meal, speeches were given and Thomas Parker said that the future of railways was with electric traction.

Electrically powered locomotives were cheaper to run than steam and could travel at 70 m.p.h.

Another view of the tram at Crich.

In 1887 Mr. James Oddie of Ballarat, Australia, came to England to obtain information on electrical knowledge and its developments.

He was a wealthy gold miner, who became Ballarat’s first Chairman of the Municipal Council and was greatly impressed with Elwell-Parker's products.

Whilst here he visited Blackpool. His description of the trams was printed in the Ballarat Star, on Friday, 18th April, 1890.

His description is as follows:

Ballarat Star, Friday, 18th April, 1890.

I had great pleasure in looking at the esplanade, which is two miles long. It is lit up by nine arc electric lights and an electric tramway system runs from end to end. There are 10 cars on it, each capable of seating 55 or 60 passengers. In the summer season, when Blackpool (a favourite resort) is crowded, 2d is charged for the journey from end to end; in winter, when visitors are scarce, the same ride may be had for 1d.

This line is one of the sweetest things in the empire. There is no jar, and the travelling is perfectly lovely. The motive power in this case is picked up by conductors from an underground conduit. Through my cousin (Mr. John Nixon, who is a member of the council, who put up the lights) I had access to the corporation members and officers and to the managing directors of the Tramway Company.

While there I gave a dinner to the members of the corporation and the tramway directors and officers; the mayor of Manchester, Mr. Alex Siemens (nephew of the late Sir Wm. Siemens), Mr. Thomas Parker (of Messrs. Elwell and Parker), and other electricians were present. The dinner went very well and the proceedings were characterised by enthusiasm. The manager of the gasworks informed me that the electric light was cheaper than gas, and that the latter was either 2s.6d or 2s.9d per 1000ft., certainly not more than 2s.9d. The electric tramway was so successful that in the first year it paid a dividend of 5 percent. The second year it just paid expenses owing to a mishap, the sea getting into the conduit and partly filling it with sand, the Job of removing which was most costly. The third year, when it carried 950,000 passengers (mainly 2d fares), it paid 7 percent. It is hampered by not being allowed to run on Sundays, while busses are; otherwise it would beat all opposition.

The power used is obtained from a double set of machinery, two semi portable engines (worked one at a time), and two Elwell Parker dynamos, all models of beauty and economy, and which work like clockwork. The line is a patent of a Mr. Smith, of Halifax, but its success is mainly due to Mr. Parker.

James Oddie

Birmingham Trams

An order was received  from the Birmingham Tramways Company, for the design and construction of a prototype electric tram, to run on their existing system, which was operated by steam trams. The steam trams were noisy and dirty, and a cleaner and quieter alternative was required. The decision was taken to test an electric tram on their system, which would hopefully fulfil all of their requirements and also be more reliable and cheaper to run than the existing trams.

It was decided that the tram must be self-powered, as overhead wires were considered to be unsightly and a conduit system too expensive to install. A battery-powered prototype was built and successfully tested at Birmingham, on 7th November, 1888. It was an instant success and Elwell-Parker expected further orders.

The following description of the day's activities, is from a newspaper cutting that Thomas Parker pasted into his newspaper cuttings book. I assume it was taken from one of the Birmingham newspapers.

Important Trial in Birmingham

Yesterday the Directors of the Birmingham Tramways Company afforded to the Public Works Committee of the Corporation, and to a number of eminent men who are interested in electrical engineering, an opportunity of witnessing the trial of an electric tramcar of the type recently produced by Mr. Thomas Parker (Elwell-Parker and Company Limited), of Wolverhampton, in conjunction with Mr. Alfred Dickinson, M.I.C.E., the consulting mechanical engineer of the company. The car in question is the same, which has been the subject of one or two previous trials lately noticed in our columns.

Yesterday it was run from Station Street to the Sparkbrook Depot and back with a full load of passengers, and in the course of the journey ascended the long and severe incline of Bradford Street, a feat the like of which, the engineers allege has never been performed by any self-contained tramcar.  

The company which assisted at the trial included the Mayor of Birmingham (Alderman Barrow), Sir Saul Samuel (Agent General for New South Wales), Sir Daniel Cooper, G.C.M.G., Sir R. Fowler, Bart., M.P., Sir Henry C. Mance, C.I.E., Sir Douglas Fox, M.I.C.E., Adlerman Powell Williams, M.P., Mr. J. Spencer Balfour, M.P., Mr. T.P. O’Connor, M.P., Colonal Twynam (Chairman of the Birmingham and Midlands Tramway Company), Alderman Johnson (solicitor to the Central Tramways Company); Councillors Lawley Parker (Chairman), J.J. Smith, and Granger (members of the Public Works Committee); Mr. W.R. Highes (City Treasurer), Mr. Farndale (Chief Constable), Mr. T. Arnall (from the Borough Surveyor’s Office); Messrs. Martyn J. Smith, William Neale, and W.J. Carruthers Waine, Assoc. Inst. C.E. (directors of the company); Messrs. Joseph Ash, James Balfour, J. Irving Courtenay, L.M. Bronsson, G. Dibley, Francis Fox, J.E.H. Gordon, D.S. Hasluck (Chairman of the Birmingham and Aston Tramways Company), F. King, F.H. Lloyd (Wednesbury), H.G. Wright, W. Wiley, and E.B. Tonks; a number of journalists, and the following officials of the Central Tramways Company: Mr. J. Kincaid, engineer; Mr. W. Holmden, secretary; Mr. Alfred Dickinson, consulting mechanical engineer; Mr. C. Harvey Herring, traffic manager; Mr. R.H. Dickinson, locomotive superintendent.

The party was too large to travel by the electric car alone, since it carries no more than 50 persons, and a steam-driven car of the ordinary pattern proceeded it during the trip, to carry the surplus passengers.  

The trial was regarded as eminently satisfactory. It is true that the ascent of Bradford Street was accomplished at a rate of only four miles an hour, and that steam-driven cars make it a little more quickly. The engineer’s state, however, that the gearing is designed for journeys on the level route in Bristol Road, that the experiment of yesterday was meant only to demonstrate a possibility in electric propulsion hitherto doubted, and that by merely altering the gearing, the pace might have been increased.

The car ran very smoothly, and with less noise than even the cable system makes, except when the brake is applied. This latter has been imperfectly adjusted, and gave forth a jarring sound; but as it is a common mechanical contrivance, it may be easily set right. A slight hiss proceeded from the motor when it was at work, but was not audible to the inside passengers. The car was driven by Mr. R. Dickinson, and its journey was watched with much interest by curious crowds, who were kept in order by a special force of policemen stationed along the route.

The car may now be more fully described than has hitherto been possible. It has much the appearance of the cars on the New Inns route, for one sees no sign of the machinery which propels it.

There is no rack and lever on the driver’s platform at each end, and, as the mechanism by which the switches are actuated is contained in a small box beneath the steps which lead to the roof, the platforms are smaller, and the car, though but 10” longer than a cable car (26ft.) has seats for six more passengers.   

The electric motor is carried on the front bogey, within a frame, distinct from that which bears the weight of the car, and not subject, therefore to the fluctuations of that weight which take place in the course of traffic. The effect of this immunity from depression and elevation, and of a further bit of ingenious adjustment, is that the “pitch-line” is constant in all circumstances, and that helical gearing, which is safer and stronger than the chain gearing formerly suggested, can be used to connect the motor with the four wheels of the bogey. In this adjustment, and in the helical gearing, the real novelty of the car may be said to lie, and much of the credit of it is due to Mr. Dickinson.  

It need hardly be nowadays explained that a self-contained electric car, is a car in which the driving force is stored in accumulators or batteries, which have been charged by steam power at a fixed station from such a dynamo as those which are now to be seen at Bingley Hall. The so-called “charging” consists simply in this – that the electric energy generated by the dynamo spends itself in working a chemical change in the constituents of the battery. The change is of a nature which tends to undo itself as soon as opportunity is given, and this reversal of the process gives out again the electric energy which the dynamo passed to the battery.

There is some waste in both processes, but Mr. Thomas Parker affirms that the net result in energy is 70 percent of that generated by the stationary engine, which drives the charging dynamo. The economical results of using electricity as a motive power are, if this be true, remarkable. It takes 15lb. of coke, at 24s. per ton, to run a steam engine and car a mile, and it will take 3lb. or 4lb. of slack coal, at 8s. a ton, to propel an electric car the same distance. These are theoretical figures, and it will be remarked that the chairman of the company, in speaking to his guests, made a prudent and considerable allowance upon them.

The accumulators, twelve for each car, are carried beneath the seats, and are put in and taken out from the outside, being shut off from view by sliding doors. They make an automatic connection with the motor. Their present form is not likely to be long retained, for they are enclosed in boxes of unnecessary weight and cumbersomeness, made up of teak and lead. Glass or vulcanite would be preferred if manufacturers could be induced to make the kind of box required. Even as it is however, a set of exhausted motors can be replaced in three minutes with a set of newly charged ones, and their disadvantage consists mainly in the fact that they add very largely to the burden which has to be carried.

A car without its compliment of passengers weighs 9 tons, and with it 12 tons. One charge is sufficient to propel a loaded car 60 miles; but in practice no charge is allowed to get exhausted. The accumulators undergo some wear and tear, but it is said to be doubtful if their maintenance will cost more than that of steam engines.

It is likely that two or three months will yet elapse before the Bristol Road route is furnished with electric cars, even if the Public Works Committee and the City Council should presently give their sanction for the new system. Mr. Joseph Smith states that if the order for twelve cars were given at once, it could not be executed in less than two months. 

The Public Works Committee on their part, still hold to the requirement that the tramways company should demonstrate the trustworthiness of the Elwell-Parker motor by running a car with it for a month. With reference to this proposal, the company’s engineers point out that in order to comply with it, they must perforce put down the plant, which, in any case, will be needed at the generative station. The station as designed by them, will be furnished with large engines, and with the most modern appliances for handling the accumulators. 

It will probably be suggested, therefore, that the Council should be asked to grant to the company provisional running powers for a month, and only to make them absolute if at the end of that time electric traction should become a proved success. If this concession were granted, the hands of the directors would be materially strengthened. They can hardly be surprised however, at the firmness of the committee when they remember that at least one other local authority has been induced to sanction a system of electric traction which belies the hopes of its promoters, and that the Central Company itself not long ago pressed hard for the adoption in Birmingham of a motor, which is now admitted to have had grave mechanical defects. 

It was doubted, moreover, by a mechanical specialist who saw the tramcar which made yesterday’s trial trip, whether the brake attachment in use would prove of permanent value. If Messrs. Elwell, Parker, and the company’s motor does not establish its claim to be safe and efficient, its success will be attributable to the combination in one inventor of both mechanical and electrical skill, and to his regards for a consulting engineer’s knowledge of the actual requirements of tramway work.

After the trial a luncheon was held at the Queen’s Hotel, at which Mr. Joseph Smith presided. The health of “The Queen” having been drunk, Mr. Smith proposed the toast of “Success to the system of electric traction.” He said that among the buried treasures of wisdom in the east, he believed there was a maxim that he who shot at the sun would strike higher than a bush. He hoped that that maxim would not encourage the Corporation of Birmingham to strike too high or too hard, if he acknowledged that the result of that day’s experience in electric traction was in no small degree due to the absolute determination of the Corporation of Birmingham in general, and of the Public Works Committee in particular, that nothing less than the best illustration of electric traction would be good enough for the City of Birmingham. (Hear, Hear).

Mr. Lawley Parker had that day seen a distinct advance upon anything which had before been shown in this country or on the continent of Europe. The improvement in mechanical details in the car upon which they had travelled was most marked and most satisfactory, and so far as the car itself was concerned, he ventured to state that it would give satisfaction both to the Corporation and to the travelling public. As to the commercial aspect of the experiment, which was interesting to the shareholders of the Central Tramway Company, it was one of the features of electric propulsion, and of the self-contained car in particular, that power must be lost at the fixed station in changing mechanical energy by dynamos into electric energy in the accumulators, and in again that electric energy into mechanical energy in the car motor.

Taking the average of opinions which had been given to him from the highest sources, it appeared that probably 40 percent would be placed as mechanical energy upon the wheels; but he preferred to calculate the cost upon the supposition that they would only preserve 25 percent of the original energy, and with that loss electric traction emphatically justified itself as the coming power of the near future. He was speaking in the presence of men who would be able to check him when he said that one ton of ordinary coal consumed at the generative station, meant as much efficient work as three tons of coal expended in a steam locomotive. More than that, the cost of hard coke was nearly three times the cost of the coal which the company would use, and thus the cost of generation at a fixed station was only one sixth; possibly less than that; of the cost of steam locomotives. What cared he, therefore, as a tramway man, if he got only 25 percent of the power generated, when he could generate six times as much for the same expenditure of money, representing a 20 percent profit upon their expenditure upon electric trams? Working expenses would be less and the wear and tear upon the roads would be less. 

The average weight of a steam locomotive and car is 16 tons, the weight of an electric car is only 9 tons. The economic results of electricity were of course still better than those of horse traction, and at the same time the electric car was only 26ft. long whereas a steam engine and its car were 51ft. 6in. long (Hear, Hear). He would call upon nobody to respond to the toast, because on that showing he thought that electric traction was able to answer for itself (Laughter and applause).

Councillor Lawley Parker proposed the toast of “The Visitors” and said that the occasion was a very interesting one to the members of the Corporation and to the public. They had witnessed a most successful and interesting experiment. Birmingham had not been afraid to venture upon several important experiments connected with tramways, and now they saw another experiment which he believed, and hoped, would prove to be practical on other tramlines in the borough. 

He desired, however, that they should first see the electric car at work continuously for, say, a month. It was the desire of the Public Works Committee that that should be required in order that they might see the system thoroughly and fairly tried. As they did not know much about electricity themselves, they were bound to consider that the proof of the pudding lay in the eating, (Hear, Hear) and if the month’s work was satisfactory, he was sure that the City Council and the Public Works Committee would be very much disposed to favour electric motors on other lines in the borough (Hear, Hear). 

It was of course unfortunate that when the Bristol Road line was completed the company would not at once be able to put electric motors at work; but he hoped that they would be able to make some temporary arrangements for a service of horse cars. As to the use of electric motors on other lines, it was not for him to say what the company should do; but if he might express a hope, it was that they would boldly attack their depreciation fund, and write off their steam engines pretty rapidly. They might depend upon the Council dealing fairly and properly with their shareholders. (Hear, Hear).

Sir Saul Samuel responded on behalf of the visitors and said that his interest was the greater in the experiment which had just been tried, because the people of Sydney, whom he represented, were extremely anxious to get rid of their steam cars, which were the same pattern as the Birmingham cars. (Laughter). The trial had been a perfectly successful one, and he regarded the system as the best form of electric traction yet devised. He ended by giving the toast of “The Mayor and Corporation of Birmingham”. (Applause).

The Mayor responded, and said that he hoped the Corporation would soon be able to get rid of the smoky engines, which now traversed the streets of the City. (Hear, Hear). Birmingham was smoky enough without having smoke emitted in its thoroughfares. The electric car was an immense improvement on the system of steam traction, and, for the sake of the promoters, as well as of the public, he hoped it might prove a success. He concluded with some remarks on the importance of penny fares as a great advantage to the working classes, and by proposing the health of the chairman.

Mr. Joseph Smith, in replying, welcomed the proposal that electricity should be used on other routes than Bristol Road, and said that if he had not been satisfied that the enhanced profit of electric traction would pay for the abolition of steam engines, he would never have advocated it. (Hear, Hear).

The proceedings closed when the health of Mr. Thomas Parker had also been drunk.

The E.C.C.

This was to be one of Thomas Parker's last projects to carry the Elwell-Parker name, because the company became part of the Electric Construction Corporation on 30th September, 1888. The corporation was incorporated on 7th June, 1889. Throughout his life Thomas continued to invent and develop many things, including the production of phosphorous, 'Coalite' the smokeless fuel, early motorcars, the Liverpool overhead railway, South Staffordshire trams, electrification of the London underground, a British decimal system for weights and currency, and much, much more.

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