The Trial of the First Elwell-Parker Birmingham Tram

 7th November, 1888

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.

Electric Tramway Motors  

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.

One of the Birmingham trams.

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 regular running of electric tramcars on the Bristol Road route, began on Friday, 25th July, 1890.

A description of the Blackpool tramway, written in 1890 for the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works in New South Wales, Australia. The committee was considering a proposed tramway for use in Sydney, and looked at some of the tramways in use, in various countries.

Birmingham Central Tramway Company’s Proposed Installation on the Bristol Road, Birmingham

Each car carries a motor worked by accumulators placed under the seats. These are recharged by a fixed electrical generating plant.

Date opened
There are no cars yet in regular working, and the necessary licenses from the local authorities have not yet been obtained. A car has been fitted with accumulators and has run experimentally. The Central Tramway Company own the whole of the system; all the electrical work is being carried out by the Electric Construction Corporation.

Three miles of double line; worst curve is a right angle, one of 50 feet radius. Some heavy gradients, the worst being 1 in 28 for 83 yards, and the longest being 1,300 yards long and varying from 1 in 39 to 1 in 188. Rails set to 3ft. 6 inch gauge.

One only at present, but there are to be 12, each seating 52 passengers, weighing as follows:

Car 2 tons 10 cwt., empty
Motor and gearing 1 ton 0 cwt.
Accumulators 3 tons 6½ cwt.


 6 tons 16½ cwt.

They are double bogie cars, each bogie having 4 wheels. The motor drives the 4 wheels of one bogie only.

Elwell-Parker's, series wound, running at 700 revolutions per minute, at a car speed of 8 miles an hour, with a current of about 35 amperes. There is only one pair of brushes constantly on, and they do not want moving for either forward or backward running.

The motors are carried in a frame of steel or aluminium bronze, resting directly on two bearings on one of the bogie axles at one end, and at the other through a spiral spring on a central bearing on the other bogie axle.

The cradle carrying the motor also carries two countershafts, and the armature spindle is geared into wheels on them both. These countershafts each gear into wheels on the two bogie axles. Helical gearing is used.

Switches etc.
There are 72 cells, grouped in 4 batteries of 18 cells each, in each car, and at each end platform there is a switch which can be turned into 6 positions:

1. Batteries and motor all disconnected.
2. Batteries grouped in 4 sets of 18, all in parallel.    
3. Batteries grouped in 4 sets of 18, all in parallel and connected to the motor.
4. Batteries - 2 sets in parallel and 2 in series, connected to the motor.
5. Batteries - 3 in series, connected to the motor.
6. Batteries all in series and connected to the motor.

The switch is so constructed as to "spark" on breaking the circuit on special contacts, the regular contacts being thus saved from burning. The cars are reversed by altering the direction of the current by means of a "plug" switch. This switch can only be reversed when the main switch is in position, i.e. the handle has been disconnected, thus preventing the car from being reversed with the current on. The handles for working the above are carried from end to end of the cars as required, only one set being provided.

Seventy two, arranged in 12 trays carrying 6 apiece; six trays are carried under the seat on each side of the car, and can be slid in from the outside. They have contact springs on each side, so that putting them into place automatically connects them up. They are connected to the "switches" in 4 groups of 3 trays (18 cells) each.

Electrical Power Storage type of cell, 19 plates, 9 inches by 7½ inches. Outer cases of teak; glass being tried. Charging current about 40 amperes. Weight of 72 cells complete with trays and fittings, 3 tons 16½ cwt. Life as yet unknown.

Unloading and charging arrangements

At present wooden tables are placed in the car shed alongside the track on which to unload the spent cells, but it is proposed in the fixed installation to have two hydraulic lifts, each with 8 shelves for carrying the trays; one on one side of the car, will rise as the other falls. The trays will be slid out of the cars onto one shelf, the lift moved, and trays with good cells slid from other shelves into the cars. Two pairs of these lifts would thus accommodate 8 cars quickly following each other, and would only take up 2 car lengths of floor space. As each lift would be balanced by its fellow, little energy would be required to move them. There will be suitable connections on the lifts for automatically connecting up the trays for charging. Loading and unloading would take but a few minutes.

Generating Station

At present the cells are charged by means of an Elwell-Parker dynamo, run by the engine in one of the fitting shops of the tramway company; but it is proposed to put down permanent plant as follows, all in duplicate.

Davey-Paxman "Colchester" horizontal compound fixed engine, developing 100 horsepower when running at 150 revolutions per minute.

Water tube type. Working pressure, 150 lbs.

Elwell-Parker, shunt wound machine. The cells will be charged in sets of 36 in series, all the sets in parallel. Each set will require about 40 amperes at 90 volts for 10 hours.

Efficiency of System

1. Dynamo - say 85 percent.
2. Cells - say 80 percent.
3. Motor - say 90 percent.

The Electric Construction Corporation hold patents for electrical power storage, Julien and Sprague accumulators in this country, and for the Elwell-Parker motors and dynamos.

General remarks
There is a little noise from the brushes and a little from the gear. The car started smoothly. Any bogie cars can be adopted to this system. The cars are lit by two lamps worked off one accumulator. The figures given are chiefly estimated, as no practical experience of the system has been obtained as yet.

Installation – Practically all estimates:

Items Total cost Cost per car
Car without electrical fittings (12) £3,000 £250
Motor and gearing £2,280 £190
Accumulators and fixings £1,920 £160
Two steam engines, boilers, etc. £3,320 £277
Two dynamos £950 £80
Four hydraulic lifts £1,930 £160

Total Cost       

£13,400 £1,117

The above prices do not include the cost of fixing the plant.

Maintenance - No data to hand.

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