Worcester Polytechnic Institute

An Electric Century

Testing the Rails

In 1905, the Electrical Engineering Department hired a young assistant professor named Albert S. Richey. His speciality was electric railway engineering, and he came to the Institute fresh from a post as chief engineer of a traction railway company in Indiana. Electrically powered trains were one of the most exciting and fastest growing applications of the still young field of power engineering. In the decades ahead, inner- and intercity rail lines would crisscross the landscape like a shiny steel spider's web.

Richey brought this emerging field to WPI by establishing a program in electric railway engineering. Two years later, when the Electrical Engineering Building (now Atwater Kent Laboratories) was built, generous space was provided in the west end for an electric car testing plant. The plant included a 56-foot-long pit with a set of rails mounted on tall I-beams for inspecting railway cars. Beside the inspection track were four pairs of wheels mounted on adjustable pedestals. The wheels were attached to fly wheels and electric generators. The flywheels simulated the starting inertia and the generators were used to place variable loads on the wheels of a car to simulate various track conditions.

One car that made frequent appearances on the test stand was No. 1907, the Institute's own electric test car. Its exterior was painted green and adorned with a WPI seal and the name of the Institute in gold leaf. The inside was finished in oak and packed with instruments made by WPI students, as well as electric fans, ice coolers, lamps, desks, easy chairs and other amenities needed on long trips.

On those frequent trips, the car, one of only a few like it in the country, tested the continuity of the tracks used by the many electric street rail companies in New England. The companies paid for this service, which was typically performed during the summer months. The test crew usually consisted of a faculty member and two to three student assistants. Electrical engineering majors could choose this work as an option during the senior year, and many did.

The rise of the automobile and "autobus" brought about the gradual demise of electric street railways. The test car, no longer in demand, was dismantled and sold in 1927. The tracks leading into the building were torn up. Today, the only reminder of this great era in the history of the Electrical Engineering Department are the large arched windows on the west side of Atwater Kent that occupy the space where big double doors once opened to receive old No. 1907.

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Last modified: Tue Oct 05 09:24:21 EDT 1999