A look at fascinating life of inventor Frank J. Sprague


Details of the life of inventor Frank J. Sprague haven't resounded through history like that of his contemporary, Thomas Edison. But his grandson hopes that might begin to change with publication of a long-delayed biography.

"The Birth of Electric Traction: The extraordinary life of inventor Frank Julian Sprague," by Frank Rowsome Jr., was finally published in 2013, itself born only after a prolonged labor -- in fact, long after the death of both the subject and author.

The father of Sprague Electric Co. founder Robert Sprague, Frank died in 1934, and Rowsome died in 1983.

John Sprague, the last in his family to serve as a top executive in Sprague Elec tric when it had its world headquarters in North Adams, explains the book's convoluted path to publication in an introduction to his grandfather's biography.

Although well-known and respected in electrical circles around the world at his death, Frank Sprague never became a mythic, Edison-esque figure, cemented into the public's imagination. He did, however, lead a dramatic life, which easily could have resulted in wider fame.

A modern reader might think: Too bad he didn't have Facebook and Twitter to help garnish his image after those amazing scientific triumphs. Instead, Sp rague typically plowed right into his next project, largely ignoring -- or just feeling uncomfortable with -- public relations.

Sprague is credited with solving myriad engineering problems that allowed the development of reliable, safe and powerful electric motors. These advances paved the way for modern industrial equipment, trolley cars and subway cars, and made possible elevators -- and by extension, the skyscraper itself.

Often, Sprague found himself pushing an impossible deadline to achieve a scientific breakthrough despite the doubts of investors, the public and the media.

If not familiar to the public today, his inventions certainly affected the modern world that emerged from the late 19th through the early 20th century. This was when electricity went from an interesting experimental phenomena used in dazzling demonstrations to an ubiquitous source of power.

According to John Spr ague, his grandfather's widow, Harriet felt that Edison, with whom her husband worked and later collaborated with in the 1880s, was credited with some of the scientific advances her husband had developed. She wrote a monologue, "Frank J. Sprague and the Edison Myth," in 1947 to try to set the record straight.

In the mid-1950s, Robert Sprague and his brother, Julian, contracted with the historian E.S. Lincoln to write a biography of Frank Sprague. But negotiations with a publisher broke down after the publisher's editorial staff advised a complete revision, with less technical detail and more about the man and his life.

Finally, in the early 1960s, the family turned to Row some -- perhaps best known today for his "The Verse by the Side of the Road," about the Burma Shave roadside ads. At the time, he was managing editor of Popular Science Monthly and later became NASA's chief of technical publications.

Rowsome not only de scribed Sprague's life and achievements with technical expertise, John Sprague said, but he infused the story with personal details that brought the inventor, his family and colleagues to life.

The city of North Adams played a major role in the life of Frank Sprague, who was born in 1857 in Milford, Conn. After his mother became ill and died when Frank was 8 years old, he was sent with his younger brother Charles to live with an aunt, Elvira Ann Sprague. She was a school teacher in North Adams.

Frank began to display his intellectual gifts early on while at Drury Academy, Rowsome writes, and he later won acceptance to the U.S. Naval Academy.

The book, which at times supplies more technical detail about Sprague's research and experimentation than some might desire, also gives a sense of how a gifted and driven inventor can overcome any and all obstacles. Perhaps the book's best feature, though, is that it also makes clear each of Sprague's successes could have easily gone the other way -- for lack of funding or a crucial breakthrough when he was at the point of humiliation or financial ruin.

The book is available from both Amazon and Barnes & Noble books for $15 and as an ebook from Amazon for 9.99.


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