Over the course of a little less than twenty years, inventor Frank J. Sprague (1857-1934) achieved an astonishing series of technological breakthroughs—from pioneering work in self-governing motors to developing the first full-scale operational electric railway system—all while commercializing his inventions and promoting them (and himself as their inventor) to financial backers and the public. In Engineering Invention, Frederick Dalzell tells Sprague's story, setting it against the backdrop of one of the most dynamic periods in the history of technology. In a burst of innovation during these years, Sprague and his contemporaries—Thomas Edison, Nicolas Tesla, Elmer Sperry, George Westinghouse, and others—transformed the technologies of electricity and reshaped modern life.
After working briefly for Edison, Sprague started the Sprague Electric Railway and Motor Company; designed and built an electric railroad system for Richmond, Virginia; sold his company to Edison and went into the field of electric elevators; almost accidentally discovered a multiple-control system that could equip electric train systems for mass transit; started a third company to commercialize this; then sold this company to Edison and retired (temporarily). Throughout his career, Dalzell tells us, Sprague framed technology as invention, cast himself as hero, and staged his technologies as dramas. He toiled against the odds, scraped together resources to found companies, bet those companies on technical feats—and pulled it off, multiple times.
The idea of the "heroic inventor" is not, of course, the only way to frame the history of technology. Nevertheless, as Dalzell shows, Sprague, Edison, and others crafted the role consciously and actively, using it to generate vital impetus behind the process of innovation.
About the Author
Frederick Dalzell received his PhD in the History of American Civilization from Harvard University and has been a researcher at Harvard Business School. He is the coauthor of Changing Fortunes: Remaking the Industrial Corporation and Driving Change: The UPS Approach to Business.
"Readers interested in technological history, as well as those interested in the business of innovation, will find Dalzell's book a rich mine."—IEEE History Center Newsletter
"A study of Frank Sprague's important contributions to electrical history is long overdue. Frederick Dalzell does this in impressive fashion while using Sprague's life and career to inquire into the nature of technological innovation and the role of the heroic inventor in American industry."
—Paul Israel, Director and General Editor, Thomas A. Edison Papers Project, Rutgers University
"Dalzell's biography of one of America's great innovators, a leader of the electrical revolution, is fascinating and gripping. Frank J. Sprague changed urban rail transportation from horse drawn to electrical in 1884-1890 by means of invention, manufacturing, demonstration, and corporate financing. Further, he made possible electrical elevators in skyscrapers and in due course helped perfect the urban transportation systems serving today's metropolises. His name belongs with those of Edison, Bell, Westinghouse, Thompson, and Tesla."
—Leo L. Beranek, author of Riding the Waves: A Life in Sound, Science, and Industry
"Frank Sprague's remarkable career demonstrates how independent operators remained a vital force in promoting innovation even as giant corporations crowded the field. In bringing his exploits to light, Dalzell enriches the historical record and offers intriguing insights into ongoing processes of innovation and corporate change."
&mash;Steve Usselman, School of History, Technology, and Society, Georgia Institute of Technology, author of Regulating Railroad Innovation