The early steps in the history of motorized land vehicles left truly picturesque but charmingly pioneering brushstrokes.

Seeing those cars with huge spoked wheels and horse carriage chassis makes us smile, the larger their level of extravagance, the more significant the grin. That’s why, sometimes, one must rub their eyes at the sight of primitive cars, even more so when we behold the image of what was the first trolleybus: the Electromote.

Firstly, let’s explain what a trolleybus is because not everyone knows. It’s a bus that, instead of running on a combustion engine, operates using electricity, powered by an overhead wire to which it connects through a couple of poles. It’s similar to a tram but without the need for tracks, giving it greater flexibility and the ability to use regular wheels.

A trolleybus in Sweden/Image: Dat95Car on Wikimedia Commons

This form of public transportation, mainly urban, was quite popular in the mid-20th century. Although many cities retained it (and some reintroduced it for ecological reasons after discontinuation), it’s likely to be phased out as the use of electric or hydrogen buses becomes more widespread. However, for now, the trolleybus remains present in many cities worldwide due to its environmental cleanliness (emissions, noise) and superior performance compared to trams.

And now, let’s return to the Electromote, which was the first trolleybus or, at least, the ancestor of its dynasty. It was invented by Dr. Ernst Werner von Siemens, a name that might sound familiar; indeed, he was the man who founded Siemens, a German engineer born in Lenthe (Hanover) in 1816. He trained at the Prussian Military Academy and, even then, created his first design (an electrically charged mine), followed by others such as an alphabetical telegraph, the first electric elevator, an advanced type of dynamo, and more.

The Electromote made its official debut to the public on April 29, 1882. In those final years of the 19th century, attempts to create autonomous vehicles capable of moving without draft animals were numerous. It was the obsession of the moment.

Ernst Werner von Siemens/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

The Frenchman Gustave Trouvé had manufactured an electric tricycle in 1881, paving the way for many inventors, including several Germans: Gottlieb Daimler, Wilhelm Maybach, Siegfried Marcus… Among them, Karl Benz stood out, who patented a combustion engine in 1879 that, five years later, he applied to what is considered the first proper automobile, the Motorwagen (which also had three wheels).

In the meantime, Siemens conducted the mentioned demonstration in Halensee, a locality on the outskirts of Berlin, which was already being absorbed by the growth of the German capital. In 1879, Berlin hosted the Berliner Gewerbeausstellungen (Trade Exhibition), where Siemens presented something unusual at the time: an electric railway. Continuing in that direction, in 1881, he did the same with a tram.

But this time, it was a new vehicle that didn’t need rails, although it required a flat pavement specifically made for it. It covered a distance of 540 meters, starting at the railway station and reaching Straße No. 5 (now Joachim-Friedrich-Straße) with Straße No. 13 (now Johann-Georg-Straße), passing through the upper part of Kurfürstendamm avenue. As expected, people were amazed to see that strange horseless machine moving at 12 kilometers per hour.

The Electromote. The contact car on the electric wires is visible/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

In reality, it was a landau, a type of open and lightweight carriage (one and a half tons), with four wheels designed for urban environments. It had seating for eight people (excluding the driver), arranged facing each other on longitudinal benches. A collaborating company, Netphener Omnibus Company, adapted it to install a pair of small electric motors, each 2.2 kW, responsible for powering the rear wheels through a chain transmission. The main power source was the city’s electricity grid, connected by a smaller, flexible cable ending in a kontaktwagen, an eight-wheeled device that rotated on the overhead wires; essentially what would later be called a trolley.

Siemens & Halske took care of the overhead wires. In fact, the idea of using electric cables for transportation already existed, and Siemens had speculated about it in a letter dated 1847. His brother, Carl Wilhelm, also worked on the same concept. The first serious attempt was made with the Gross-Lichterfelde tram, although it had the peculiarity that it wasn’t an overhead wire but a ground-level one, through the rails. The obvious danger to those walking on them (there were numerous deaths of dogs and cats, not to mention the potential danger to pedestrians) and the short circuits it suffered (especially in the rain) revealed its impracticality. Consequently, it was decided to place the cables above the ground, supported by poles.

In 1881, Werner von Siemens attended the Exposition internationale d’Électricité (International Electricity Exhibition) held in Paris, an event organized as a kind of sequel to the Universal Exhibition three years earlier. Some critics felt that the earlier exhibition had not adequately represented advances in electrical research and technology. Among the participants were Edison with his light bulbs, Graham Bell with his telephone, Zénobe Gram with his dynamo, Clément Ader with his Théâtrophone, and the aforementioned Gustave Trouvé with his electric tricycle. Siemens was also present, not with the Electromote but with a cable tram, innovative because until then trams were pulled by horses or powered by steam.

The Palais de l’Industrie in Paris/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

As a demonstration, that tram traveled from the Palais de l’Industrie, the exhibition venue, to the Place de la Concorde. After the event ended in late November, Siemens dismantled that network but used the experience the following year in Berlin, where he installed a similar one that remained from April to the aforementioned June to facilitate the exhibition of the Electromote.

Successfully concluded after six months of trials—the last one on the 13th of that month—Siemens also dismantled it on the 20th. It was believed that the Berlin city council would approve his proposal to build an elevated electric network that would enable the transportation system to operate. However, this didn’t happen because it required the construction of good roads and, consequently, a significant investment. The council didn’t give its approval until 1902.

The first trolleybus line began operating in the 20th century, and it wasn’t in Berlin. Trials continued in this city, but Paris took the lead by inaugurating a circular line in 1900. It was designed by Lombard Gerin, taking advantage of another Exposition Internationale, and it was the first to operate regularly, although only for the duration of the exhibition. Ernest Werner von Siemens couldn’t witness it because he passed away in 1893, nor could his brother, whose assistance had been crucial, and who actually preceded him in death by nine years.

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on June 26, 2019. Puedes leer la versión en español en Elektromote, la historia del primer trolebús, inventado por el fundador de Siemens


Chas S. Dunbar, Buses, trolleys and trams | Trolleybus History | Wikipedia

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