Editorial: The Diesel Commemoration

In a wide ranging address last fall, historian John Hankey challenged the railroad preservation and museum community with a simple question: Who is going to commemorate the centennial of the diesel-electric locomotive in two or three years? For decades, the railroad history community more or less uncritically accepted the mid-1920s as the beginning of the diesel-electric locomotive era. But important precursors stretched back to the turn of the century, and Kyle Williams Wyatt, now a curator at the California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento, wrote about what likely is the first North American diesel-electric locomotive in the Railway & Locomotive Historical Society Newsletter (fall 1996). Planning started in 1904, and the locomotive was built for the Southern Pacific in 1905.

Wyatt’s research, sparked by a two-page article in the December 1904 Marconigram (published in New York City), establishes that the SP worked creatively with the newly-formed American Locomotive Company to design a locomotive similar in concept and layout to today’s AC behemoths. The Railway Master Mechanic (April 1905) described it thus: “The Southern Pacific company has been making a series of experiments with a motor car which is driven by electric motors at the axles, the current being furnished by dynamos, direct connected to large Diesel oil engines, located in the car.” The New York Times (March 15, 1905) and Chicago Tribune (March 14, 1905) wrote about it.’

‘Even a century ago, American railroading was part of a global technological community. “The diesel-electric locomotive is based on a prime mover perfected by German engineers (Nikolaus Otto and Rudolf Diesel), based on the thermodynamic theory of a couple of mid-nineteenth century French mathematicians (Sadi Canot and Alphonse Beau de Rochas). The electrical gear included the dynamo perfected by Thomas Edison, but it was merely an elaboration of the dynamo invented by Werner Siemens in Germany a few years earlier. The English chemist Michael Faraday and Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell had laid the theoretical groundwork for applied electromagnetism. And it all began with Alessandro Volta, who perfected the battery in Italy two centuries ago,” Hankey noted.

Hankey’s challenge went much farther than recognition of the centennial. An act of commemoration would probe deeply. It would look for causes, connections, motivations. It would search out what is real and important and novel. The diesel locomotive changed the railroad industry-but where did it come from? These questions should be part of a thoughtful commemoration.”

It has been a year since Hankey issued the challenge. He cast it as a very broad effort shared by railroad history organizations across the continent. The Center is ideally poised to work with many different kinds of institutions interested in how this revolutionary technology was represented in the visual arts. Almost every aspect of the diesel electric era in American railroading is well documented in photos and art, and any serious presentation of its history has to rely on images.

The Center is ready to do its part in this exciting and important commemoration. Who else will accept the challenge?

John Gruber, President, Center for Railroad Photography and Art