A streetcar named Straßenbahn Groß-Lichterfelde, or, How Telegraphen-Bau-Anstalt von Siemens & Halske put in service the world’s first electric streetcar

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The very first electric streetcar operated by Telegraphen-Bau-Anstalt von Siemens & Halske, Berlin, German Empire. Anon., “The first electric railway in Berlin.” Canadian Illustrated News, 9 July 1881, 21.

Greetings, my… What is it, my reading friend? You seem strangely agitated, more than usual that is. The Lokalbahn Mödling-Hinterbrühl, you say (type?)? Well, it is true that some / many people have claimed / claim / will presumably claim that the Mödling-Hinterbrühl local railway in Vienna, Austro-Hungarian Empire, was the world’s first electric streetcar, as its connections were largely flush with the streets it was crossing. Still, this local railway went into service in October 1883 – more than 2 years after the Straßenbahn Groß-Lichterfelde. Besides, the Lokalbahn Mödling-Hinterbrühl was commonly referred to as a local railway (lokalbahn), not a streetcar (straßenbahn).

So, to quote Winston, the owner of the New York City, New York, property of the Continental worldwide chain of hotels and deuteragonist in the John Wick movie series, have a drink, and relax… for now. Chamomile tea, perhaps? And back to our story. Fear not, yours truly will be brief.

Greetings, my reading friend, and welcome to the wonderful world of astronautics, aeronautics and… terranautics. Yes, yes, terranautics, because this issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee will touch upon a truly fascinating terranautical project. A project yours truly found in the 9 July 1881 issue of a most interesting publication, Canadian Illustrated News.

Would you believe that Georges Édouard Amable Desbarats and William Augustus Leggo, the gentlemen behind this weekly magazine published in Montréal, Québec, between 1869 and 1883, played an important role in the introduction of illustrations, including photographs, in North American magazines and newspapers? But I digress, one of my many faults.

In May 1879, Telegraphen-Bau-Anstalt von Siemens & Halske began to demonstrate a small experimental electric train on the site of the Berliner Gewerbeausstellung, in Berlin, German Empire. The flabbergasted throngs who visited this industrial exposition had never seen a train like that. There was no smoke, no steam. Nothing. Shocking.

Perhaps developed to operate inside a mine, the locomotive towed 3 small open carriages, and up to 18 people, over a 300 or so metre (985 or so feet) more or less circular track. Over a period of 4 or so months, said locomotive towed 86 000 or so people. It was arguably the star of the exposition.

Enchanted and perhaps a tad surprised by the enthusiasm of the people of Berlin, Ernst Werner Siemens, co-founder of Telegraphen-Bau-Anstalt von Siemens & Halske, tried, in 1880, to obtain the permission to build an elevated electric railway in a celebrated (and posh?) area of Berlin. Many residents were not exactly thrilled by this news. They feared that that the sun would be blocked all too frequently, that lubricating oil would drip all over the place, that this contraption would reduce the value of their residences, and / or that a railroad car might drop on their noggin. An official complaint to the local authorities stopped the project in its tracks. Pun well intended.

A second project elsewhere in Berlin was equally unsuccessful.

It so happened that, back in 1878, Johann Anton Wilhelm von Carstenn-Lichterfelde, born Johann Anton Wilhelm Carstenn, had launched a horse-drawn streetcar service between a Berlin railway station and the brand new Preußische Hauptkadettenanstalt, the central cadet training facility of the Königlich Preußische Armee, that’s Prussian royal army for you, in the nearby village of Lichterfelde. This service was one of the concessions that the Berlin businessman, urban developer and real estate entrepreneur had to make in order to have the training facility built near his manor. Revenues were low, however, in part because the staff of said training facility got to travel free of charge. Revenue was in fact so low that von Carstenn-Lichterfelde called it quits in 1879.

Someone in authority seemingly wondered if Siemens might be interested by the idea of launching some sort of electric streetcar service on the track left fallow by von Carstenn-Lichterfelde. He was indeed. In turn, von Carstenn-Lichterfelde agreed to let Siemens use the track, so long as the staff of the Preußische Hauptkadettenanstalt got to travel free of charge. Now that all his anatids were in a row, that’s ducks for you, Siemens applied for a permit, which he got quite quickly.

It has been suggested that Siemens thought that this electric streetcar service could allow him to prove to sceptics that a network of elevated electric railway would be very useful indeed in a city like Berlin.

In any event, the first trials of the world’s first electric streetcar took place on 12 May 1881. Even when fully loaded, the vehicle could travel at 40 kilometres / hour (25 miles/hour) – twice the allowable maximum speed specified in the contract.

The Elektrischen Eisenbahn in Lichterfelde, as the Straßenbahn Groß-Lichterfelde was initially called, apparently, carried its first passengers 3 days later. During the first hours of service, ridership was relatively low. By the afternoon, however, the single railcar was often fully occupied. Some Berliners, presumably young male ones, allegedly got quite a kick out of touching both power-carrying rails of the streetcar with wet fingers. Sadly, horses whose shooed hooves accidentally touched these same rails, until insulation was installed that is, had a far less amusing experience.

The first paying customers got on board the Straßenbahn Groß-Lichterfelde on 16 May 1881 – an historic day in the history of public transit on planet Earth. And yes, Telegraphen-Bau-Anstalt von Siemens & Halske was the firm which ran the service. And no, this service did not prove all that profitable, in spite of its relative popularity.

From the looks of it, until 1892, the fleet of the Straßenbahn Groß-Lichterfelde consisted of no more than 3 or even 2 vehicles, the second one going into service in December 1881. And yes, because the line had no turnaround, the streetcars had to travel one behind the other, but only on weekends. During weekdays, one of them may have stayed put at one end of the line, while the other travelled back and forth.

The line on which rode the Straßenbahn Groß-Lichterfelde was extended in 1890. This new section was fitted with en overhead power line, which made possible the use of pantographs, thingees mounted on the roof of the streetcars used to collect power from said overhead power line. The modified streetcars began to carry passengers in August 1890.

The information regarding the number of streetcars operated by the Straßenbahn Groß-Lichterfelde between 1881 and 1914 was / is quite contradictory. There may have been as few as 20 or so or as many as 30 or so, albeit not necessarily in service at the same time. With the exception of the earliest batch, which was retired in 1893, most of these streetcars seemingly soldiered on until 1930 or so.

Further modifications to the line were made as required as time went by, some of them extensions, some them closures. The low profitability of the service meant that Telegraphen-Bau-Anstalt von Siemens & Halske had to sell shares to raise the money required to increase the number of lines from 1 to 3. These new lines of the Elektrische Straßenbahn Groß-Lichterfelde – Lankwitz – Steglitz – Südende began to carry customers in March 1895.

In 1906, a local authority acquired this small network and another small network, thus giving birth to the Teltower Kreisbahnen. Development of said network continued as time went by.

And now for something completely different. Indeed, yours truly would be remiss if I did not bring forth one of the most intriguing and innovative aeroengines of the First World War. And yes, this engine was designed under the wing of what was by then Siemens-Schuckertwerke Aktiengesellschaft, possibly by Siemens & Halske Aktiengesellschaft.

Said engine was the Siemens Halske Sh.III, a counter-rotary engine produced in 1918 – in other words, an engine in which the crankshaft and the rods connecting said crankshaft to the pistons rotated one way while the crankcase, cylinders and propeller rotated the other way.

You will of course, remember that, in a conventional rotary engine, and the word conventional should probably be in quotation marks, there being little that is conventional in a rotary engine, but I digress. Sorry. Let us start anew.

You will of course, remember that, in a conventional rotary engine, the crankcase, cylinders, propeller and rods connecting the crankshaft to the pistons rotated one way while the crankshaft remained stationary, and…

You do not believe that a counter-rotary engine was a thing, now do you? Sigh… Well, ye doubting Thomasina / Thomas, feast your visual sense organs on this…

To answer the question ricocheting inside your skull, yes, a counter-rotary engine is more complex that a rotary engine. So why take that route, you may ask? A good question. You see, having the crankshaft and the rods connecting said crankshaft to the pistons rotate one way 900 times a minute, as was the case with the Sh.III, while the crankcase, cylinders and propeller rotated the other way 900 times a minute meant that, by and large, the power developed by the Sh.III was equivalent to that of a conventional rotary engine completing 1 800 rotations a minute, which was quite impressive.

So what, you say? Well, actually, there was a what, and a big one. The rotation of a conventional rotary engine’s the crankcase, cylinders, propeller and rods connecting the crankshaft to the pistons, which represented a significant percentage of the weight of the relatively small single-engine aeroplanes of the First World War, affected the stability of said aeroplanes. A pilot found it easier to turn in the direction his machine wanted to go anyway than fight against it trying to go the other way, for example.

An extreme case of this gyroscopic effect affected one of the most effective fighter airplanes of the First World War, the Sopwith F.1 Camel – a machine represented in the fantastically good collection of the Canada Aviation and Space Museum, in Ottawa, Ontario, in the form of a Sopwith 2F.1 Ship Camel. Mastering the peculiarities of the extremely agile but unstable Camel cost the lives of a number of newly trained Commonwealth pilots, and sent more to hospital, but I digress.

High power conventional rotary engines used during the First World War tended to rotated 1 200 to 1 300 times a minute. Having one go around 1 800 times a minute would have greatly increased the effect of its rotation on the stability of an aeroplane. The engine mount may also have required reinforcements, which meant more weight, to absorb the added stress. Mind you, a rotary engine going around 1 800 times a minute would also have required a really solid and therefore heavy internal structure.

And yes, the counter-rotating nature of a counter-rotary engine meant that it did not affect the stability of an aeroplane as much as a conventional rotary engine of similar power. In addition, having the crankshaft and the rods connecting said crankshaft to the pistons, on the one hand, and the crankcase, cylinders and propeller, on the other hand, rotate at a relatively low speed, reduced the stress on these components.

Having answered your question, my reading friend, yours truly will now ask you one. How many times a minute did the propeller of the Sh.III counter-rotary engine go around the block? 1 800 times? 900 times? 0 times – because it was the universe that revolved around it – as is the case with museum curators? (Hello, EP!) You can scroll up to re-read a paragraph if you wish.

[Music of American television game show Jeopardy playing in the background.]

900 times, you say? Good answer.

Having the propeller of the Sh.III engine go around 900 times a minute rather than, for example, 1 200 to 1 300 times a minute, meant that an efficient, large diameter propeller could be used. Such a propeller gave the relatively few Sh.III-powered fighter airplanes of the German army air service, or Luftstreitkräfte, in service in 1918, a very good, if not downright phenomenal rate of climb – as well as impressive high altitude capabilities.

This being said (typed?), the large diameter of said propeller meant that the main landing legs of such fighter aeroplanes had to be a tad long, which could prove challenging to unexperienced pilots when taking off and / or landing.

Which goes to show there was, is and will be no free lunch in the world of aeronautical engineering. Any improvement added to an aircraft causes one or more problems that need to be solved. And on it goes, until the fun police in management decides that enough is enough, and that aircraft actually need to be produced, so that money will come in their coffers instead of coming out, and only out. But I digress.

Oddly enough, the Sh.III engines made by Siemens & Halske suffered from serious reliability issues. Those made under license by Rhenania Motorenfabrik Aktiengesellschaft, a firm created in 1917 specifically to produce the Sh.III engine, on the other hand, proved more satisfactory, but back to our streetcars, and…

You have a question, don’t you, my reading friend? What happened to counter-rotary engines and their more conventional cousins after the First World War? A good question. Although light, powerful and reliable, conventional rotary engines had reached the pinnacle of their capabilities by the time the conflict came to an end. The most powerful engine of that type, for example, the United Kingdom’s Bentley BR.2 of 1918, could not match the power produced by the latest types of water-cooled Vee engines developed in various countries.

And yes, the BR.2 was the engine which powered the Sopwith 7F.1 Snipe, a 1918 fighter airplane present in the really, really good collection of the Canada Aviation and Space Museum, and back to our streetcars. No more questions.

In 1920, the government of Prussia, a freestate within what was by then Germany, amalgamated Berlin with several surrounding territories to form the province of Groß-Berlin. This resulted in the takeover of the Teltower Kreisbahnen by Groß-Berlin’s streetcar operator, Berliner Straßenbahn-Betriebs Gesellschaft mit beschränkter Haftung. In 1929, the trio of firms responsible for public transit in the German capital, including Berliner Straßenbahn-Betriebs of course, were integrated within Berliner Verkehrs Aktiengesellschaft – a firm which underwent many changes over the following decades.

In any event, the streetcar line launched in 1881 which formed the core of this issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee was seemingly shut down in February 1930. And that might be a good spot to end our story. Well, almost.

The last streetcar in what was by then West-Berlin, West Germany, ceased to operate in 1967. Those in East-Berlin, East Germany, were still going strong when the Germanies became a single Germany, in October 1990. As of 2021, there were a lot of streetcars in Berlin.

Auf Wiedersehen, mein lesender freund.

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Rénald Fortier