Elektromote, the story of the first trolleybus, invented by the founder of Siemens

The first steps in the history of motorized land vehicles left really picturesque brushstrokes but full of that charm that all pioneers usually have.

Seeing those cars with huge spoked wheels and horse-drawn carriage chassis makes us crack a smile, the bigger the bigger their level of extravagance. For this reason, if sometimes you have to rub your eyes at the appearance of primitive cars, even more so when we see the stamp of what was the first trolleybus: the Electromote.

First of all we are going to explain what a trolleybus is because not everyone knows it. It is a bus that instead of working with a combustion engine does so using electricity, powered by a catenary to which it is joined by a pair of poles. It is similar to a tram but without the need for rails, which gives it greater flexibility and the ability to use normal wheels.

A trolleybus in Sweden/Image: Dat95Car on Wikimedia Commons

This fundamentally urban public transport system was widely used in the mid-20th century, and although many cities retained it (and some brought it back for ecological reasons after abolishing it), it is likely that it will end up relegated when the use of electric buses or buses becomes widespread. of hydrogen. But, meanwhile, the trolleybus is still present in many cities around the world due to its environmental cleanliness (emulsions, noise) and its performance, superior to those of the tram.

And now yes, let’s go back to Electromote, which was the first trolleybus or, at least, the ancestor of its dynasty. It was invented by Dr. Ernst Werner von Siemens, whose surname will be familiar; indeed, he was the man who founded the Siemens company, a German engineer born in Lenthe (Hannover) in 1816, who trained at the Preußische Kriegsakademie (Prussian Military Academy) and already then he made his first design (an electric charge mine), which would later be joined by others such as an alphabetic telegraph, what would be the first elevator by electricity, an advanced type of dynamo, etc.

The Electromote it saw the light in an official presentation to the public carried out on April 29, 1882. In those last years of the 19th century, attempts to create autonomous vehicles, capable of moving by themselves without the need for draft animals, were frequent. It was the obsession of the moment and, thus, the Frenchman Gustave Trouvé had manufactured an electric tricycle in 1881 that paved the way for many inventors, including several Germans: Gottlieb Daimler, Wilhelm Maybach, Siegfried Marcus… Of all of them Karl Benz would stand out, who in 1879 patented a combustion engine that five years later would apply to what is considered the first automobile itself, the motorwagen (which was also a three-wheeler).

In between, Siemens made the aforementioned demonstration in Halensee, a town on the outskirts of Berlin that by then was already being absorbed by the growth of the German capital, the same one that in 1879 had welcomed the Berliner Gewerbeausstellungen (Commercial Exhibition) in which Siemens presented something unusual to date: an electric railway. Insisting on that line, in 1881 he did the same with a streetcar. But this time it was a new vehicle that did not need rails, although it did need a flat pavement that was made ex profeso. With it he covered a route of 540 meters that began at the railway station and reached Straße No. 5 (now Joachim-Friedrich-Straße) with Straße No. 13 (now Johann-Georg-Straße), passing through the top of the Kurfürstendamm avenue. As expected, people were astonished to see this strange horseless machine go by at 12 kilometers per hour.

The Electromote. The kontaktwagen can be seen on the power lines / Image: public domain in Wikimedia Commons

It was actually a landau, a type of convertible and light carriage (one and a half tons), with four wheels and designed to circulate in an urban environment, which had spread widely since its appearance in the city of Landau (Rhineland-Palatinate) in the second half of the eighteenth century. It had capacity for eight people (separate driver) who sat facing each other on two longitudinal benches. A collaborating company, Netphener Omnibus Company, was in charge of adapting it to be able to install a pair of small electric motors of 2.2 Kw each, responsible for providing energy to the rear wheels through a chain transmission. The main source was the citizen electricity network, to whose cables it was connected by a smaller and more flexible one that ended in a kontaktwagen, a device of eight wheels that rotated on the laying; that is, what would later be renamed trolley.

The Siemens & Halske company was in charge of this laying. In fact, the idea of ​​using electrical cables to move transport already existed and Siemens himself had speculated on it in a letter dated 1847 and his brother, Carl Wilhelm, would also work on the subject. The first serious attempt was made with the tramway on the Gross-Lichterfelde route, although it had the peculiarity that it was not an aerial line but rather a land line, through the rails. The obvious danger for those who stepped on them (there were numerous deaths of dogs and cats, not counting the potential danger for pedestrians) and the short circuits that they suffered (especially due to the rain), revealed their lack of practicality. Consequently, it was decided to place the cables away from the ground, supported by poles.

In 1881, Werner von Siemens went to the Exposition internationale d’Electricité (International Electricity Exhibition) held in Paris; an event that was organized as a kind of sequel to the Universal Exhibition three years earlier because some critics considered that the advances in electrical research and technology had not been sufficiently well represented. Edison with his light bulbs, Graham Bell with his telephone, Zénobe Gram with his dynamo, Clément Ader with his theater, the aforementioned Gustave Trouvé with his electric tricycle. And also Siemens, but not with the Electromote but with a cable tram, novel because until then they were pulled by horses or moved by steam.

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

That tram traveled, as a demonstration, the distance between the Palais de l’Industrie, site of the exhibition, to the Place de la Concordia. At the end of the event at the end of November, Siemens dismantled that network but took advantage of the experience the following year in Berlin, where it installed a similar one that remained from April to the aforementioned June to facilitate the exhibition of the Electromote.

Successfully completed after six months of testing -the last one was on the 13th of that month-, it was also withdrawn on the 20th. It was thought that the Berlin City Council would agree to his proposal to build an elevated power line that would allow transport to start up, but this did not happen because it required building good roads and, consequently, a huge investment. The consistory did not give the go-ahead until 1902.

The first trolleybus line started operating already in the 20th century and it was not the one in Berlin. Tests continued in this city but Paris took the lead by inaugurating a circular line in 1900: the one that Lombard Gerin devised taking advantage of the celebration of another International Exhibition and that it would be the first to operate on a regular basis, although it is true that only for the duration of the exhibition. Ernest Werner von Siemens could not see it because he died in 1893; neither was his brother, whose help had been crucial and who actually preceded him in death nine years earlier.


Buses, trolleys and trams (Chas S. Dunbar)/Trolleybus History/Wikipedia