Frank J. Sprague Papers

Manuscript Collection #628
Sprague, Frank J. (Frank Julian), 1857-1934
Physical description
0.143 Cubic Feet, 51 items , consisting of correspondence, a calling card, and an invitation.
Preferred Citation
Frank J. Sprague Papers (#628), East Carolina Manuscript Collection, J. Y. Joyner Library, East Carolina University, Greenville, North Carolina, USA.
ECU Manuscript Collection
No restrictions

Papers (1876-1881) including correspondence, calling card, an invitation, letters.

Biographical/historical information

Frank J. Sprague (1857-1934) was born in Milford, Conn., and died in New York City, N.Y. He attended the U.S. Naval Academy from 1874 to 1878, graduating as an ensign. While he was in the Navy he was a special correspondent for the Boston Herald during a cruise to the Orient (1878-1880). Resigning from the Navy in 1883, he turned his career to electrical engineering, an interest begun at the Academy. He worked with Thomas Edison before beginning his own dynasty of companies. He invented and designed the first electric trolley system of any length in Richmond, Va.; a multi-unit system for train control in Chicago; the electrification of Grand Central Station in New York City; a method of operating two elevators on the same rails in the same shaft; a high speed elevator; a constant speed electrical motor; and he co-invented the third rail at New York Central Railroad. He founded several companies including Sprague Electric Railway and Motor Co. (1884); Sprague Electric Elevator Co. (1892), which he later sold to Otis Elevator Co.; Sprague Electric Co., which he sold to General Electric (1902); and the Sprague Safety Control and Signal Corporation. He was also the chairman of the committees on electricity and ship construction of the Naval Consulting Board during World War I, and is considered to be the father of electrical traction.

Scope and arrangement

The correspondence (1876-1881) is written by Frank Sprague to a friend, Miss Mattie Munroe, of Massachusetts, during his years at the Naval Academy and as a cadet aboard training ships. The Naval Academy letters, written during his last two years at the Academy (1876-1878), discuss dances or "hops," social and Academy events, books read, and the 1876 presidential election. Frequent references are made to dances in Annapolis, Boston, New York, the surrounding countryside, and on board ship. These letters provide examples of social habits of the era, including the use of calling cards. Also discussed is a visit to an overcrowded art museum in Philadelphia (November 12, 1876) and attending theatre and musical concerts.

Other letters concern events directly related to the Academy. Included in this correspondence is a description of a graduation ceremony (June 1877), which was attended by President Hayes and several cabinetmembers; the dismissal by a Board of Inquiry of several cadets for participating in cadet hazing (October 14, 1876); and a list of subjects being studied by Sprague (October 14, 1876).

Found in several of Sprague's letters are pointed comments about the Presidential candidates in the 1876 election, including his belief in the honesty of Rutherford B. Hayes and fear of the possibility of a Samuel Tilden victory (November 12, December 20, 1876); and his opinion of Tilden, comparing him to Jefferson Davis (November 12, 1876).

Sprague's correspondence also mentions his cruises aboard several ships to Europe, the Orient, and up and down the New England coast. While aboard the USS CONSTELLATION in Brooklyn, N.Y. (July 27, 1877), he writes of their not being allowed to enter the city after sundown due to the riots occurring there; and of the ship being in drydock with all its ammunition aboard, an unusual occurrence. An October 1880 letter describes the USTS MINNESOTA running aground on a shoal in the vicinity of the Cape Charles light, losing a main top gallant mast and a yard. He speaks of putting into Hampton Roads, Va., and Brooklyn, N.Y., for repairs. Shipwrecks described in his letters include damage to the POWHATAN when it encountered a gale in the river near the Naval Academy (May 22, 1877), and the sinking of the HURON near Nags Head, N.C., in November and his acquaintance with several officers aboard (December 4, 1877). Later correspondence reveals a cruise to Europe late in his career aboard the USS LANCASTER where he was once more a correspondent for the Boston Herald.

Sprague's interest and involvement in electrical engineering can be traced through his correspondence. A November 1876 letter notes that he would soon be taking a course in practical electricity and that he believed that he would enjoy it. Subsequent correspondence mentions plans to visit Thomas Edison's lab and the Western Electric Co. (June 1880), his nomination and acceptance (June, September 1880) as a member in the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), and the possibility of working at the Stevens Institute in Hoboken N.J. (October 1880). Several letters trace his work on inventions during his Navy years including cutting plates to use in making a telephone (March 1878); performing telephonic experiments (April 1878); working on a transmitter for the telephone (September 1880); having a dynamo-electric machine built by the U.S. Electric Lighting Co. that failed (February 1881); and continuing his work on the dynamo despite opposition from leading electricians (February, April 1881) until he succeeded and filed papers for a patent (October 1881).

Miscellaneous items consist of a calling card and an invitation to a dance aboard the USS CONSTELLATION.

Administrative information
Custodial History

October 30, 1991, 48 items; Correspondence (1876-1881) of U.S. Naval Academy student. Gift of George C. Smith, Jr., Library Enrichment Fund, Joyner Library, Greenville N. C.

Source of acquisition

Gift of George C. Smith, Jr.

Gift of Library Enrichment Fund

Processing information

Processed by S. Gibbons, November 1992

Encoded by Apex Data Services

Copyright notice

Literary rights to specific documents are retained by the authors or their descendants in accordance with U.S. copyright law.

Key terms
Personal Names
Munroe, Mattie
Sprague, Frank J. (Frank Julian), 1857-1934
Corporate Names
Constellation (Ship)
United States Naval Academy--Alumni and alumnae
United States. Navy--Officers
Electrical engineers--United States
Shipwrecks--North Carolina--Nags Head
Annapolis (Md.)--Social life and customs--19th century