Edinburgh was the first place in the United Kingdom to run an electric tram on the road, powered from an external source.
1884 – The Edinburgh International Forestry Exhibition
By Chris O’Brien
Edinburgh was chosen as the site for the first ever International Forestry Exhibition in 1884. Credit for the exhibition lay with the Scottish Arboriculture Society who decided that a forestry exhibition would be a novelty not seen before in this country and planned to open a site within the grounds of Donaldson’s Hospital and nearby lands. Agreement was reached with the Council and George Heriot's Trust for the use of the area and a handsome wooden building was erected in the park to the front of Donaldson’s. The west side at that time was open park land and 7 to 8 acres of land were leased from Heriot’s for the exhibition to take place. The Donaldson building was designed by architect William H Playfair, and Donaldson’s Hospital opened in 1851.
Illustrated London News 19/07/1884 – advert for the Exhibition.
Countries exhibiting at the Exhibition were reported to be from China to Peru. There were over 50 foreign and colonial countries; 500 private exhibitors, displays of wood working machinery, an Indian Court, rare and beautiful trees and shrubs from around the world, a Californian Mammoth Tree, grand illuminations, and an electric railway. The opening of the Exhibition was performed by the Marquis of Lothian on 1st July 1884 at around one o’clock. Visitors arrived by train, cabs and the horse drawn trams of the Edinburgh Street Tramway Company.
This is a painting, oil on canvas 1359 x 242 mm, of the International Forestry Exhibition by George Sutherland in 1884 - held by the City of Edinburgh Council following a donation by the executors of the estate of the 11th Marquis of Lothian in 1951.
The Electric Railway
The Electric Railway set to run at the Forestry Exhibition in Edinburgh was designed and built by Henry Bock Binko. His design of electric train had originally been exhibited in London at Crystal Palace in 1882 at the International Electric Exhibition, where it ran round a circular track of 700 yards. The International Forestry Exhibition would have an electric train in the grounds of the site, which would transport passengers.
Henry Binko exhibited his Electrical Rail Carriage as Binko’s International Electric Railway. Power for the four wheel locomotive “Ohm” came from an 8 horse power stationary steam engine, constructed by Robey’s, which supplied electric power through a dynamo using the two rails where the locomotive and coaches ran. Speed was changed by resisters built into the engine. The locomotive “Ohm”, named after the famous physicist, had been rebuilt from Binko’s first locomotive “Volta” that had been operated at the Crystal Palace in London. Henry Binko’s was awarded a Provisional Patent on 29th June 1882 for the design of the workings.
The first suggestion was for the electric train to run round the outside of the main exhibition site. Upon investigation it was discovered that the gradient from the front of the site to the back was likely to be too great for the locomotive and coaches. Another idea was suggested of building a bridge to keep the train on the same gradient throughout, but this was abandoned as being too expensive a solution. The line was eventually opened as a ½ mile circular route in the grounds, the charge being 3d (three pence) for the 2.5 minute journey.
Use of electric power for a railway was quite a novelty at this date. Robert Davidson had used a train powered by his locomotive “Galvani” using galvanic cells (batteries) on a test run on the Edinburgh Glasgow Railway in September 1842. “The Story of the Edinburgh to Glasgow Railway, This Magnificent Line” from 1986 by Alan P McLean (ISBN 1852170042) describes the difficulties with the Cowlairs incline and the need to find an alternative method of pulling the locomotives from Queen Street Station. Having shown an electric printing press the year before it was thought that electric power may be the answer, but Davidson’s five ton vehicle was unable to achieve more than 4mph and this idea was abandoned.
How the International Electric Railway Worked -
The Scotsman Newspaper ran this article by way of explanation -
“In the system here at work, that known as the Binko system, the electricity is generated in a dynamo machine, the principal parts of which are the electro-magnets, the armature or coil mounted so as to revolve in the field between the magnets; and the collector or commutator – the apparatus used to collect the current induced, and convert them into one current. By rotating the armature by means of stators, electric currents are evolved, the power employed in this case being of Robey’s eight horse engines. The application of the energy generated in this way to working the railway is based on what is termed the reversibility of the dynamo – reversibility here meaning, according to the print issued by Mr Binko “the fact that in the case of the dynamos at work at more or less distant stations, connected to each other, the current produced in one machine – its offspring, so to speak – sets the other to work, or becomes the parent of motive power in its ally”.
In other words what the newspaper was trying to explain to the public was that one dynamo was used to generate a current of energy, electricity, which when transmitted to another dynamo, converts it into a motor, the locomotive. In the case of this electric railway, the second dynamo, was fitted to the locomotive, and was fed from the current conveyed by the first one. The current generated by the primary dynamo in the Forestry Exhibition was transmitted by underground cables to the 2 running rails – one for the leading, and the other for the return current. From the rails the current passed to the insulated wheels of the locomotive, or dynamo and the current caused the armature within the locomotive or dynamo to rotate. The motion thus obtained was then applied to the traction wheels which allowed the train to run over the already insulated rails. The mechanism to regulate the speed was reported as being the same method used for steam engines, with a complete stoppage affected by simply cutting off the current of energy generated in the primary dynamo from the locomotive.
At the same time other electric railway systems were being developed. Siemens patented in 1880; Ayrton & Perry’s patent of 1881; and Binko’s 1882 railway in operation first at Crystal Palace in London. Binko received a provisional patent (3073 ) on 29th June 1882 for a multi-notch system with two rail, using overhead collection for street running, insulated rails etc.
Siemens locomotive with passengers in Berlin in 1879.
100 year anniversary postage stamp commemorating Siemens Locomotive.
Construction, even in these days, was not without delays. The Opening of the Exhibition came and went and the line had not been finished. This was similar to many of the exhibits which had either not arrived in time or were still to be unpacked after their journeys to Edinburgh. The last to arrive was a large section of exhibits from Japan which came by ship to Glasgow before being taken over the country to the Exhibition. The electric lighting display ran into problems with the current and bad weather but was up and working showing splendid coloured lights and lanterns by the 14th July. By the 10th July it is reported that construction of the electric railway was nearing completion. When the workmen left to go onto another contract The Scotsman Newspaper ran a headline “...the German electrician who is superintending the construction of the railway could not complete it in time…” Henry Binko was actually an Austrian who lived in England. He was an avid inventor and is quoted as a manufacturer and retailer of paint, stationery, writing equipment, and toys. A further delay occurred as the wet weather experienced had interfered with the construction of the electric railway with rust forming on the track preventing electricity being picked up successfully. The train opened to the public on 17th July with the locomotive “Ohm” pulling one ten-seated carriage. This later increased to three carriages.
With the electric lighting and the electric railway brought into use the Scotsman ran a story recommending an evening at the Exhibition to see these wonderful inventions at work. It was also noted that electric traction was shown to be a practicable way of powering locomotives for railway use.
Examples of the medals produced and awarded at the Exhibition.
The motto "Aye be stickin' in a tree it'll be growin' when ye're sleepin" is also round the outside rim.
Despite taking in upwards of £20 per day with his electric railway, Binko was seriously in debt. He was bankrupt and his railway was sequestrated (taken) by Messrs Dyson & Son. Binko was determined to keep this running and he leased the Railway back at the rate of £650 for 13 weeks to be repaid by instalments.
Knowing that the Prince and Princess of Wales (later to become King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra) were to visit the Exhibition, Henry Binko then decided to have a special Royal Coach constructed by John Hislop and Son Coachbuilders of Edinburgh. This coach had the Royal Insignia, and was painted in “scarlet and vermilion” with gold outlining. It bore the name “Alexandra”.
The Royal Party toured the exhibits on Friday 22nd August, and as can be seen in the accompanying photograph were conveyed on Binko’s royal carriage “Alexandra”. The coach behind was one of the three that were in normal service and contained other dignitaries.
This was an important event as Edinburgh became the host for the first ever journey taken by British Royalty using electric power.
Binko with Gladstone's Party with the locally built coach in the grounds of the Exhibition site in 1884.
The Prime Minister’s Visit
Prime Minster Gladstone’s visit to the Exhibition on 30th August 1884 gave Mr Binko another reason to operate the royal carriage “Alexandra” on his electric railway. Mr Gladstone had a local connection with Edinburgh as his father had been born in Leith. He was in Edinburgh to make a speech at the Corn Exchange to his Liberal Party supporters. He took the opportunity, with his group, to visit the Exhibition and of course was treated to a run on the Electric Railway in the royal carriage. Together with the Premier on his visit were amongst others, his wife and daughter, Lord and Lady Roseberry, Lady Carrington, Lady Sophia Palmer, and the Hon H. Cowper.
The Scotsman Newspaper again reports this event. “Mr Binko explained the workings of the elegant electric car which was built for the Prince and Princess of Wales. Thereafter Mr & Mrs Gladstone, Miss Gladstone, and Lady Sophia Palmer made a round trip on the railway. Before leaving on the return of the train, the company were photographed by Mr Moffat of Princes Street, and Miss Binko presented Mrs Catherine Gladstone with an electric bouquet, Mrs Laura Binko a similar one to Countess Roseberry, and Mr Binko illustrated the effect of the tiny incandescent lamps among the flowers.”
Mr Binko is seen standing right of centre in front of the window facing the camera, his wife and daughter can be seen with the bouquets.
After this event the Royal Insignia was removed from the carriage and it entered regular service on the railway allowing the paying public to travel like royalty.
Binko with his Electric Railway at the 1884 Exhibition.
Binko was taken to the Bankruptcy Court in London again, this time in September 1884 because he had failed to pay the money owed under the hiring agreement for the railway that had earlier been seized and hired back to him. Having realised the cost of warehousing the railway a decision was made by his creditors to sell it as a going concern, hopefully as a novelty ride for a park or amusement site.
The Scotsman featured an advertisement on 20th September 1884 – “For sale the electric railway now working with great success at the International Forestry Exhibition. In complete working order with Electro Locomotive carriages dynamos and about half a mile of rail sleepers also suitable Steam Engine to be sold as going concern. Possession on or after 13 10 84. The whole plant as it stands can be made effective for a distance of 3 miles. Particulars from Philip Laing & Trail SSc or Dyson & Co 1 Furnival’s Inn London EC.”
The End of the Line for Binko’s Railway
The International Forestry Exhibition closed on 11th October, the second Saturday of October 1884. 12,000 people attended the last day when Sir James Gibson-Gray closed the site. Over ½ million visitors had attended. The Exhibition had been open from 10am to 10pm with an admission of charge of 1s, with under 14s gaining entry at half price. The final dividend for the Exhibition was declared when all matters were wound up in May 1885. The balance in hand after expenses was £291 14s with a reported income £22,957 9s 8d.
What Next for Mr Binko - An Electric Tram?
Binko had stopped his Electric Train before the end of the Exhibition because his creditors had obtained his latest bankruptcy on 30th September 1884. Not quite finished, he had met Mr John E Pitcairn (recently appointed Manager of the local tramway operators the Edinburgh Street Tramway) during the Exhibition, who had persuaded Binko to allow them to convert a horse tram to run by electric power. The E.S.T. Company were interested in mechanical alternative to horse drawn power. This experimental tram would be permitted to operate on the rails of the Company from outside the Exhibition via Princes Street to the Post Office.
The Tramways Act 1870, enhanced by the Edinburgh Street Tramways (Mechanical Power) Act 1882, allowed the use of mechanical power for tramways, subject to (in Edinburgh) agreement with the Local Authority. At that time it was probably envisaged the mechanical power would come from a steam engine.
Permission was requested by the Edinburgh Street Tramways Company from the City Council and the Board of Trade and they both approved. It is not clear who funded the copper plates used between the rails; however the length of the run had to be reduced for cost reasons. The experiment was scheduled to take place between the Exhibitions west most gate and Haymarket Railway Station, a distance of approximately 700 yards. Everything was in place to run the first ever electric tram on the roads in Britain.
It is interesting to have a brief look at what was occurring at this time. Some British systems were operating using steam trams, which would normally pull one coach with passengers. It was found more practical to have a separate engine drawing a trailer. Whilst the first steam tram that ran in Britain was on Vauxhall Bridge Road in London in November 1873, the honour of the first British steam tramway operated entirely in town streets goes to the Vale of Clyde, whose lines in Govan (Glasgow) were opened in 1877. In the 1880s steam was adopted widely throughout Britain as the means of power for tramways. Edinburgh experimented briefly with steam power on the Portobello route.
With the terrain in Edinburgh horse power was proving difficult and costly. Cable hauling was eventually agreed as the appropriate power for Edinburgh and with the opening of the first line on 28th January 1888, it eventually became the largest cable system in Britain. It wasn’t until 1922 that Edinburgh started converting the cable tramway to electric traction.
Werner von Siemens started the first public electric tram service near Berlin on 16th May 1881. On 4th August 1883 Magnus Volk (Volks Railway) started his 2ft 8 ½ in. gauge electric railway on the beach in front of the Promenade in Brighton. In Northern Ireland on 18th September 1883 the Portrush and Bush Valley Railway and Tramway Company ran along the Giant’s Causeway. These did not operate on the public highway. Many other weird and wonderful inventions were about at this time. A spring clockwork type motor to propel and vehicle over a short distance was tried, ammonia gas power, town gas, compressed air, to name a few. A Paris accumulator tram had been used in Leytonstone, London in March 1882 but that was a self contained battery type vehicle.
11th October 1884
A year before the first electric tramway is recorded to have run on the street in Britain, in September 1885 at Blackpool, the headline “Edinburgh Street Tramways – Experiment with Electricity” appeared in the Scotsman Newspaper on 11th October 1884.
“This morning as we go to press, there is being conducted on the lines of the Edinburgh Street Tramway Company opposite the Forestry Exhibition, an interesting experiment with the view of testing application of electricity as a motive power in the working of ordinary street tramway traffic.
Proposed to run over 700 yards of rail, the experiment is being conducted by Mr Binko in the presence of Mr Pitcairn, Manager of the Tramway Company and other gentlemen.”
No one had run a tram on the streets of Britain before using electricity from an external source. The motor and apparatus from “Ohm” were fitted to the platform, and down on to the axle of an Edinburgh Street Tramways horse tram. Operated from the platform, the tram would be propelled along the lines in the road.
Would history be made by Binko and the Edinburgh Street Tramway Company in 1884, and could it be made to work?
Route can be seen from this map. The Exhibition site is in the grounds of Donaldson's Hospital at the lower left and Haymarket in the lower middle. The route was from the left Lodge along West Coates then on to Haymarket Terrace and to Haymarket Station.
The First Electric Tram in the streets of Britain
The Scotsman Newspaper reports events of the previous Saturday, the 11th October 1884
“Edinburgh Street Tramway – Experiment with Electricity”
“In order to test the applicability of electricity to street tramway traffic, an experiment was made early on Saturday morning on the lines of the Edinburgh Tramway Company, between the main entrance to the Forestry Exhibition and the Haymarket Railway Station. The electric motor which had been in use within the Exhibition grounds was placed in one of the ordinary cars of the Edinburgh Tramway Company. In the system here at work – that known as the Binko’s system – the electricity is generated in a dynamo machine by steam power. This machine, as was the case with respect to the electric railway in the Exhibition is necessary at a considerable distance from the electric motor in the tramcar; but the two are connected by underground cables with the rails on which the tram is to run, or with some conducting plates set down parallel with the rails. From the rails or from these conducting plates, the current of electricity generated in the primary dynamo and conveyed from it by the underground cables is transmitted to the electric motor within the car, and by this current the electric motor is set in motion.”
For practical reasons the current could not be placed straight onto the tram track. One could image the scene with live electric current in the streets of Edinburgh. It was probably just as well that the route was shortened to Haymarket Station only and not the length of Princes Street. The cost of the full route was more than the promoters considered it prudent to spend. The current of electricity generated in the primary dynamo within the Exhibition grounds was conducted onto two copper plates that had been laid on wood in the middle of the tramway line. The steam engine could produce the equivalent of 10 horse power but it was to work to 8 horse power only. The tramcar was connected with these copper plates by a small wheel and a metal cable. From the copper plates the electric passed to the insulated wheel and thence into the controller within the tramcar. This current caused the armature within the controller to rotate, and the motion obtained was applied for traction purposes by belts attached to the axle. For this run the copper plates had been laid on the surface of the ground, but it was explained that any permanent system would have the plates underground. The tram would then work much the same as a cable system but by electricity.
In the morning the first attempt was made. The tram car was made ready outside the Exhibition gate and everything was connected. A large crowd had gathered. The tram was loaded up with twelve passengers and it moved off slowly and came to an abrupt halt. It was started up again and travelled almost to Haymarket before halting briefly and then finishing the journey. The return was made without a stop. It was reported that the speed was “...quite equal to that which is attainable on the level road by horse power…” A second attempt was made from the Exhibition to Haymarket Station and back, this time having two stoppages, one for a few minutes duration as the electric power for some reason had been cut off. The return speed was much quicker this time, a higher speed than would be available using horse power.
Buoyed by success, another, third journey was made, this time coupling up a second horse tram car to the rear of the first tram. This was not as successful as the previous two return journeys, but part of the journey was completed but not surprisingly at a lower speed.
The promoters seemed satisfied with the demonstration, but no final opinion was expressed as to the practicability of applying such a system to Edinburgh’s street tramways.
With the events that occurred in Edinburgh on 11th October 1884, The Edinburgh Street Tramway Company had the honour of running the first electric tram on the streets of Britain, using an external stationary power supply.
What Next for Binko?
A Company was set up to run his train in Great Yarmouth the following year. Binko was described as the Manager and Engineer. The locomotive and other equipment was again hired from the creditors Dyson and Company. This enterprise was a financial disaster, ending with the jailing of Binko for obtaining credit under false pretences. This was the last of his tramway schemes.
Henry Binko is perhaps one of the forgotten pioneers of the development of Electric Trams.
Acknowledgement to the Scotsman Newspaper Archives
Any additional information would be gratefully received.
A copy of a document from 1883, recently passed to the author, detailing one of the many early debts run up by Binko.
It was debts of over £130, run up whilst an undischarged bankrupt, which resulted in his eventual arrest and imprisonment in August 1885.
An early tram running in Berlin.
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