Backtracking to GE’s first-ever Australian project

In 1896, just four years after GE was incorporated as The General Electric Company, it sent one of its most experienced electrical engineers, 45-year-old Joseph Stillman Badger, from its Schenectady rail facility in the US, to oversee the electrification of the Australian city of Brisbane’s horse-drawn tram network.

Since it would be another 46 years until GE built America’s first jet engine, Badger’s journey from Schenectady to Brisbane was a lengthy one. Following a cross-country train ride, he sailed from San Francisco, stopping in Honolulu and Auckland, reaching Sydney almost a month later. For the final leg to Brisbane, Badger again travelled by sea on the coastal steamer, SS Wodonga.

JS Badger
In 1896 GE sent engineer Joseph Stillman Badger to Australia to manage the supply and installation of the electric motors that powered Brisbane’s first tramways.  Photo courtesy of the Royal Historical Society of Queensland.

When Badger arrived in Brisbane to manage GE’s first such contract in the South Pacific, the city had 20 miles of track and 51 horsedrawn trams. He began his campaign to engage the populace with GE, in an interview in Brisbane’s Courier newspaper.

He said, “Brisbane is a model city for electric tramways and, in fact, any city as widely scattered as Brisbane is well suited for such a system… Our company, so far as we’re concerned, intend to make this Brisbane system an exhibition one for Australia, to be able to point to as an example of what our machinery can do.”

Hundreds of men contributed to building the Brisbane Tramways Company (BTC) premises and an adjacent powerhouse—since the city had no electric plant capable of powering a tram network. They installed three Robey steam engines, each of which drove a 300kW, 550-volt DC generator, via a huge flywheel, almost six metres in diameter. Four Babcock and Wilcox boilers, heated by coal-fired furnaces, raised the steam that powered the engines.

In one of the first Australian instances of a private generator returning power to the “grid”, the powerhouse would later supply its excess generation to surrounding homes, businesses and facilities such as the Mater Hospital, the Children’s Hospital operating theatre, the jail and many of Brisbane’s railway stations, as well as meatworks and coal wharf operations.

Meanwhile, Badger continued to champion the incoming GE technology, while working to a tight deadline of delivering an electrified tramway by June 1897. In another interview with the Courier, he said, “The motors to be supplied in the cars here are the latest and most perfect in pattern, being our GE800 motors, capable of driving any ordinary 30ft car, fully loaded, at from ten to fifteen miles per hour, the speed, of course, depending upon the nature of the ground—that is, whether running on the level or up an incline.”

There are plenty of hills in Brisbane, but the biggest challenge that emerged to BTC’s ambitious plan to electrify the trams within a year was local manufacturing’s inability to absorb the cost of constant design changes to the tram cars. The resourceful Badger instead met his deadline with a cobbled-together carriage, adapted from a horse-drawn prototype.

Brisbane tramway
J.S. Badger, indicated by a hand-drawn arrow, beside what is believed to be the first tram to run to Toowong in 1903. Photo courtesy of the Brisbane Tramway Museum.

A band played on June 21, as Badger drove the first electric tram, on schedule, past South Brisbane Municipal Council Chambers and across Victoria Bridge. The Courier reported that, “Those who travelled on the new car expressed themselves fully convinced of its immense superiority to the horse cars.”

Soon 20 California cars were running on 15 miles of track. “At Countess Street, a new car building program was underway and, in the suburbs, new rails were sunk into the streets with new wires knitted into the sky,” writes historian David Burke in his book, One American Too Many: Boss Badger and the Brisbane Trams, published in 2012 by Queensland Museum.

By the end of 1897, Badger had left GE to become general manager of BTC in addition to his chief engineering duties.

The former electrical engineer from GE eventually became BTC’s managing director, expanding the tram network until the proposed government buy-out of the company complicated further investment. When the sale was finally completed in 1923, it was noted that in the past year, the tramway “had run more than 5 million miles and carried 71.5 million passengers,” writes Burke.

Badger left Australia for retirement on an orange grove in California. He died in 1934 at the age of 83.

Families and tram aficionados can still appreciate the turn-of-the-century technology that Badger brought to Brisbane at the Brisbane Tramway Museum in Ferny Grove. Here, dedicated enthusiasts, some of whom were among the electrical technicians who maintained the trams until they were replaced by buses in 1969, run six trams and continue restoration work on others.

Says Peter Hyde, vice president of the Museum, “A couple of our trams still have GE controllers and motors, and we’ve never had any problems in the 30 years we’ve been working with them.”

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