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Invention of the tram (1832)


The tram, a public transport vehicle with electric traction traveling on rails, is an American invention. It was New Yorker John Stephenson who, in 1832, built the first line drawn on horseback, between Manhattan and Harlem. After having conquered many cities whose topography was suitable for its development, the tram retreated against other modes of transport before experiencing a return motivated by environmental considerations.

The Tramway settles in the big cities

The ancestor of the streetcar, whose traction was carried out by horses, was probably born in the United States, where a regular line operated between the center of New York and Harlem, as early as 1832. Very quickly, most of the other large American cities were endowed with it. Between 1850 and 1870, this horse-drawn tram was exported to Europe, settling in the big capitals, from Copenhagen to Geneva and from The Hague to Budapest, via Brussels, Berlin and Vienna. In 1853, during the Universal Exhibition, a test line was presented in Paris.

After the war of 1870, the tram - still horse-drawn - was established in all the big cities, in France and abroad. But animal traction turned out to be very expensive because the companies had to have an innumerable cavalry. This is why trams pulled by a small steam locomotive were installed, especially in suburban areas. In San Francisco, a cable traction system was installed in 1873: these are the famous cable cars, still in operation.

It was at the end of the century that the electric tram established itself under the leadership of the German engineer Werner von Siemens, in Europe, and the American industrialist Frank Julian Sprague, in America. This new technology quickly spread in the United States, while in Europe two decades of efforts were necessary for reluctant municipalities to accept the overhead contact line outlet. In France, the first lines of this type operated in Clermont-Ferrand from 1890, and in Marseille from 1893. In the last years of the century, the electrification of the tram networks systematically operated in all the cities concerned. with the exception of Paris, still hostile to aerial wires.

The return of the tram to France

While in most countries, efforts are made to run their trams outside of automobile traffic, that is to say on an independent platform, France, on the contrary, adopted a policy of uncontrolled development of the automobile, which led, during the 1950s and 1960s, to the disappearance of most tram networks in favor of buses.

In the 1970s, there was a revival of the tramway in Europe, as part of a policy of developing public transport. While some networks were reduced or disappeared in favor of subways, others were extended or were installed due to insufficient bus capacity. In the centers of large cities, two schools opposed each other in the search for a symbiosis with the automobile. Some municipalities, such as Brussels, Antwerp or San Diego, opted for a solution that respects automobile traffic, by building their trams underground, in order to free up urban space from overhead wires. Other cities, like Zurich, chose a more radical and courageous solution, by preferring to exclude the automobile in favor of the only trams. In France, this “soft” transport now equips around thirty cities, and many other projects are under construction or under study ...

For further

- From the history of transport to the history of mobility. PU Rennes, 2019.

- Small stories of transport: Or how the means of transport have evolved since their invention by Pierre LEFEVRE. bayard, 2014.


Video: What happened to Londons trams? (September 2021).