Robert Davidson (inventor)

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Robert Davidson (1804–1894) was a Scottish inventor who built the first known electric locomotive in 1837. He was a lifelong resident of Aberdeen, northeast Scotland, where he was a prosperous chemist and dyer, amongst other ventures. Davidson was educated at Marischal College, where he studied for one year on a scholarship - he had an education in return for being a lab assistant. He became interested in the new electrical technologies of the day. From 1837, he made small electric motors on his own principles, though William H. Taylor in the US made similar motors from 1838. Both men worked independently without knowledge of the other's work.


Davidson staged an exhibition of electrical machinery at Edinburgh, Scotland in 1840 and later at the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly in London. Amongst the machines shown were electrically operated lathes and printing presses.

Electric locomotives

Davidson made a model electric locomotive in 1837. His Galvani of 1842 was a four-wheeled machine, powered by zinc-acid batteries. It was tested on the Edinburgh-Glasgow line in September 1842 and, although found capable of carrying itself at 4 mph, it did not haul any passengers or goods.[1]


In a later report it was calculated that consuming zinc in a battery was forty times more expensive than burning coal in a firebox and later experiments in America proved these figures correct. Battery powered locomotives were not economically viable, a point lost on some steam mechanics who smashed the 'Galvani' in its shed, fearing the potential competition to their new trade.

Financially viable electric traction was developed from the 1860s when the dynamo was invented and perfected. Davidson lived to see these developments: his reaction to the opening of the City & South London Tube was to commission a new set of business cards, that read 'Robert Davidson : Father of the Electric Locomotive'.

Davidson's legacy

Davidson's experiments with battery locomotives were not a great success because he used primary batteries. Later battery locomotives had rechargeable batteries and these did find use for shunting.[2]


After 1843, at home in Aberdeen, he settled down to family life and, for the next fifty years, the running of his business at Canal Road. His earlier invention of a method for large-scale production yeast, one of the staples of his chemical business,[3] and the manufacture of perfumes were so remunerative that it allowed him to indulge his many interests of astronomy, collecting of fine china, valuable pictures and a large collection of violins.

See also


  1. Gordon, William (1910). "The Underground Electric". Our Home Railways. 2. London: Frederick Warne and Co. p. 156.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. Day, Lance; McNeil, Ian (1966). "Davidson, Robert". Biographical dictionary of the history of technology. London: Routledge. ISBN 978-0-415-06042-4.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links


  • The Practical Mechanic Vol II, November 1842 pp 48–51.
  • 'A Note on Electro-Magnetic Engines' J.H.R Body, Newcomen Society Transactions Vol 14 pp103–107.
  • 'Electro-Magnetism and Motive Power:Robert Davidson's "Galvani" of 1842' Robert C.Post Railroad History 1974 pp5–23.
  • 'An Ingenious Aberdonian' A.C Davidson Scots Magazine January 1976
  • article by A.F Anderson 'New Scientist, 11 June 1981 pp 712–713.
  • John R. Stevens, Editor; Electric Railroader's Association, Publisher;1989–90; Pioneers of Electric Railroading: Their Story in Words and Pictures; Chapter 1; pp. 1 – 6.
  • Mentioned in Appendix to Sir John Aspinall's Presidential Address to the Institution of Mechanical Engineers in 1909 and includes extract from Railway Times of 10 December 1842.