Builders of Wooden Railway Cars ... and some of other stuff

Steel Car Company

Robbins Cylindrical Steel Car Company

The Steel Car Company was founded at Boston, Massachusetts, about 1884/85, out of the ashes (literally) of the first attempt to build a steel passenger car.

The first steel passenger car ever constructed was conceived by Edward Y. Robbins. Robbins was a sheet metal fabricator in Cincinnati who specialized in stove making. It is possible he started out trying to build a safe means of heating wooden railway cars, which were notoriously subject to fires begun by their coal-burning heating stoves. A significant part of his patent was for an external heating system that could have been applied to wooden cars as well as to his steel car.

But Robbins’ thinking soon graduated to the idea of a fireproof car. His concept was unique: a car built as a self-supporting sheet-iron tube. (Actually, his patent called for it to be built of “thin plates of wrought-iron.”) Robbins was awarded patent no. 83,731 on 3 November 1868.

Drawing from Robbins's patent A small portion of the drawings from Edward Y. Robbins patent for a cylindrical railway car. Note the fully padded interior, and the extremely small windows located along the median of the cylinder.

In The American Railroad Passenger Car, author John H. White, Jr. describes Robbins’ car thusly —

“[Robbins] favored the truly cylindrical cross section as the strongest possible form, although he conceded that a more elliptical form might be preferable. The tubular body was to be stiffened by additional attachments: U irons riveted along the length of the body just below the centerline, a sheet-iron floor with additional support from V-shaped plates or keelsons riveted under the deck, similar plates set transverse to the body to form the bolsters, and hollow ribs, to serve as structural members and air ducts, riveted inside the body at spaced intervals around its full circumference. Additional security was offered by cushioned platforms that were intended to absorb the force of most collisions. The platforms would be made of iron plates set on end, with layers of springs, cork, or rubber between them. Should the force of a collision be greater than the capacity of the end platforms to sustain it, passengers might still escape injury, for the end walls were to be made of double plates, and the interior would be thickly padded so that travelers could be thrown about like projectiles, yet come out unharmed. The stuffing might be wool, shoddy, sponge, hemp, caoutchouc, oakum, or any other elastic material.”

Robbins spent the next 20 years trying to get his car built. He first tried in July of 1869 in Cincinnati by putting on exhibition a large-scale model of his car. He found no backers, quite possibly due to the “Black Friday” gold panic that occurred two months later.

He next tried to find backers in Great Britain, even taking out a British patent in another name, and presenting a model tailored to represent European ideas of rolling stock. But again, he found no interest.

Nothing is known of his activities thereafter until 1884, when he founded the Robbins Cylindrical Steel Car Company in Boston, Massachusetts. Somehow he had found at least a little capital, and—since car builders of the day were either unwilling or unable to construct the steel car he designed—he had it built by the Atlantic Works, a shipbuilder in East Boston. The car was half finished by July of 1884. It had a 54'-0" body made of 3/8" steel bottom plates, with 3/16" thick side walls and a 1/8" thick roof. But before the 6" thick internal padding could be added, he ran out of money. And the stock market crash that had begun in May, with the ensuing depression, ensured that he would find no new backers.

Engraving of Robbins' steel car model
Engraving of the large-scale model of Robbins’ steel car published in an engineering journal of the day.

The assets of the Robbins Cylindrical Steel Car Company were acquired by Byron A. Atkinson (1854-19??), a well-to-do Boston furniture dealer, who had some background as a machinist, and as a furniture repairman. Presumably these assets consisted of nothing more than a patent and a half-finished car.

To promote his cylindrical steel passenger car, Atkinson hired a Denver attorney named Henry D. Perky (1843-1906), who had quite a reputation for making money during times that ruined other businessmen. Their firm would be known as the Steel Car Company. After a false start, work resumed on the original car in the spring of 1887 at the repair shops of the Eastern Railroad.

While it was being (hopefully) finished, Atkinson hired someone named Charles M. Smith [just try to research that name] to improve on Robbins’ design, which was incredibly ugly. Smith did so largely by adding sheet metal dormers to the cylindrical car body to allow much larger—although apparently still unopening—plate glass windows. Smith was granted a patent (no. 366,519) on his design 12 July 1887.

Drawings from Smith's patent 366519
Drawings from Smith’s patent of 1887. Notice how he has greatly enlarged the windows by placing them in dormer-like sheet-metal housings on the otherwise cylindrical car body. The cross-sections below show this even better.
Cross-section views from Smith's patent

But work progressed slowly, and by 1889 it was obvious the Eastern railroad shops were unequal to the task. The unfinished original car was sent to the Laconia Car Company of New Hampshire where professional car builders could finish it.


11 April 2006

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