Introduction: Uncovering Ukraine is a series of short stories about Ukrainians who’ve advanced technology, art, and science to new heights. Check out our other articles in this series.
City trams are so common that people take them for granted. But many are surprised to know that a Ukrainian, Fedir Pirotsky, created the very first electric tram.
Fedir Pirotsky was an engineer and inventor from the 19th Century Russian Empire.
He was born to a noble family in 1845 in the town of Sencha, Lokhvitsky district, Poltava province (modern-day Ukraine). His parents were experienced military doctors of Cossack origin.
Fedir attended the Konstantinovsky Cadet Corps and the Mikhailovsky Military Artillery Academy in St. Petersburg, the most prestigious military institution in the Russian Empire. He performed artillery service in Kyiv and returned to St. Petersburg to work for the main Artillery Directorate.
In the early 1870s, Fedir developed an electricity transmission through an iron wire fixed with telegraph insulators on wooden poles and two alternating current machines. He shrewdly designed the return conductor as the earth itself. Then in 1875, on a section of the Sestroretsk railway, Pirotsky launched electric traction cars with an entire level of the electrified road using a Graham generator.
Soon, Fedir Pirotsky became passionate about modernized mass transportation. He first attempted to replace horse traction in city double-decker trams using his electric road design.
Before long, his electric tram transported St. Petersburg residents along a section of track 85 meters long built on Rozhdestvensky wagon park. This experiment lasted a few weeks in September of 1880. Unfortunately, local leaders opposed further development of the electric tram in St. Petersburg. They had invested in horse transportation and hindered Pirotosky’s advancements to see a return on that investment. Not to be discouraged, Fedir took matters into his own hands, continued developing his ideas, and publicized them to the rest of Europe.
Using Pirotsky’s design, the Siemens & Halske company demonstrated a small train with a separate locomotive and two small trailed passenger platforms at the Berlin exhibition in 1879. At that time, Carl Heinrich von Siemens was working in Russia and had befriended Fedir, taking an interest in his experiments. By 1881, the von Siemens brothers opened the first permanent electric tram line in Berlin. It wasn’t until 1892 when the electric tram took center stage in the Russian Empire. Thanks to the efforts of Amanda Struve and Vasyl Pervenka, Ukraine was the first to feature electric trams, and in 1899, an electric tram began operating in Moscow. St. Petersburg, ironically the city given the first chance to adopt Fedir’s invention, followed last in 1907.
It was fitting that Fyodir’s birthplace, Kyiv, featured his electric trams for the first time in Eastern Europe. This occurred after more than 10 years since Pirotsky’s first public experiments.
But the electric tram wasn’t Fedir Pirotsky’s only invention. He laid the first underground electric cable in St. Petersburg, transmitting electricity from the cannon foundry to the Artillery School in 1881. He also fathered the centralized underground city power grid and proposed new designs of metallurgical, household, and bakery furnaces. His inventions spanned many fields — constructing hydroelectric power stations, electric lighting, communications, artillery, and rocket technology.
I would give ten years of my life to look into the school textbooks of the next century.
Fedir eventually returned to his artillery officer billet and later transferred to the Ivangorod Fortress of Warsaw’s Military District.
In 1888, he retired as a colonel and moved to Maslivka, Ukraine, where he remained until the end of his days.
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