The Career of Magnus Volk (1851-1937)

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Biography/obituary of Magnus Volk, published in Meccano Magazine as a two-page spread, in 1937.

A Pioneer of British Electric Railways: The Career of Magnus Volk

" THE pioneer of electric railways in Great Britain was Mr. Magnus Volk, who died recently at his home in Brighton. Mr. Volk was 86 years of age, and his claim to fame was the construction as early as 1883 of the electric railway along the sea front at Brighton, the first in Great Britain. Mr. Volk also was a pioneer in electric lighting, for before 1880 he lighted his own house with electricity, long before this came into general use; and in addition he erected the original telephone plant in Brighton, Hove and other Sussex towns and built and ran one of the earliest electric cars.

It is interesting now to recall the outstanding features of Mr. Volk's career, and the story of his construction of the first electric railway in this country. He was born in 1851 in Brighton, where his father had a clock-making business, and at an early age showed great ingenuity in building models, making windmills and steamers out of old clocks as soon as he was able to use a few tools. His inventiveness earned for him the name of "Magnus the Dreamer" at this time, and as he grew older he dreamed to good purpose, for he was one of the men who led us into the electric age in which we live.

Mr. Volk was only 14 years old when his father died, but the boy took over the clockmaking business. Then he began to make toy telegraph instruments, and became sufficiently prosperous to employ 20 workpeople. Later he added electric bells and shocking coils to his range, and it was soon after this that he became interested in electric lighting. This led to his appoint­ment as electrical engineer to the Corporation of Brighton, and in 1883 he lighted the Royal Pavilion estate electrically. This installation was then the largest of its kind in the country. A large chandelier in the Dome of the Pavilion was wired for 200 lamps, which had carbon filaments, and the 200 gas fittings in it were retained for possible use in emergency. This made Mr. Volk's work more difficult, for his insulating materials had to be capable of withstanding the heat of the gas flames.

In the meantime he had begun to plan the electric railway that was to make him famous. He had made an electric motor for a London firm, which had not accepted it, and with this, a small Siemens dynamo and a 2 h.p. gas engine he carried out some experiments that suggested the great idea to him. He asked the Brighton Corporation for permission to build an experimental line along the sea front, and when this was granted he set to work. His track, of 2 ft. gauge, was made of flat bottomed rails spiked to longitudinal sleepers, with shingle packing, and his first car was a crude one with four wheels. The gas engine and dynamo were installed in a tiny power station under an arch in the roadway opposite the Aquarium. Current was generated at about 50 volts, and was conducted to the motor by means of the wheels.

The line was laid and the equipment prepared in the astonishingly short time of 18 days. The track ran from the Aquarium to the Chain Pier, so that it was only about a quarter of a mile in length, and it was opened on 3rd August, 1883. The greatest interest was taken in the event, for there had been many gloomy predictions that it would prove to be a complete failure, and probably many of those in the crowd that assembled for the opening hoped to see something sensational. In this they were disappointed, however, for the car started without a hitch as soon as power was switched on by the Mayor of Brighton, who drove it on this occasion, Mr. Volk acting as conductor.

From that time the line was very popular, in spite of the forebodings of a few obstinate people who saw in it the latest invention of the Devil. About a thousand passengers enjoyed the novelty of a trip on it on August Bank Holiday of that year, when the railway was in operation for ll hrs. and the little car ran about 50 miles at its regular speed of 6 m.p.h. From then until the end of the year about 300,000 passengers were carried, and the enterprise was so successful that the period for which permission to operate it had been given was extended, and the line was lengthened to Paston Place, and subsequently to Black Rock.

Then followed a great struggle. Violent storms wrecked the line four times during one summer, and sleepers, boards and other equipment disappeared from time to time, removed possibly by cabmen, boatmen , and hay and corn dealers who thought the railway threatened their livelihood. Mr Volk fought pluckily against misfortunes of all kinds, however, and he received so much support locally that he was able to keep his line open and to retain complete control of it. On one occasion a stranger offerred to provide him with capital without any legal agreement, and on another a local newspaper raised a fund by subscription to enable the whole line to be repaired.

Today the track is of 2 ft. 8 ½ in. gauge, the only one of this measure in Great Britain, and has rails of normal shape laid down on sleepers across the track. The third rail system is used for supplying current to the motors of the cars, and a 90 h.p. motor generator converts the Corporation mains supply to the direct current of 160 volts required. It is interesting to find that Mr. Volk’s original generator was still in use as a motor on one of the cars as late as 1934, 53 years after the line was opened.

In places Volk’s Electric Railway runs over the sea, and one of our illustrations shows rough seas breaking over the track. The inventor built another electric railway that went not over, but actually through the sea. This was intended to serve as an extension of his original electric railway from Paston Place to Rottingdean, and the track was laid on the shore, where it was submerged at high tide. There were really two tracks each of 24 ft. 8 ½ in. gauge, and they were laid down parallel to each other and 18 ft. apart, on concrete blocks.

The car of this novel railway was built on four steel tubular legs, each almost 24 ft. high and 1 ft. in diameter, that were supported on four-wheeled bogies. They kept the car clear of the water, whatever the state of the tide, and earned for it the name of "Daddy-long-legs," while the line was known as the "railway on stilts." There were two decks on the car, with an enclosed saloon on the lower deck surrounded by a rail platform, and the effect of being at sea was heightened by a generous provision of lifebuoys, and by the presence of a lifeboat that the Corporation insisted should be carried. The line was 2 ¾ miles long and at high tide the car travelled through water to a. depth of 15 ft.

The overhead trolley system was used for this railway in the sea, and current at 500 volts, generated on the pier at Rottingdean, was supplied to the four 25 h.p. motors of the car, one for each bogie. The drive was transmitted to the wheels by means of bevel gearing and shafts passing down the tubular legs of the car.

The line was opened in September 1896, and for a short time fulfilled its purpose of giving visitors to Brighton an impressive view of the cliffs. Unfortunately the sensation of travelling in a railway at sea was not enjoyed long, for the line was claimed by a gale. It was repaired and reopened, but a stop had to be put to working and the track was taken up. No such railway had ever previously been built and the experiment has not been repeated, but there seems no reason why a railway of this type should not be successful, and better results would probably have been attained if more money had been available for improving the car and track. In its place the original Volk electric railway was extended to Black Rock, the new line being opened on 1st February, 1901.

Besides being a pioneer of electric lighting and electric railways, Mr. Volk was an early motor car inventor, and in he drove an electric car, believed to be the first ever used, on the Parade at Brighton. This car achieved unexpected fame in a far distant country, for the Sultan of Turkey is said to have heard of it through a report in a German newspaper. The result was that Mr. Volk was invited to make another one for the Sultan, and did so, taking it to Constantinople himself in order to show its capabilities. At an earlier date he designed magazines for rifles, and afterwards was concerned in the development of torpedoes and mines used for defending the approaches to ports. "