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Leo Daft

Birthplace: Birmingham, England (United Kingdom)
Death: March 28, 1922 (78)
Immediate Family:

Son of Thomas B. Daft and Emma Matilda Daft
Husband of Catherine Anna Daft
Father of Matilda Juliet Williams; Anna Catharine Pryce; Thomas L Daft and Harry J Daft
Brother of Juliet Emma Daft; Thomas Mason Daft; John Heys Daft; Catharine Charlotte Daft; Henry Daft and 2 others

Occupation: Engineer
Managed by: Peter Dorian Williams
Last Updated:

About Leo Daft

Leo Daft was born in Birmingham. When his family lived on the Isle of Man, he attended boarding school in or near Liverpool. Once when returning home for Christmas on a little steam packet, they encountered such strong headwinds that they ran out of coal just as they were nearing the entrance to Douglas Harbour. When the few pieces of loose furniture were also consumed, the Captain decided to use the pigs that were carried as a deckload. They were thrown alive into the furnace, squealing horribly and the ship succeeded in gaining the safety of the harbour.

To finish his education, Leo Daft took special courses at the University of London, under his father's old friend, professor William Pole. Later he worked at Woolwich, testing cables under Cromwell Fleetwood Varley and Latimer Clark.

When the family financial crisis occurred in 1866, Leo Daft renounced all claim for any of the money left, in order that his sisters might be provided for as well as possible. Then, with only money enough for the cheapest possible passage in a sailing vessel, he emigrated to America. The vessel debarked him, penniless, in Baltimore. He took a job as a common laborer on a railroad-construction job. When the first payday came, the paymaster told him to make his mark on the payroll, and he did so. He remained on that job until he had saved enough money to buy a horse and buggy and photographic equipment. Then he set out as a travelling photographer. His wanderings ended at a farm near Clarksburg, in the Catskill Mountains of New York State. There he met and married Catherine Ann Flansburgh, one of the farmer's daughters. They first settled in Albany, NY, where Leo Daft continued as a photographer, but with a fixed base. Later, they moved to Troy, NY.

When his father died in December, 1878, Leo visited England. There, he became so enthused with the possibilities of making electrical equipment that, on his return to America, he sold his photographic business, moved to Greenville, NJ (in 1880) and started to produce electric motors and other electrical equipment. The business was incorporated, first as the New York Electric Light company, and then as the Daft Electric Co. (Edison's Pearl Street generating plant in New York City did not start operating until 1882)

On August 9th, 1883, Leo demonstrated an electrified elevator at the Garner Cotton Mills, Newburgh, NY, (According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the first successful electric elevator was installed by Otis Bros and Co. in 1889.)

On November 24th, 1883, Leo demonstrated the electric locomotive "Ampere" on the Saratoga and Mt. McGregor Railroad. On the return trip, the Ampere jumped the track on a curve but no one was hurt.

In 1884, Leo Daft supplied generators and switchgear for the New York Power Co's Gold Street station, and for the Massachusetts Electric Power Co. He also supplied the motor and generator for a press which printed copies of the "Electrical Word" at the Electrical Exhibition in Philadelphia. In addition, two new electric locomotives were demonstrated, one at Boston and the other at the Iron Pier at Coney Island, NY.

In 1885, he supplied three electric locomotives and the necessary generating equipment to draw horse cars on a three-mile branch of the Baltimore Union Passenger Railway C. This branch had many hills and curves that had been a horse-killer. The contract required that the equipment operate successfully for one year. This was accomplished. It was the first time that regular trolley service had been maintained, although several intermittent services had been demonstrated by others before. The first test was made at 1 am on August 9, 1885 and regular passenger service commenced the next day. The first fare collected, a nickel, is now in the Smithsonian Institute.

In 1886, Leo Daft built the 160 HP/locomotive, Benjamin Franklin, for the Ninth Avenue Elevated in New York City. This locomotive did not work well until rebuilt in 1888. He installed trolley-car systems in Ashbury Park, NJ and in Orange, NJ.

In 1889, Leo sold the business. Around 1890, he moved to Seattle, Washington. In 1895, he was living in Los Angeles, California. In 1897, the Dec 4th issue of the Sydney, Australia "Daily Telegraph" reported that Leo Daft had recently settled in the suburb of Waverly.

While Leo was living in the West, he did no regular work but was frequently called East to testify in patent litigation cases on trolley car inventions.

In 1901 or 02, Leo Daft went to London, England, where he helped his son-in-law develop the latter's ore-detecting invention. A few years later, Leo returned to the United States where he settled in Rutherford, NJ. Around 1910, he started to develop a process to vulcanize rubber to metal, based on some prior work by his father. This led to several patents. The process was commercialized and was used for some years, chiefly to attach solid rubber tires to steel rims for use on trucks. Subsequently, competitive processes put the company out of business.

In 1917, after the death of his wife, Leo lived with his daughter, Anna, In New York City. Later he lived with his other daughter, Matilda, in Albany, NY. until his death in 1922. *

  • Based on family lore and the following references:

Cassier's Magazine, vol 21, no. 3 p. 263-4, July, 1901: "Leo Daft"

Cassier's Magazine p. 498-504, Oct, 1901: "A German Suspension Railway" gives Daft credit for pioneer work, with two photos of his cars.

Daily Telegraph, Sydney Australia, Dec 4, 1897: "The Future of Electric Traction"

Rowsome, Frank, Trolley Car Treasury, McGraw Hill, NY, 1956

Article from The Plainfield Evening News, March 30, 1889

LEO DAFT, OF PLAINFIELD A Biographical Sketch of a Distinguished Electrician.

The Electrical World, of New York, in its issue of March 30th devotes an entire page to a portrait, autograph and biographical sketch of Mr. Leo Daft of Plainfield, whose electric railway will doubtless soon be operating in the streets of the city where the distinguished inventor makes his home.

“Those who are concerned”—says the World editorially—”in the development of electric power in this country, will be interested in the portrait and biographical sketch of Mr. Leo Daft, a pioneer in this great department of electrical industry. While the application of electricity to the transmission of power has already been so enormous in America, still only a beginning has been made, and we may well believe that Mr. Daft hopes to add to his laurels. At the present time he is concentrating his energies upon work on the elevated roads of New York city. As we stated last week, having operated successfully from Fifty-third to Fourteenth street on the Ninth Avenue road, he now proposes to go down as far as Rector street, using the conductor which we then illustrated. Such work as this is of the highest importance, and we hope soon to see the day when the elevated roads will adopt electricity from one end to the other.”

The biographical sketch of The World is given in full below:

In these days, when electric power is at last receiving the attention and consideration that its importance demands, it becomes fitting to remember and honour the men who have been the pioneers in this great department of electrical application. We all know that to give the history of the electric motor would take us back fifty years, but it is also not less the fact that the practical transmission of power electrically belongs to this present decade, and peculiarly to the later development of the electrical arts in America. In fact, it seemed, not so long ago, that the electric motor would be no further advanced in 1900 than it was in 1850, or even in 1870, and the growth that has now come, and in the midst of which we find ourselves with not a little bewilderment at its suddenness and rapidity, is due to the faith and persistence of but a few inventors and their associates.

No one, we believe, will venture to cavil at the prominence, in our gallery, of Mr. Leo Daft, whose portrait is presented this week, and whose position in the field of electricity is the result of such long and patient devotion to the use of electricity as a motive power.

Leo Daft was born in Birmingham, England, in November 1843. His father was a civil engineer, member of the English Institute of Civil Engineers and connected at that time with the firm of Daft & Co., designers and builders of hot-houses, conservatories and similar structures, of which his grandfather was the head. The firm was subsequently dissolved by mutual consent, when Thomas B. Daft formed a connection with the celebrated firm of Charles Macintosh & Co. as consulting engineer, a position which he retained several years. Afterwards he connected himself with the Irish Engineering Company as managing partner, and, during a residence of two years in Dublin, he planned and constructed the great Wexford bridge over the Wexford flats. Leo Daft was at this time being educated at the Liverpool Collegiate, which he left to accompany his father to London in the year 1858, when he entered his father’s office as draughtsman and articled pupil, and at the same time attended the lectures of Dr. William Pole, F. R. S., then Professor at the London University. During this time he had many opportunities for special instruction from Dr. Pole, who was a frequent visitor at his father’s house, and for whom he frequently made the drawings to illustrate lectures at the University. He was also a constant attendant at the weekly meetings of the Institution of Civil Engineers. He was also about this time profiting by the acquaintance and assistance of Cromwell Fleetwood Varley, the eminent electrician, just then engaged on his celebrated cable work at Woolwich and at Camden Town, and a frequent visitor at the house of Thomas B. Daft, as were also many prominent engineers of that time, including the unfortunate Frederick Window and his confreres.

About this time Mr. C. W. Seimens rendered young Daft considerable assistance in the way of loaning electrical apparatus, etc. for experimental purposes, and his father was careful to provide philosophical apparatus of various kinds, especially electrical; and a suitable “experimental room” was also provided at the parental residence, where electrical, photographic and general physical experiments, frequently of a character very much calculated to disturb the domestic arrangements, were constantly in progress.

On the occasion of his twenty-first birthday, in 1864, the celebration of the event called together a large number of friends. A part of the entertainment consisted of a number of electrical experiments and the exhibition of an electric motor, operated from batteries loaned by Mr. C. W. Seimens. This motor was made to run a small lathe in the experimental room, and naturally excited a great deal of interested comment. Parts of this motor are still in existence, together with a number of small steam-engines and similar apparatus built about the same time. At this period Leo Daft’s father was engaged in business as a consulting engineer, and was exploiting many inventions, twenty-eight of which are patented in the English patent office; and among the most important was a new method of constructing iron ships and sheathing them, which led to his election as an associate member of the Society of Naval Architects, before whom he read several papers on these subjects. The son having now concluded to devote his whole time to electrical pursuits was liberally provided with such apparatus as the practise of the day afforded, and acted for some time as electrician for his father, who had recently patented a new cable insulator, which was examined and was very favorably reported on in a Blue Book by a government commission. The immediate cause of Leo Daft’s coming to America was his employment in Liverpool as agent for his father in ship-building matters, where he came in contact with several enthusiastic Americans, and in a short time make up his mind to leave England. During his residence in Liverpool he read a paper, which the present writer has seen, before the Liverpool Polytechnic Society, on the construction and sheathing of iron ships, having special reference to the galvanic effects of the different metals which were being used for that purpose.

In May, 1866, he sailed from Liverpool for New York, and after a short stay in this city and Philadelphia he went as far west as Louisville, Kentucky, where he was engaged for a short time as one of the assistant engineers on the Mount Vernon extension of the Louisville and Nashville Railroad, which was then being vigorously pushed. On the completion of this branch he returned to New York, after having visited Niagara Falls and other places, where he engaged in various minor enterprises. One of these was the manufacture of electric annunciators in New York and Philadelphia, which not proving remunerative was soon abandoned, and, as the electrical opportunities at that time were extremely limited, he turned his attention to photography, in which he had become proficient as an amateur. He was engaged in this occupation four or five years in the city of Troy, where he developed a large business, and where at one time he employed a considerable number of persons. While there he took large outdoor photographs, one of which was 7 feet by 20 inches, and is now in his possession. For the first print of this negative, including as a background about 36 miles of the Mohawk Valley, he received no less than a sum of $300.

On the death of his father, which occurred in 1879, he went to England to arrange some of his affairs, and on his return, abut two months later, when great activity in electrical matters was developing, he abandoned the photographic business and betook himself with alacrity and enthusiasm to his old profession, being first connected with some gentlemen who formed the New York Electric Light Association, having a small factory in Centre street. This was soon merged into the Daft Electric Light Company. Some 18 months later, in 1881, the works, now at Marion, N. J., were removed to Greenville, N. J., where the company was almost immediately and exclusively devoted to the development of electric power, which first bore fruit in the installation of electric elevators in Spruce street, New York city; the establishment of the electric power station at Boston, followed by that of New York and other places; railroad experiments in ‘83 at Saratoga; the building of the Baltimore road in 1884; the test of the original “Ben Franklin” on the New York elevated road in the same year, together with several railroad installations of more recent date, particularly that of the improved “Ben Franklin” made in the Autumn and Winter of 1888—89. It deserves mention here that in 1884 The Electrical World, desiring to make an exhibit at the Philadelphia Electrical Exhibition, determined to print its issue there by electricity. It was easier, however, to form the plan that to carry it out, but the Daft Company guaranteed a successful performance, and Mr. Daft himself took a hearty interest in the project. The generator, motor and press were duly set up, and within five weeks of the Exhibition 80 000 copies of the paper were printed from electrotypes, the type being set in New York. We have reason to know that this feat, besides attracting universal attention, gave, at a critical time, a direct and lasting impulse to the electric motor industry in this country.

As one example of the development of electric power in New York alone, it will be sufficient to state that in the portion of Manhattan Island bounded by Chambers, Broad and Canal streets, about 700 h.p. is now daily distributed by the Daft system to some 200 consumers in quantities varying from 1-2 to 30 h.p. All the apparatus, including motors generators, switches, meters, etc., is of Mr. Daft’s design, and we believe there is no other installation of the kind in that respect in the world. In other words, Mr. Daft is the only inventor so far who has taken up the problem of the distribution of power electrically and worked it out in the same manner as the distribution of current for lighting—providing and perfecting the necessary apparatus throughout.

Mr. Leo Daft, who married an American lady and has three children, resides at Plainfield, N. J., where his beautiful residence is lighted by electricity supplied from his laboratory near by, and where electric power is also used as a “maid of all work.” Of a reserved and studious nature, Mr. Daft has never gone much into public life, but prefers to spend his leisure in various researches and investigations. He is a member of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers.

The Daft Electric Railway

From Manufacturer and Builder / Volume 15, Issue 12, December 1883

Professor Leo Daft (no kidding), an Englishman working in America, built several early electric lines. The lack of success of some of these lines led to the building of cable lines, including the Los Angeles Cable Railway. Note that this experimental line in Newark used the tracks to carry electricity to the car.

The daily newspapers of recent date contained more or less extended notices of trials of an electric railway upon a system which embraced a number of points of novelty. The trials in question were made near Newark, N. J., and the system was that devised by Mr. Leo Daft. The following, is a condensed description of the system and motor employed:

The tracks are used as conductors of the electric current, which is picked up by the wheels of the motor, and by means of wires carried to the motor's machinery. A bushing of vulcanized fiber takes the place of part of the axles and so insulates the wheels on the one side from the other, preventing a short circuit. The connection of the wires that take up the electricity from the wheels, is changed by a switch, so that the armature of the motor is made to turn forward and backward, as desired, and the power is transmitted from the armature to the axles by means of sprocket wheels and chains. Near each pair of wheels are two coils of wire, through which the current can be thrown when, stoppage is desired, by means of a switch. They are thus made powerful magnets, are attracted to the wheels, and, pressing against their periphery, act as magnetic brakes.

This is all there is of the motor. It is so simple that a boy could understand it, and, with a few minutes' instruction, operate it successfully. The machine upon which these demonstrations were made is small, weighing only 460 pounds, but Mr. Chapin says that it can drive ten tons on a level, and that by its own power it has climbed a test track at a grade of 2,000 feet to the mile. Above its little platform upon which there is room for four persons to sit nothing is to be seen but a couple of small cranks or levers, which are the switches for the impelling power and the brakes. Beneath all the machinery is exposed to full view.

The tracks are not insulated, but are laid down on grounded ties after the ordinary fashion of surface roads. At one place, it is affirmed in the account from which we have gleaned the foregoing, a sandy country road crosses the tracks, and the soil is flush with the top of the rail. At another the track is covered by the water from a pond whenever there is rain, yet, we are told, neither earth nor water exercise any notable influence upon the action of the motor, which depends for its efficiency upon the use of a current of exceedingly low tension in comparison with previous devices for a similar purpose. It is affirmed, furthermore, that the Daft system will shortly be in operation on the Newark & Bloomfield street railway in Newark.

Leo Daft (1843 – 1922) was an English professor and builder of early American urban railroads.

He led the construction of an electrical railroad in Newark, New Jersey, in 1883, of the Baltimore and Hampden Electric Railway in the Hampden neighborhood of Baltimore in 1885, and of the Los Angeles Electric Railway, the first one in that city, in the 1880s.

New York Times June 26, 1889, Wednesday

The Electric Motor; Mr Leo Daft tells of experiments on the levated road.

During the past two years Mr. Leo Daft, an electrician of repute, has been experimenting with a motor at his laboratory in Greenville, near Jersey City. His purpose has been to perfect a machine, which, propelled by electricity, should be capable of operating on railways and take the place of the steam locomotive.

This afternoon Mr. Daft gave the first practical exhibition of the motor on the Saratoga, Mount McGregor and Lake George Railroad, a line about 12 miles long, with sharp curves and steep grades. The Daft Electric Light Company, of New-York, which controls the motor, brought a party to Saratoga to-day to witness the motor's workings. There were between 60 and 70 gentlemen from New-York, Brooklyn, Newark, Boston and other cities.

[ . . . ]

Along the centre of the track a third rail was laid, and from this rail the electric power was taken up by the motor. The electric current in this instance was generated by dynamos at a factory one-eighth of a mile from the railway station and 500 feet from the track, to which it was led through wires. The generating engine was 25-horse power. The current is fed to the central track and is taken therefrom by a contact wheel, which in turn transmits it to a receiving dynamo and causes the revolution.

MR. DAFT AND HIS MOTOR, New York Times, Nov. 25 1883, p. 2

The experiment ended when the driver sped around one of the curves too fast, causing the vehicle to jump the track.

In 1885, Daft built his first commercial third-rail system on the Baltimore & Hampden lines. It was discussed in the Manufacturer and Builder :

...since September 1st, 1885, electricity has been practically employed as the motive power for one of the suburban lines of surface railroad in Baltimore. The system used is that of Mr. Leo Daft....

An insulated steel rail, laid between the track rails, and roughly guarded by joists and planks laid on each side of it, serves as a conductor. The sections of this conducting rail, as also of the track rails, are electrically connected by wires.

"The Electric Motor in Baltimore," Manufacturer and Builder, February 1886, p. 37

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Leo Daft's Timeline

November 13, 1843
Birmingham, England (United Kingdom)
January 21, 1872
Albany, New York, United States
May 18, 1874
May 16, 1877
November 8, 1879
March 28, 1922
Age 78