The Ingenious Charles H. Barrows and his Electric Tricycle

Electric Tricycle

BIG WHEELS, move over. I bring you the C.H. Barrows Electric Tricycle, designed by Charles H. Barrows of Willimantic, Conn., and featured in 1895 editions of The Horseless Age (Vol. I, No. I, page 22) and Electrical Engineer (Vol. XX, No. 386, page 158). Born in 1841 in eastern Connecticut, Charles H. Barrows was the kind of inveterate inventor for which the 19th Century is justly famed. He was already busy working on motor-less vehicle designs in the 1870s, as this illustration from one of his many patents shows.

TricarriageIn this case, it’s a three-wheeled horse-drawn carriage. Like many inventors of the day, Barrows was fascinated by transportation, especially the possibilities and opportunities offered by railroads, trolleys and motorized vehicles. His inventions include an elevated trolley car rail system designed to reduce friction and drag, including the electric battery-powered railway car below.

Railwaycar“My car consists of a single truck which supports the motor and the traction wheels between the ends of the car body,” Barrow said in his patent. “The body is sustained upon the truck near its ends, and within said body are provided transverse compartments which are designed to receive the storage battery cells. The motor shaft is journaled about the middle of the truck frame, and on opposite sides of this motor shaft are disposed the two axles which lie parallel to the motor shaft and which are provided with the traction wheels. These traction wheels are geared directly to the motor shaft to be propelled directly therefrom.”

As the September 1894 Street Railway Journal (page 589) reports, Barrows’ elevated railway system and trolley cars were put to use in Baltimore County, Md., by the Randallstown,  Granite and Harrisonville Rapid Transit Company. Here’s one of Barrows’ electric trolley cars, complete with, in those civilized days, a smoking room (click on the picture to see a larger version of the image).

BarrowsElectricCar“The compartment for smokers is a feature that will be very popular with the public,” the Street Railway Journal reports. “The general contour of the car is pleasing to the eye. Its outlines are graceful and its furnishings of the latest improved styles.”

“Charles H. Barrows, a Connecticut man, stands ready to equip any sort of vehicle with a motor.” — San Francisco Call

Style is nice, but Barrows focused on the drive-train, developing novel ways of propelling his vehicles, whether railway cars or tricycles — really an early form of automobile. “Charles H. Barrows, a Connecticut man, stands ready to equip any sort of vehicle with a motor, using either electricity, gasoline or compressed air as the power,” reports the July 5, 1896 San Francisco Call. “His latest invention is a motorcycle built for two in which the power is applied to the front wheels instead of the rear wheels, as has been the custom heretofore.”

“The invention is a very simple one, with no loss of energy between the motive power and the driving wheels,” the newspaper reports. “Mr. Barrows says that with his method there is no loss of power through friction of intermediate machinery, and no excess of power is required to overcome the short-leverage strain common in the driving mechanism of other horseless vehicles.”

“My invention relates to improvements in motor-vehicles, and the object in view is to provide a simple, light, and substantial construction in which the parts are compactly arranged in a manner to apply power to the front wheel, which is also the steering-wheel, of the vehicle,” Barrows wrote in an 1895 patent application. “In the preferred embodiment of the present invention, the vehicle is a tricycle.”

And what a tricycle it was. The 300-pound vehicle could carry two people — or perhaps just President Grover Cleveland. The tricycle could travel a mile in three minutes, or 20 miles in an hour.  And remember, speed was the “desideratum” of the new “horseless age” of the 1890s, when most transportation actually was still horse-pace.

“One filling of the cells will run the vehicle from 100 to 150 miles.” — The Horseless Age

The Electrical Engineer describes the tricycle: “The forward wheel is the driver and is constructed with two rubber-tired rims, between which is what corresponds with the sprocket in the bicycle. The electric motor is carried in a box over the driver and is connected with the driver by a sprocket chain. The storage battery is placed between the two rear wheels. A seat capable of carrying from one to three persons is over the smaller rubber or pneumatic tire wheels. The guiding device is similar to that of the ordinary bicycle.”

Electric Tricycle2“The front wheel of the vehicle being the driving wheel and carrying within itself the total locomotive force, it is practically a mechanical horse and is attached to the carriage in the rear by a tube and spindle in the same manner as a bicycle,” The Horseless Age reports. And the drive wheel was removable, allowing for its use with different types of carriage bodies. “The ‘horse’ may be detached from one carriage and hitched to another in a minute, and is expected to work as well in a sleigh as in a carriage.”

Here’s another view of the tricycle from Barrows’ patent:

“The inventor calculates that one filling of the cells will run the vehicle from 100 to 150 miles according to the conditions of the road and load carried,” according to The Horseless Age. “The cells may be refilled wherever water fresh or salt can be procured to reduce the concentrated solution to the proper strength. Enough of the concentrated solution may be carried for a 500 mile run. The cost of refilling the cells is 50 cents.”

Barrows had high hopes for his tricycle built for two, which he claimed could be in use “24 hours per day every day in the year” for both “business and pleasure purposes.” He probably hoped to contract local manufacturers to build the tricycle in different markets, a plan not unlike that used by electric truck manufacturer Smith Electric Vehicles today.

Although I’d like to say Barrows profited from his inventions, I can’t confirm the tricycle traveled far from the drawing board. So far, I haven’t even been able to find Barrows’ obituary. Like many inventors of his day, Barrows seems to have led a middle class life, making a 19th Century living as a label cutter and manufacturer of small products, most notably mustache protectors for mugs and cups.


This “Yankee tinkerer,” as one source calls him, may never have become wealthy or famous, but he does exemplify the zeitgeist of his age. And he has not been entirely forgotten. A new magnet school focused on science, technology, engineering and math opened in Windham, Conn., last year, the Charles H. Barrows STEM Academy.

— wbc


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