Electric Boats (1889 – 1914)

Electric Boats Become Popular (1889-1914)


On the afternoon of Wednesday March 26,1890, the annual varsity boat race between
the universities of Oxford and Cambridge took place on the River Thames from Putney
to Mortlake in west London. Until that year, press coverage had been from the riverside.
But the London Daily Graphic came up with the ingenious idea of hiring the electric
launch Alpha from the Immisch Company. As the oarsmen raced down the river, the
Alpha pursued them. Artists on board made sketches which were then dispatched to the
newspaper offices using carrier pigeons. One report read in part: “Electric launches are
now an indispensable feature of any nautical gathering on the Thames, and at the Oxford
and Cambridge boat race on Wednesday the electric boats were, after the race itself, one
of the most noticeable features. Messrs. Immisch had several large launches, among which
the ‘Alpha,’ of the Daily Graphic, was conspicuous. One of Messrs. Immisch’s charging
stations was moored along the reaches. Mr. Sargent had several small electric pleasure-
boats which flitted silently about among the throng, or rang the warning electric bell as
they turned.”1 It was a good race, Oxford winning by one boat length!

At the Edinburgh International Exhibition, held between May 31 and October II,
1890, for a fare ot one halfpenny, no fewer than 71,075 paying passengers enjoyed rides
up and down the Union Canal to Slateford and back. The four steel-hulled electric
launches, designed by Morton & Williamson, were built by T.B. Seath, both of Glasgow.
The

At the Edinburgh International Exhibition, held between May and October in
1890, for a fare of one halfpenny, no fewer than 71,075 paying passengers enjoyed rides
up and down the Union Canal to Slateford and back. The four steel-hulled electric
launches, designed by Morton & Williamson, were built by T.B. Seath, both of Glasgow.
The 3 1/2 hp 800 rpm Immisch motors were supplied by 48 Electric Construction Corpo-
ration accumulators, and the four boats were recharged simultaneously by a steam-
powered generator driving an Immisch dynamo. On the busiest day 2,560 passengers
were carried in balmy sunny weather. After the exhibition, the four launches were trans-
ported down to the English Lake District and went into operation on Lake Windermere.-‘

Immisch continued to do a stylish business. Eastern princes and rajahs provided a
number of orders for the launches, while King Oscar II of Sweden and his wife Sophia
journeyed from Richmond to Hampton Court in one of Immisch s boats.3

Some did not believe in rechargeable secondary batteries. John Vaughan-Sherrin of
Codrington Road, Ramsgate, England, considered lhat the lulure of electric cars and
boats still lay in a primary battery which each time it was discharged should be replaced.
To promote his zinc-carbon primary battery, in 1889, Vaughan-Sherrin formed the Elec-
tric Tricycle, Carriage, Boat, and Machinery Syndicate, Ltd., and invited “The Electrical
Engineer” to visit the premises:

/i hp 800 rpm Immisch motors were supplied by 48 Electric Construction Corpo-
ration accumulators, and the four boats were recharged simultaneously by a steam-

The system of electric launches ran on the Union canal, skirting the exhibition grounds by the General Electric Power and Traction Company, demonstrates the practicality perfect stage to which Launch propulsion by electricity has arrived. There is only one way of supplying electric power for propulsion on the water, and that is by charged accumulators. Hence, the chief consideration, beyond the employment of a good motor requiring a minimum of attention, is the durability and capacity of the accumulators for a given weight. In these launches E.P.S 15 plate cells of 120 ampere hours capacity are employed each Launch carrying 50 cells under the seats in conical ebonite boxes suiting the curvature of the boat. Each cell with the acid in weighs 57 1/2 lbs. the total dead weight of batteries carried per Launch is therefore about 1 ton 6 cwt.  The launches, of which some five are plying on the canal, are built of steel, and are 40 ft. long by 6 ft. beam. They were built in Glasgow, and are of the general appearance shown in fig. 2.

Onboard, the controlling apparatus for starting, stopping, reversing &c., is contained in a switch-box, and worked by three levers. This box is placed in the stern, so that one man can command the tiller and the levers of the switch. One lever puts the current on or off to the motor, this movement being effected through resistance ; a second lever puts ahead or astern, this movement reversing the field of the motor, and therefore its direction of rotation; while third determines full or half speed by putting the whole fifty cells in series or dividing them into two sets of twenty five in parallel. When the current is on, the second and third levers are mechanically locked in position wherever they happen to be ; and it is only by turning the first lever to off that any change can be made. By this means every change is made through resistance and all sparking avoided.  As a rule launches only run at half speed on the canal,this being at four or five knots per hour. Each year s licensed to carry forty persons, and when so like added will run for four hours at full speed, the current being 30 amperes. At half speed with the cells in parallel 23 amperes is th working current, which allows a run of 10 hours with one charge. 

Close to the landing stage at the exhibition a charging station is established, containing a semi portable steam engine and Elwell-Parker dynamo,mother charging of the launch batteries being carried out during the night for five or six hours at about thirty amperes. 

The motors fitted to these launches are those of Messrs. Immisch, which are now of well known excellence. Copper-plated carbons are used as collectors, abutting against the commutator in a radial direction, and requiring no change of lead on reversing. The control of the launch, and the ease with which any required change follows each other, is seen to advantage while turning round. At slate ford there is only just sufficient width to turn round in, with a possible chance of running bows on shore on one side or fowling the propeller in weed on the other, so that quick reversals are necessary for a time to assist her in turning.