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Karel Joseph van de Poele

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Karel Joseph van de Poele or in American-English: Charles Joseph Van Depoele (27 April 1846 - 18 March 1892) was an electrical engineer, inventor, and pioneer in electric railway technology.

Van Depoele was born in Lichtervelde, Belgium. At a tender age he dabbled in electricity, and became so thoroughly infatuated with the subject that he entered upon a course of study and experiment at Poperinghe. In 1861, while at college, he produced his first light with a battery of forty Bunsen cells. Later, he moved to Lille, France, where he attended regularly the lectures and experiments of the Imperial Lyceum, from 1864 to 1869. In the last-mentioned year he came to the United States and took up his residence in Detroit, where he made a living by manufacturing furniture. He did not abandon his electrical pursuits, experimenting with lighting, electric generators and motors, and eventually forming the Van Depoele Electric Manufacturing Company.

As early as 1874, Van Depoele began investigations into the field of electric locomotion. Van Depoele's first electric railway was laid in Chicago early in 1883, and he exhibited another at an exposition in that city later in the same year. Near the end of 1887, thirteen North American cities had electric railways in operation; nine of these systems were designed by Van Depoele, and used overhead lines to transmit electric current from a generator to the locomotives on the rails. Van Depoele sold his electric motor business and related patents to the Thomson-Houston Electric Company in early 1888. He briefly thereafter devoted his efforts to his electric lighting business, until he sold that concern also to Thomson-Houston in mid-1889.

A prolific inventor with some 440 applications, Van Depoele was granted at least 243 United States patents between 1881 and 1894 for various electric inventions including railway systems, lights, generators, motors, current regulators, pumps, telpher systems, batteries, hammers, rock drills, brakes, a gearless locomotive, a coal-mining machine, and a pile-driver. He received the most recognition for his role in the development of electric railways; George Herbert Stockbridge wrote in 1891, "It is probably only just to Mr. Van Depoele to say that he is entitled to more credit than any other one man for the exploitation of electricity as a motive power."

Van Depoele died at 46 years of age in Lynn, Massachusetts, leaving a wife and several children.

This article incorporates text from the references listed below, publications now in the public domain, Winkler Prins \ Elsevier t: VII, section 15 - p.489 and Suringar E.F.: Electric Traction.


  • "Charles J. Van Depoele." Western Electrician 10, No 13 (Mar 26, 1892): 193
  • Holt, Charles. "Development of Electric Railways." The New England Magazine 6, Issue 36 (October, 1888): 551-566
  • "Notes and Queries." Manufacturer and Builder 19, Issue 10 (October, 1887): 239-240
  • Stockbridge, George Herbert. "Later History of Electricity." The New England Magazine 10, Issue 2 (April, 1891): 183-193

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