Last Updated : 30 Nov 2003

There are uncertainties about the origin of the word tram. Suggestions of the derivation include from the Swedish word "tromm" meaning a log and the low German word of "traam" meaning a beam. The latter appears to be the means by which the word entered into the English language.

In the 17th century "tramways" or ways paved with wooden beams were commonplace and used for carrying coal by means of horse drawn wagons from mines.

Benjamin Outram was possibly one of the first men to make use of iron rails to any significant extent. In 1776 he laid a tramway for the Duke of Norfolks colliery at Sheffield, England. However, the earliest record of a "tram" is in 1555 when an Ambrose Middleton bequethed 20 shillings "to the amendinage of the highway or tram from West Ende of Bridgegait in Barnard Castle".

In 1734, cast iron wheels with an inner flange were recorded as being in use near Bath, England. However, the use of metal possibly originated in Germany where trams and trucks were in use in the Tyrol as early as 1602.

The use of tramways for carrying people as opposed to goods does not seem to have been tried until after passenger railways using steam power had been established. An Irish engineer named Edgeware came up with the idea of laying rails into the roads of England as early as 1802. The first passenger line was the Oystermouth Tramroad which is illustrated around 1807. The earliest "modern" tram cars as later adopted throughout the world, were used on the New York and Harlem line in November 1832. Each horse drawn car carried 30 people and had four flanged wheels. An American by the name of Mr G F Train installed in August 1860 a tram line at Birkenhead, Merseyside using cars based on those already working in Philadelphia.

As early as 1873 steam trams had run in London and experiments in electric traction had been going on for years. The pioneering work in establishing an economical electric system was done in Germany and America. This meant having a static electricity supply system and some means of feeding the current to the cars. By the 1880s overhead systems were established that used a "trolley" running on top of wires and connected to the cars below them by a flex. Various developments continued and this eventually evolved into the swivelling trolley pole mounted on the cars roof devised by Frank J Sprague. By 1896 there was already 2,540 miles of electric street car track running in the USA.

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