In a sort of precursor to the X Prize, Congress set aside $50,000 and invited inventors to submit their inventions which would prevent railroad collisions.
Of course there was an avalanche — a grand rush of eager young geniuses to the spot. They submitted plans of every description, ranging from those that seemed to possess real merit to the wildest and most impossible dreams that ever rioted through a human brain.
The total number of inventions submitted was 185. Every one of them, no matter how extravagant, was looked into my the commission’s experts. Flaws were picked out which made device after device impracticable — one by one the fruits of hours and days and years of sleepless toll were discarded. At last barely twenty survived.
These were put aside for further consideration and further weeding out. Then exhaustive practical tests of the few survivors were instituted by the commission’s examiners.
I’m unclear if the winning inventor gets the $50,000, or if that money was used to test the inventions. But either way, one invention stood out as having promise, devised by a twenty-six year old named Frederick Lacroix.
No sooner had his idea firmly established itself in his inventive brain than he set to work making experiments, adopting and rejecting various schemes, until at last he hit on exactly what he was after. Then he had a model made for him, and with it made numberless further experiments to see whether his invention fully realized his dreams.
His solution involved adding a third rail to carry electricity, which forms a circuit with some equipment in the train. Another train on the same section of track would interrupt the circuit, triggering a device that automatically applies the brakes and whistle. As an added benefit, the third rail would also provide a telephone line so the trains can talk to each other.
In repeated tests, Lacroix’s solution worked. But I am unable to find any evidence that it was actually adopted as a safety device. Does anybody know?
SEEKING AN INVENTION TO PREVENT RAILROAD COLLISIONS: Inter-State Commerce Commission Makes Tests on Staten Island of Young Texan’s Device, One of Twenty Selected for Official Investigation. (PDF)
From April 23, 1911