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Dr. Rudolf Diesel filed a patent on an internal combustion engine based on what is called the compression ignition principle in Augsburg, Germany, in 1892. Destined to be known by his last name, the first engine of this type ran on coal, but his second relied on refined oil as fuel. As early as 1893 in a book he wrote, Diesel talked about the applicability of his engine to railroad locomotives. Working with the firm of Klose and Sulzar, Diesel produced the first experimental diesel railroad locomotive in 1909. However, for many years the diesel engine would prove more suitable for use in submarines and for purposes other than powering locomotives.

As it turned out, street railroads or electric streetcar lines provided the key to successful transmission of power from the diesel engine to the drive wheel. Frank Sprague invented the axle-hung direct current motor and the principle of gear drive to the axle as early as 1866 for use on the Manhattan Electrified Railroad in the United States.

As early as 1913, an experimental 60-horsepower diesel-electric railcar appeared in Sweden. About 30 cars of this type, but with more powerful, 150-horsepower engines, soon went into service in Sweden, Denmark, France, and Tunisia.

After experimenting in 1909 with gasoline-electric railcar construction, the General Electric Company sent several of its engineers to Europe in 1911 to investigate continental experiments with diesel electric motive power. The firm then signed a license agreement to use Junkers's opposed-piston engine. General Electric built five experimental diesel-electric switch engines early during World War I, but these failed to have any impact on motive power procurement by the nation's railroads.

General Electric then decided to concentrate on building only the electrical components of such locomotives, leaving the construction of the diesel engine and the body of the locomotive--what the industry referred to as the "carbody"--to other firms. Thus in 1923, General Electric built the electrical components, Ingersoll-Rand the four-stroke diesel engine, and the American Locomotive Company the carbody of a 300-horsepower 60-ton diesel-electric switcher. The builders demonstrated their diesel- electric long and hard on 14 railroads As a consequence, on October 20, 1925, the American Locomotive Company sold the first commercially produced diesel-electric locomotive in the United States to the Central Railroad of New Jersey (also known as the "Jersey Central"), which assigned it the number 1000.

That same year, the Baldwin Locomotive Works formed a team with the De La Vergue diesel engine firm and the Westinghouse Electric Company to build the largest diesel-electric constructed up to that time, a 1,000-horsepower machine powered by a Knudson 12-cylinder two-cycle inverted V-type engine with twin crankshafts geared to a central shaft.

In 1930, General Motors Corporation, principally an automobile manufacturer, acquired the Electro Motive Corporation and the Winton Engine Company, the latter an established producer of diesel engines, and from this merger came a much smaller, much lighter diesel engine capable of producing many horsepower. This advanced diesel engine powered the Chevrolet exhibit at the Chicago World's Fair in 1933. Ralph Budd of the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad saw it there and decided to use this type of engine for his railroad's Pioneer Zephyr, a prototype of lightweight, stainless steel, streamlined fast passenger trains. On May 26, 1934, the sleek, silver Pioneer Zephyr set off on the return from a trip to Denver to run 1,015.4 miles to Chicago in 13 hours, 4 minutes and 58 seconds, an average speed of 76.61 miles per hour, though in fact the three-car articulated train exceeded 100 miles per hour during the trip. About the same time, the Union Pacific fielded the similar but bright yellow City of Salina, while in 1935 the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe purchased from Electro-Motive Corporation a pair of diesels to power the Super Chief between Chicago and Los Angeles. Thus the 1930s ushered in not only the era of the streamlined "lightweight" passenger train, but the era of diesel- electric motive power for passenger trains as well.

In March 1935, General Motors Corporation began construction of a huge plant for erection of diesel electric locomotives at La Grange, Illinois, where the company would have the capability of building the locomotive carbody on a cast underframe. The locomotives would employ General Electric motors. The first La Grange product proved to be a 600-horsepower diesel-electric switcher with a cab at one end and exposed running boards on each side. It would more or less serve as a model for the most popular switch-engines for more than a decade. In 1937, an enlarged La Grange plant turned out the first E-Units, streamlined passenger locomotives with built-in cab and running boards along each side of the engines concealed in the carbody, a design that came to be called the "covered wagon" type, because cab and engine were totally enclosed. In 1939, Electro-Motive built the first similarly streamlined Model FT freight locomotive, consisting of an "A" unit with cab, and a "B" unit without, coupled together. Two such pair could be operated together as an "A-B-B-A" combination of four locomotives, all relying on a single crew in a single control cab.

That constituted one of the greatest advantages of the diesel-electric locomotive. While a whole book could be written on the invention of multiple-unit control, suffice to note here that a number of diesel electric locomotives could be coupled together, with the controls for each plugged into a single locomotive cab so that a single engineer and fireman could control eight or ten locomotives coupled together on the head of a train. When railroads double-headed or triple-headed steam locomotives, each locomotive required its own engineer and fireman. Thus the diesel-electric locomotive represented a labor-saving, cost-cutting machine. Furthermore, the diesel-electric did not need the large quantities of water that steam locomotives required, and thus did not require the maintenance of expensive water tanks, pipelines, and water cranes at intermittent points along its lines, which meant another saving in cost.

The diesel-electric locomotive was not the only type of diesel locomotive. A number of firms such as H.K. Porter made small switch engines that were diesel-mechanicals, without electric generators and motors but using chain or geared drives. Later, two railroads would experiment with Krauss-Maffei German-built diesel-hydraulic locomotives. But the diesel-electric locomotive proved so overwhelmingly successful that the mere term "diesel" as applied to a railroad locomotive has come to mean almost automatically a diesel-electric.

At the beginning of the diesel locomotive era, railroaders simply applied the Whyte system of locomotive classification used for steam locomotives, but eventually a different system for electric and for diesel-electric locomotives evolved in which the letter "A" applied to a single powered axle with two wheels, the letter "B" to a truck with two powered axles and four wheels, the letter "C" to a truck with three power axles and six wheels, and so on. The same classification applied to electric locomotives, some of which had unpowered axles to which the old Whyte system numbers could be applied. But a small switch engine like the prototype developed by Electro-Motive that featured two four-wheel trucks with all four axles powered would fall into the classification of "B-B" type in this new system, while a passenger diesel-electric with two six-wheel powered trucks, each with three axles, would be a ""C-C" type. It must be kept in mind that this constitutes an entirely different use of the letters than does referring to a "covered wagon" type diesel-electric locomotive with cab as an "A" unit or a similar locomotive without cab as a "B" unit.

Thus by 1940, the streamlined E-type passenger and FT-type freight diesel-electric locomotives and the typical "SW" yard switcher which were to dominate the diesel market for many years had been introduced. Additionally, in 1941 Alco and General Electric had introduced a new type of locomotive with a 1,000-horsepower engine and an offset cab, with exposed running boards, which it called an RS type or "road switcher," capable of carrying out multiple duties. This, along with the products of the Electro-Motive Division of General Motors, would be a prototype of much yet to come.

It is not the purpose of this discussion to provide a complete history of the development and use of the diesel-electric locomotive, which indeed would require many volumes; but in providing an overall context for those in the Steamtown collection, it is necessary to point out that other manufacturers existed. Fairbanks-Morse, a mid-19th century firm that built scales, then railroad track scales, then other railroad equipment, and after 1900 gasoline engines and eventually electric motors, developed in the early 1930s a very successful opposed-piston diesel engine for use in navy submarines. Eventually the company began experimenting with this engine in a railroad locomotive, particularly in a switcher used on the Reading in 1939 and in railcars used on the Southern Railway.

Then World War II intervened, and the U.S. government through the War Production Board began assigning priorities for manufacturing and for allocation of raw materials to companies. The government allowed construction of no more diesel-electric locomotives for passenger traffic, restricting diesel-electric locomotive production to yard switchers and freight locomotives. Moreover, restrictions imposed on particular companies affected their destiny beyond the war. Fairbanks, Morse & Company had produced a diesel engine that proved to be so efficient, the War Production Board diverted its entire output for use in navy submarines, thus forcing Fairbanks-Morse entirely out of the diesel- electric locomotive business until 1944, during a critical period in the development of diesel-electric locomotives. Baldwin Locomotive Works, as the nation's foremost builder of steam locomotives, received War Production Board encouragement in that field, and could market its existing line of diesel-electric yard switchers, but the War Production Board would not allow it to undertake design and development of diesel-electric freight and passenger units. As a consequence, Baldwin could enter the diesel-electric field in a serious way only after 1945, by which time the Electro-Motive Division of General Motors Corporation and the American Locomotive Company had a near-stranglehold on the market for freight and passenger diesels. Both Baldwin (soon to merge with Lima-Hamilton) and Fairbanks-Morse produced notable diesel-electric locomotives after World War II, some of which still operated in 1990, but neither got a sufficient grip on the market to make a success of diesel sales.

The Lima-Hamilton Corporation, another firm that entered the diesel-electric production market, represented the 1947 merger of the Lima Locomotive Works and the General Machinery Corporation (the name Hamilton coming from an earlier General Machinery component, the Hamilton Press and Machinery Company). The new firm produced its first diesel-electric locomotive that same year. However, only three years later, on November 31, 1950, the Lima-Hamilton Corporation merged with the Baldwin Locomotive Works to form the Baldwin-Lima-Hamilton Corporation.

In the years that followed, passenger traffic declined on American railroads until the federally chartered National Railroad Passenger Corporation, marketed under the name of "Amtrak," short for American Track, took over most passenger service on America's railroads. With the decline in passenger traffic came a decline in the use of covered wagon-type diesels for passenger and even for freight service. The road switcher-type of locomotive eclipsed even the streamlined freight locomotive, and diesel-electric locomotives became uniformly uglier and more utilitarian in design. The handsome EMD E and FT units began to vanish, as did the Alco equivalents, for the PA and FA had begun to disappear even earlier.

Throughout this period the diesel-electric locomotive had been eclipsing the steam locomotive in the United States. The American Locomotive Company built its last steam locomotive in 1948, the Lima Locomotive Works erected its last in 1949, and Baldwin soon followed. Dieselization of the first major American railroad occurred in 1949, and extended to other railroad companies throughout the 1950s. Insofar as regular service was involved, and excepting special cases such as short lines that emphasized steam passenger excursions, narrow gauge lines, or other special cases, America's railroads were essentially dieselized by 1960, and the steam locomotive had nearly vanished from the railroads of the nation.

As its name implies, the Steamtown Foundation did not intend to acquire diesel-electric locomotives for museum purposes. When the foundation moved to Scranton, Pennsylvania, in 1984, it needed diesel-electric motive power as a supplement, and occasionally as a substitute, for steam motive power, and accordingly leased Delaware & Hudson Locomotive No. 4075. The deal included an option to purchase, and lease payments could be applied to purchase; consequently, when lease payments approached the cost of purchase and it seemed likely that the foundation would need the locomotive for quite some time, it proved cheaper to buy it outright than to continue to lease it, so the foundation did just that. Subsequently the Norfolk & Western Railway, which had merged with the old Nickel Plate (New York, Chicago & St. Louis) and the Wabash, provided a Wabash switcher and a Nickel Plate "General Purpose" locomotive or "GEEP." Still later the foundation acquired Milwaukee Road and Kansas City Southern F7 covered wagon units.

Because the purpose of Steamtown National Historic Site is the preservation of equipment and rolling stock related to the era of steam railroading, none of the diesel-electric locomotives is considered suitable as a museum locomotive, although some of them are old enough to be considered historic. Steamtown National Historic Site has, however, found it prudent to keep one or more of these diesels as serviceable switch engines for use around the yard and for emergency service out on the excursion line in case of the breakdown of a steam locomotive while in use.


Addie, A.N. "The History of the Diesel-Electric Locomotive in the United States," Chapter 4 in Railway Mechanical Engineering: A Century of Progress , Car and Locomotive Design. New York: The American Society of Mechanical Engineers, Trail Transportation Division, 1979: 103-136.

Albert, Dave, and George F. Melvin. New England Diesels. Omaha: George R. Cockle and Associates, 1975.

Diesel Locomotive Rosters: The Railroad Magazine Series. New York: Wayner Publications, n.d.

Dolzall, Gary W., and Stephen F. Dolzall. Diesels from Eddystone: The Story of Baldwin Diesel Locomotives. Milwaukee: Kalmbach Books, 1984.

Dover, Don. "All About F's." Extra 2200 South: The Locomotive Newsmagazine, Vol. 8, No. 2 (Jan. 1970): 19-21.

__________. "All About SW's." Extra 2200 South: The Locomotive Newsmagazine, Vol. 9, No. 12 (July-Aug. 1973): 20-25.

Duke, Donald, and Keilty, Edmund. RDC: The Budd Rail Diesel Car. San Marino: Golden West Books, 1990.

Early Diesel-Electric and Electric Locomotives. Omaha: Rail Heritage Publications, 1983.

Extra 2200 South: The Locomotive Newsmagazine. [The entire run of this periodical is devoted nearly 100 percent to diesel locomotives and their history, and keeping up with current day use, status, and location.]

Foell, Charles F., and M.E. Thompson. Diesel-Electric Locomotive. New York: Diesel Publications,Inc., 1946.

Keilty, Edmund. Interurbans Without Wires. Glendale: Interurban Press, 1978.

__________. Doodlebug Country. Glendale: Interurban Press, 1982.

__________. The Short Line Doodlebug. Glendale: Interurban Press, 1988.

Kerr, James W. General Motors Advanced Generation Diesel-Electric and Electric Locomotives: The Second and Third Generation Locomotives. Alburg: DPL-LTA, 1987.

Kirland, John F. Dawn of the Diesel Age: The History of the Diesel Locomotive in America. Glendale: Interurban Press, 1983.

__________. The Diesel Builders: Fairbanks-Morse and Lima-Hamilton. Glendale: Interurban Press, 1985.

_________. The Diesel Builders: American Locomotive Company and Montreal Locomotive Works. Glendale: Interurban Press, 1989.Loco 1, The Diesel: A Survey of Internal Combustion Locomotives from 1901 through 1966. Ramsey: Model Craftsman Publishing Corp., 1966.

Maywald, Henry. E Units: The Standard Bearer of America's Passenger Trains. Hicksville: N.J. International, 1988.

Mulhearn, Daniel J., and Taibi, John R. General Motors' F Units: The Locomotive that Revolutionized Railroading. New York: Quadrant Press, 1982.

Olmsted, Robert P. The Diesel Years. San Marino: Golden West Books, 1975.

Parker, C.W. "The Development of Remote Multiple-Unit Locomotive Control," Chapter 6 in Railway Mechanical Engineering: A Century of Progress, Car and Locomotive Design. New York: The American Society of Mechanical Engineers, Rail Transportation Division, 1979: 161-170.

Smith, Vernon L. "The Diesel from D to L - 1," Trains, Vol. 39, No. 6 (Apr. 1979): 23-29.

__________. "The Diesel from D to L - 2," Trains, Vol. 39, No. 7 (May 1979): 44-51.

__________. "The Diesel from D to L - 3," Trains, Vol. 39, No. 8 (June 1979): 46-51.

"The Diesel from D to L - 4," Trains, Vol. 39, No. 9 (July 1979): 44-49.

Extensive literature on the diesel-electric locomotives treated railroad by railroad exists. A trend in recent years with respect to certain large railroad systems such as the Burlington Northern, the Southern Pacific, and the Union Pacific has been publication of an "annual' monograph documenting in rosters, photographs and captions, and some text or narrative the history during the previous year of diesel motive power on particular systems.


(It should be noted that since the publication of this document, some of these locomotives may no longer be located at Steamtown NHS.)

a. Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railway Nos. 97A and 97C
b. Kansas City Southern Railway No. 4061
c. New York, Chicago and St. Louis Railroad No. 514
d. Wabash Railroad No. 132

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Last Updated: 14-Feb-2002