Encyclopedia Of Detroit

Van Depoele, Charles Joseph

Charles Joseph Van Depoele was an electrical engineer, an inventor, and a leader in electric railway technology. Born in 1846 in Lichtervelde, Belgium as Carolus Josephus Van Depoele, he became interested in electricity at an early age. His father did not approve of his interests and apprenticed the teenaged Charles to a cabinetmaker. He studied and experimented with electricity while attending college in the 1860s, moving to Lille, France to study at the Imperial Lyceum from 1864 to 1869. In France, Van Depoele became interested in sculpture and produced a large altarpiece for a cathedral. In 1869, Van Depoele moved to Detroit, Michigan where he supported himself by manufacturing church furniture.

Van Depoele continued to experiment with electric generators, motors, and lighting, eventually forming the Van Depoele Electric Manufacturing Company. He developed an electric generator in 1880, and he took out a patent for an electric railway three years later. In 1883, his first electric railway was laid in Chicago, Illinois, and by the end of 1887, nine of his electric railway systems were in operation in 13 North American cities. Van Depoele sold his electric railway patents to the Thomson-Houston Electric Company of Lynn, Massachusetts in 1888 which later became General Electric Company.

Van Depoele remained a productive inventor for the rest of his life, being granted over 200 United States patents for various electronic inventions until his death in 1892. Some of his most prominent inventions included an alternating-current electric reciprocating engine (1889), a telpher system for a car suspended from cables (1890), a coal-mining machine (1891), and a gearless electric locomotive (1894). Today, Charles Van Depoele is most recognized for his role in the development of electric railways.