Anne Delaney pays tribute to Irish chemist and inventor James J. Drumm who successfully invented battery powered trains 92 years ago.


The world’s first steam-powered train journey took place in Wales on 21 February 1804, 220 years ago this year. Train technology is certainly not new technology. But – still – every time I enter a train station my heart beats faster.

For some inexplicable reason, I find myself filled with the irrational hope that my everyday trip will take me to a world of adventure and excitement. It’s hard to rationalise, but when I step onboard one of those powerful, pent-up locomotives, I feel that I may be entering a realm peopled by haggard Countesses, dashing detectives and – of course – dastardly villains.

I obviously read too much Agatha Christie during my impressionable teenage years – Agatha loved her trains and set some of her ‘whodunnits’ in that enclosed, speeding environment, the most famous being ‘Murder on the Orient Express,’ which still has the power to transport readers to a vanished way of life.
But the love of train travel is in my genes. For my grandfather, one Philip Carolan, worked on trains all his life and my mother used fondly recall that he was ‘pure mad’ about trains and train technology.

When she was growing up in the 1930s my train-obsessed grandfather would often take his small family on railway journeys during his time off, whiling away the trip by proudly pointing out the manifest marvels of the locomotive on which they were travelling.

Their favourite train ride was along the Amiens Street to Bray route on board the revolutionary Battery Train, also known as the Drumm Train, which went into service in 1932.

The Drumm Train was the brainchild of an extraordinarily gifted Irish chemist and inventor, James J Drumm, born in Co Down in 1896 who, following years of research, produced the Drumm Rechargeable Battery and then negotiated with the Government of the day for funding to test whether his ground-breaking discovery could be used for commercial train travel.

The Government was interested in Drumm’s invention, not least because the Electricity Supply Board facility at Ardnacrusha was beginning its operations in 1929 and there was surplus electricity for use in industry.
Here was a chance, in a cash-strapped country with scarce fuel supplies, to revitalise the Irish railway system and to burnish the Government’s reputation for industrial innovation.

Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own