Early German Railway Signalling

The view from Saxony in 1867


British and American engineering chroniclers typically ignore developments in the other country, although certain interrelations are inescapable if a reasonable account is to be given. They almost completely ignore practice in other countries. In railway signalling, this ignorance is no great omission, since Continental practice had very little influence on either British or American customs. However, there are important lessons to be learned that deserve wider appreciation. In particular, German signalling developed quite independently, and was the basis for the practice not only in Germany, but also in the neighbouring countries.

An early work that attracted notice was M. Max Freiherr von Weber's Das Telegraphen- und Signalwesen der Eisenbahnen (Weimar: 1867), which not only described the practice of the State Railways of Saxony, of which he was Director, but essayed a general survey of the subject. Parts of this work were later reprinted in the Railway Gazette in the United States, for example. The first signal rule book for the Leipzig-Dresden Railway, which he managed, appeared in 1838. This line was used for the early telegraph experiments of Weber and Steinheil (of the University of Göttingen) that were successful, but not followed up. Steinheil, in fact, discovered the earth return that permits telegraphy over a single wire during these investigations.

Von Weber is of the opinion that: "German railway signal practice is a chaos of signs and appearances, that could scarcely be more multiform or multicoloured if its creators had arrived at their fantasy with the aid of the kaleidoscope." In the book he gives an extensive chart of proposed signal aspects and indications, minutely classified and presented by a variety of means.

He credits Morse with the invention of the telegraph, giving the date 1836 [Morse's first trial line was constructed in 1844], and not mentioning Cooke and Wheatstone until later, and then only in passing. The Cooke and Wheatstone telegraph was, as he states, the first used on a German railway, for a block on the Aachen-Ronheide gradient in 1843. This was a double-needle instrument with two signalling wires and a bell wire. Marc Isambard Brunel, not his son, was credited with the Great Western Railway. These misconceptions do not detract from the value of his account.

As for the semaphore signal, he assigns the honour of invention to Friedrich Busse, who adapted the Flügeltelegraph to railway purposes in 1842. This was the same year that Gregory applied General Pasley's telegraph to the same purpose. Perhaps this explains the typical German lattice semaphore arm that was latterly to survive in Austria, and was used by Brierly in London, which differs from the more familiar solid arm.

The ball signal is carefully described. This signal was the typical early junction and station signal used in the United States, primarily in New England, and briefly tried by Brunel at Reading and Slough before it was replaced by the disc and crossbar. It was almost surely derived from coast and harbour signals used for nautical purposes, and consisted of a mast and yardarm from which light balls or baskets were suspended by day, and lamps by night. Von Weber gives Clear as indicated by the ball hoisted all the way, Slow by the ball halfway up, and Halt by the ball close to the ground. [This is, indeed the general way it was used both in the United States and on the Great Western, giving a positive Clear aspect, not the mere absence of a Stop signal.]

The first kind of signal used in England was the rotating board, he says. One side was painted green, the other side red. The indication was Stop when the red side faced the oncoming train, Caution when the green side did, and All Right when the board was turned edge-on. [This signal involves two errors: the use of colours to distinguish aspects, and not giving a positive Clear aspect, instead relying on the Stop aspect to stop a train. The signal described was probably the Grand Junction's station signal, as described in Francis's History of the English Railway (1855)]

He does not omit the pneumatic telegraph, or speaking tube, as used in railway signalling. [Such a device was apparently used between Euston and the engine house in Camden, during the short period of rope assistance out of the station.]

At the end of 1844, it is reported that the following railways used the telegraph for signalling: London and South Western, Great Western, London and Dover (South Eastern), Blackwall, Northampton-Peterborough on the London and Birmingham, Leeds-Manchester, Edinburgh-Glasgow, and Kingstown-Dalkey.


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Composed by J. B. Calvert
Created 21 November 1999
Last revised 21 November 1999