The First Heilmann Locomotive

Separate pages for Heilmann locos: 12 Mar 2015
Updated 7 Apr 2015
Portrait added
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The Heilman locomotives were the first steam-electric designs, using a reciprocating steam engines to drive DC generators, which in turn powered electric motors mounted directly on the axles.


THe locomotive was named Le Fusée Electrique. (The Electric Rocket) a reference to Stephenson's Rocket.

Jean-Jacques Heilmann, proprietor of the Société Industrielle de Moteurs Électriques et à Vapeur in Le Havre, took out his patent for a steam-electric locomotive on July 18, 1890, and the first prototype was built in 1892-93. Heilmann and his coworker Drouin began with static tests to determine whether DC or the recently introduced 3-phase AC would be most suitable for their purposes. It was quickly found that DC would be best, as it allowed the steam-engine and generator to work at a constant efficient speed, while the traction motor speed could be quite different.
Heilmann was from Alsace, which no doubt accounts for his rather Germanic-sounding name. A Joshua Heilmann was a noted textile engineer in Mulhouse (often regarded as the industrial capital of Alsace) working on woolcombing machines and mechanical embroidery equipment, around 1845. Very possibly he was the father of J J Heilmann.

Jean-Jacques Heilmann, pictured around 1890

Heilmann has a brief Wikipedia page, but it is in French.

Heilmann was also interested in electric-powered street vehicles.

The chassis of Le Fusee was 16.3 m long overall, mounted on two 4-axle bogies. Each axle was driven by a 60 hp electric motor. The total weight (and I haven't yet worked out if this was wet or dry) was 110 tons. Electricity was generated by a 400 kW generator, driven by a horizontally-opposed two-cylinder steam engine. The field current for the generator was supplied by a small vertical steam engine driving a dynamo.

The Fusée, the first Heilmann locomotive, on trials in 1894

The Heilmann was designed for cabforward operation. The vertical engine that drove the exciter dynamo can be see through the forward doorway. The circular feature on the side is the head of the low-pressure cylinder of the main engine.

The area around the firebox is only partly enclosed.

From the French National Archives

The Fusée, the first Heilmann locomotive, fitted with a rather unattractive wooden body

The cutaway at the bottom of the front looks worryingly like a gaping mouth. Its function is unknown- it does not appear to be an air intake.

The first Heilmann, with the wooden body removed.

A conventional horizontally-opposed two-cylinder steam engine drives the DC generator. The exciter dynamo and its little vertical steam engine, with vertical exhaust pipe, are just in front of the generator. Note the coal bunkers on each side of the firebox.

Date of engraving unknown.

The first Heilmann

From an article by Max de Nansouty, in the French journal l'Illustration for 21 January 1893.

Note the crew of three. Here it looks like one fireman, one driver, and the chap in the middle is attending to the big two-cylinder steam engine. There is a cost problem here for a start; conventional locomotives only required two crewmen unless exceptionally heavy firing was required, in which case a second fireman would be carried.

Another picture of the first Heilmann with the body removed

Some details of the first Heilmann.

I'm afraid the source of this article is at present obscure.

After completion the locomotive Fusée, in Autumn 1893, made a test run on the Le Havre- Beuzville line. The locomotive gave good results, especially as regards its high starting tractive effort. On 9 May 1894 it set off on the Compagnie des Chemins de Fer de l'Ouest (West) network from Paris St-Lazare station and hauled to Nantes and back a special train carrying 250 guests. This excursion went smoothly with an average speed of 75 km/hr, while for a short time a maximum speed of 107 km/hr was achieved. The machine could haul a passenger train of 80 tons at 100 km/hr.
One problem that appeared was difficulty of communication between the driver and the fireman, who were separated by the engine and generator. Testing continued, about 2000 km in total being covered, and this gave the Ouest railway confidence to order two more Heilmann locomotives of greater power: see below.

The engine of the first Heilmann: sectional endview

It was a compound two-cylinder engine, with the low-pressure cylinder shown on the right. The circular structures under the cylinders at each side look like rotary valves, but are actually oscillatory. There appears to be some sort of balanced valve at bottom right, which may have been the throttle.

The steam engine was designed by the Swiss Locomotive and Machine Works (SLM) at Winterthur, Switzerland.

The engine of the first Heilmann: exterior endview.

From this picture it is clear that the valves are not strictly rotary, (ie going round continuously) but they are oscillating, driven by the two eccentrics.

The shaft sloping upward from left to right is probably concerned with altering the valve cut-off, but quite how it works is not obvious.

The engine of the first Heilmann: plan view.

The high-pressure cylinder (on the right) has two connecting rods from crosshead to crankshaft. The low-pressure cylinder (left) has one central connecting rod.

As stated in the article reproduced above, this engine was supposed to give 1000 hp at 600 rpm, but appears to have given only 650 hp on test.

The Lentz boiler of the first Heilmann

The Lentz type of boiler had a corrugated firebox with a circular cross-section, which meant that it had sufficient strength in itself to resist the boiler pressure without dozens of stays connecting it to the boiler shell. This was an advantage as corrosion and failure of the stays was a constant concern in boiler maintenance. If it was neglected, and enough stays were allowed to fail, the firebox would collapse inwards, with the fire being blasted out of the stokehole by the boiler pressure. This was very often fatal to the crew.

There is a combustion chamber between the grate and the boiler tubes. No superheater tubes are visible.

Another Lentz boiler

This Lentz boiler has nothing to do with the Heilmann, but gives a clearer view of the construction. Only two of the boiler tubes are shown.

Note that there is no brick arch, but instead a combustion chamber between the grate and the boiler tubes.

Image kindly provided by Terry Wilson

This boiler type was originated by Hugo Lentz (1859–1944) an Austrian mechanical engineer. He is better known for the Lentz oscillating-cam poppet valves fitted to a good many locomotives. A similiar type of boiler was used on the Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway but does not appear to have been a great success.

So far I have found no photographs of the first Heilmann, though some must surely exist somewhere. What I did find, quite unexpectedly, was a fifth-scale model in CNAM, the Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers in Paris. (This is a wonderful museum, full of all sorts of gems such as Cugnot's steam carriage- the original, not a replica. You can also get a lunch that fully upholds the reputation of French cuisine)

This model was built by Jean Jacques Heilmann himself, in 1903. This is after the trials of the second version, and apparently by this time it was clear that the Heilmann concept was not going to be adopted. This eems a little strange; you would have thought the model would have been built before the first full-size locomotive was constructed. But, that's what it says on the label in the CNAM, so there it is.

These photographs were taken in available light, with a handheld camera and through the glass case, so I'm afraid the image quality is not stunning.

Model of the first Heilmann: the front.

To left is a hinged access panel for the engine.

Author's photograph

Model of the first Heilmann: the engine.

There is a circular cutout in the bodywork to give access to the cylinder head; this can be seen on the engravings above.

This is a 1/10 scale model made in 1903, held in the collection of the Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers, (CNAM) Paris. It was donated by Heilmann himself.

Author's photograph

Model of the first Heilmann: the side.

To left is a hinged access panel for the engine.

The pipe sticking out of the roof to the right is the exhaust for the exciter steam engine.

Author's photograph

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