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William Hunter Dammond: Railway Engineer With a History of Firsts

February 07, 2023 by Claire Turvill

William Hunter Dammond was an American civil engineer whose inventions helped improve the safety of railroads.

William Hunter Dammond, born on October 26, 1873, was an American civil engineer who made significant contributions to the field of railway engineering. He was the first African-American to graduate from the Western University of Pennsylvania (now the University of Pittsburgh) with a degree in civil engineering.


William Hunter Dammond. Image used courtesy of the University of Pittsburgh


Mathematic Aptitude

Dammond showed an aptitude for mathematics from an early age and received a well-rounded education at the Park Institute, including courses in English, geography, algebra, zoology, and botany.

It is assumed, but not confirmed that Dammond was the first recipient of the Charles Avery Scholarship when he attended the Western University of Pennsylvania. Reverend Charles Avery was a member of the abolitionist movement in Pittsburgh and gave money to fight slavery. The scholarship is the oldest known endowed scholarship at the University of Pittsburgh.

Following his graduation in 1893, he faced discrimination, making it difficult to find a job as an engineer. He started his professional career as a printer, a clerk, and a sewer contractor before becoming a math professor in 1897 at Paul Quinn College in Texas, then at Wilberforce University in Ohio in 1899.

Driven by his passion for engineering, he took leaves of absence from teaching at Wilberforce to practice as a civil engineer. He eventually left the university to work at the Michigan Central Railroad (MCR).


Railway Engineering Contributions

In the early 1900s, Dammond moved to Detroit to work as an assistant bridge engineer with MCR. At MCR, he developed and patented the Dammond circuit, a track circuit-based railway signal system that operated using alternating current and a battery backup.

The system provided audio and visual signals within the train driver’s cab, intended to replace the manual hand-signal system in use and reduce vulnerability to human error.

Dammond attributed 25% of the circuit’s patent to Edward M. Bryant of Detroit to generate funds for future projects. It is unclear if this was a real person or not.

In 1906, Dammond developed and patented a “clear, caution, danger” signal mechanism, which was used on train lines between New York City and Washington, D.C., and closely resembled modern-day traffic lights with red, yellow, and green lights. This was eventually called the “Safety System for Operating Railroads.”

In 1910, Dammond sailed to Britain to promote his signaling systems, but despite extensive testing and praise, the systems were still not adopted.

Despite not finding the immediate success he had hoped for, Dammond chose to stay in Britain to pursue other business opportunities. His plans were interrupted by the start of World War I, and he started to work as a bridge designer in Nottingham with the Marcum Company.

He was considered by many to be an expert on railway accidents in the U.S. and Britain and published a variety of papers on the topic as well as on his signal systems. He was featured in the 1915 Michigan Manual of Freedmen’s Progress as a Negro Inventory from Michigan.


Dammond, W.H. Dec 29, 1903. Listed under Negro Inventors in Michigan to Whom Patents Have Been Issued in the 1915 Freedmen’s Progress. Image used courtesy of Western Michigan University


Railway Patent Infringements

Dammond returned to the U.S. in 1916 and worked as a draftsman for the U.S. Steel plant and then later at Boston Structural Steel.

He successfully sold basic versions of his signaling systems to railroads in New York and Pennsylvania, including the Long Island Railroad, the Pennsylvania Railroad, and the New York City Subway. Unfortunately, Dammond suffered from patent infringements which caused a loss of income.

Despite the widespread use of his signaling system across the east coast, he spent the rest of his life fighting for recognition for his inventions.

In the late 1930s, he worked as a draftsman for the New York City Board of Transportation. He died in December 1956.

Dammond’s contributions improved the safety of railroads and made significant impacts in railway engineering.


Featured image used courtesy of Adobe Stock