Streamlining of trains to reduce drag starts back in the 1890’s with Frederick Adams experiments on the B&O, which was not really very impressed at the time.

Streamliners were a major technological advancement. The concept for streamliners was based on reduced air resistance. Though streamlining vehicles weren’t manufactured until the 1920s, the first exploration of wind resistance occurred nearly a hundred years prior. Brian Solomon‘s book Streamliners: Locomotives and Trains in the Age of Speed and Style takes a look at the strides made by engineer Frederick Upham Adams.

frederick upham adams Streamliners
Frederick U. Adams’ patent predated construction of his experimental train by seven years. Notice the similarities between Adams’ train and that suggested by Calthrop decades earlier. United States Patent, 189,911, Jan. 17, 1893
frederick upham adams Streamliners brian solomon
Streamlining was a long time coming: Adams’ patent from 1893 included flush doors and elaborate diaphragms between cars, ideas that were implemented forty years later on streamlined lightweight trains in the 1930s. United States Patent, 189,911, Jan. 17, 1893

Three decades after Calthrop, Chicago-based inventor Frederick Upham Adams pursued a remarkably similar air-resistant train design, although he professed to be ignorant of previous efforts at wind-resistant designs. Adams took a more aggressive approach in promoting his concept when he applied for a patent in 1891 (issued in 1893)   and wrote a book with the weighty title  Atmospheric Resistance:  Its Relation to the Speed of Railroad Trains,  with an Improved System of Heating and Ventilating Cars.

Like Calthrop, Adams was a visionary who based  his aerodynamic designs on marine prototypes. There were many similarities between the two designs. The New York Times, writing about Adams’ train on January 23, 1893, stated that “the engine . . . would be pointed like the bows of ship so as to split the atmosphere,’’while the tender would  be tapered to meet the train and “vestibuled by hoods completely encircling the space between the tender and the cars.

Each car of a train would thus be ‘vestibuled’. A false bottom would extend beneath the cars, dropping within three
inches of the track.”Adams’ patent explained that his ultimate objective was to allow for trains to travel at higher
speed without increased motive power, and he compared his design to “the lateral and bottom surfaces of vessels.”

Adams’ design approach offered much of the same wisdom of Cayley and Calthrop, as well as future practitioners of aerodynamic designs, yet in his early promotional efforts Adams’ understanding of railroad dynamics appears flawed. On January 23, 1893, the New York Times wrote: “The present limit of express trains, Mr. Adams says, is about forty miles an hour, and those scheduled at this rate, he declares, are seldom on time.” As quoted, Adams’ facts were questionable.

Even at that time, many trains routinely operated faster than 40 miles per hour. But more to the point, the 40-miles per-hour operation had little to do with wind resistance, nor could reducing wind resistance have any effect on time
keeping. Adams continued to pursue his idea. In 1900, he worked with Baltimore & Ohio to build and test a prototype
train. Under Adams’supervision, B&O’s shops retrofitted some older passenger cars with wooden fluting, and in  accordance with his earlier drawings equipped them with skirts and diaphragms between cars to reduce wind drag.

The resulting train appeared remarkably similar to streamliners built thirty-five years later,except that it was hauled
by an unadorned (and fairly ancient looking) 4-4-0 steam locomotive. For reasons not explained, Adams’plans
for shrouding the locomotive were not embraced as part of the experiment.

To be honest, at the speeds that most passenger trains ran in the 19th and early 20th Century, aerodynamic drag was a small concern as opposed to the drag of the wheel bearings on the heavy steel cars that ran in the railroads At speeds less than 80 MPH there just wasn’t enough air resistance even from the most non aerodynamic locomotive could deal with any drag with a few extra pounds of steam. At least that was the thinking at the time.

The emphasis for travel was on service, not speed. Of course with no real competition that’s not hard to understand. How rail travel was sold looked like this in the late 1920’s

The great depression changed that.  As did the competition with the airlines.  The railroads didn’t want to look old fashioned and turned to the burgeoning field of industrial design for a new look. The change in how train looked was dramatic.

Well, first, I should remind you that during the decade from 1930 to 1940, the country was in the stranglehold of a very severe depression, brought on by high-risk speculation by banks and the subsequent collapse of its financial markets.  (We never seem to learn from the past).  Despite the Depression (or perhaps because of it), two World’s Fairs were mounted during this time: The Chicago “Century of Progress” Fair in 1933-34, and the New York “World of Tomorrow” Fair in 1939-40. I attribute much of my youthful interest in industrial design to having the chance to attend both of these venues—the latter one in particular.


The officials of the New York Fair saw it as an opportunity for corporations to promote their consumer products. Many of the early design offices such as Teague, Loewy, Dreyfuss, and Bel Geddes were given a chance to go all out in design, architecture, and exhibits. At the opening of the fair in 1939, the public was first introduced to some significant advances: fluorescent lighting, commercial air-conditioning, nylon stockings, a plan for the federal interstate highway system, and a new-fangled concept called Tele-Vision.


The word “streamlined” first appeared in print around 1900 but only formally appeared in dictionaries in the early 1930s. But long-forgotten visionary artists had been designing streamlined objects for many decades before that. In my youth, these visions appeared regularly in Popular Mechanics, Sunday supplements, and even in the comics (Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, and friends). Thus we had already been attuned to, and stimulated by, these visualizations of things to come. These artistic “science-fiction” expressions regularly dealt with moving objects such as trains, automobiles, boats, airships, personal rockets, and so on, that had an obvious relationship to aerodynamic.


Figure 1: Streamline transportFigure 1: Streamline transport

By the end of World War I, aircraft designers had already recognized the critical importance of aerodynamic design for reducing drag. Locomotive and automobile designers saw its virtues as well, and adopted the term. Many early industrial stylists were happy to adopt the word streamlining because it expressed modernism. We certainly all recognize that the word “streamlining” as applied to the design of static objects like radios, refrigerators, and clothes-irons is an oxymoron. But the term still persists today to describe any manufactured product with smooth compound forms using soft, sweeping, tapering curves.


There remains a general assumption that all of these “soft, smooth zippy forms” were adopted by the early crop of industrial designers as a result of arbitrarily borrowing forms derivative of aerodynamic design. A prominent example is this “streamlined” pencil sharpener by Raymond Loewy (fig.2).  One of my jobs as the new apprentice at the Loewy office in 1942 was to make sure that all of Loewy’s pencils were honed to a needle-sharp point each morning. This sharpener, displayed prominently in his office, never went into production and frankly it didn’t workFigure 2: Loewy SharpenerFigure 2: Loewy Sharpener worth a damn. I used a trusty Boston sharpener instead. Ironically, this design has been hailed by design historians as a “quintessential iconic American design of the Streamline Era.” Even opining that “it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t do a good job of sharpening. In this case form trumps function.” Which, of course, is intellectual bullshit. The first job of a pencil sharpener is to sharpen pencils.


When I had that chance to work at the Loewy office in 1942, there was still a strong emphasis on the illustration skills of the I.D. staff. Many presentations to clients consisted of impressively large color airbrush renderings, but there was also a growing emphasis now on the use of clay form-studies and full-size mockups to fully understand the form factors. To develop competent designs, it also became more and more incumbent on us to understand not only the advantages of newly introduced production machinery and materials, but also the constraints imposed as well.


As I’m sFigure 3: Post-war automobileFigure 3: Post-war automobileure you know, Raymond Loewy was the consummate self-promoter. All design employees had to learn his distinctive signature and apply it to all our sketches and renderings. He employed a full-time publicist on his staff. Among my many chores at the Loewy office was handling the mailing of weekly promo publicity releases—including this release (Fig.3)—featuring a sketch of a “post-war” automobile with a full sunroof of clear plastic.

Figure 4: Traditional verses modern refrigeratorFigure 4: Traditional verses modern refrigerator


We were seeing a significant shift away from traditional fabrication methods for consumer products—take electric refrigeration as an example. Until the early 1930s, most homes, like mine, depended on block-ice, stowed in insulated wooden chests. Much of that wooden-chest fabrication method carried over into the new steel “ice-boxes.” All of the newly introduced major brand electric refrigerators employed traditional brake-formed sheet steel wrapped around an inner structural frame (fig.4).



Figure 5 Tangent BenderFigure 5 Tangent Bender

But clever new machines were coming on line. One such innovation was the tangent bender, that permitted radii to be formed by stretching brake-formed strip steel C-channels over simple male mandrels. Tangent bending allowed the outer shell, both sides and top, of a refrigerator to be formed as a single U-shaped piece. The outer shell now became the structural frame as well, totally doing away with the need for an internal box-frame (fig.5) This innovation was a real production-time saver and, more importantly, a critical cost-saver.




What’s important to note is that these new technologies and machines were not just influencing form design—they were often determining the limits or constraints of the forms. The minimum size of the radius produced on a tangent bender, before the steel would wrinkle, was approximately 3.5 inches. That determined that corner bends must necessarily have large soft radii. Additionally, the front, back, floor of the refrigerator, as well as its doors, were now being formed by hydraulic die-stamping, requiring compound planes to keep the thin steel surfaces from “oil-canning.” Thus we saw many appliances adopting soft-radii forms like this 1935 Sears Coldspot, (fig,6.) dictated by the machines of mass productionnot necessarily by the whim, or brilliance, of the designers.





Figure 6: Sears ColdspotFigure 6: Sears ColdspotAs the development of new electric refrigerators and kitchen ranges ramped up after the close of World War II, cost-saving became a major goal in reducing manufacturing costs and increasing volume production. Refrigerator sales increased dramatically. Some traditional fabrication manufacturers fell by the wayside. Only factories that could afford the increasingly large upfront cost of massive stamping dies and presses were the ones able to make the huge leaps in production volume. Which in turn brought down the sales price to consumers, which is what mass-production is primarily about.


One of the early streamlined trains of that era was an articulated three-car commuter train called The Comet (fig.7), built byFigure 7: The CometFigure 7: The Comet the Goodyear Zeppelin Company and Westinghouse for the New Haven Railroad. It ran between Providence and Boston. It was designed in 1935 by Donald Dohner, a year before he formed the Industrial Design Department at Pratt Institute. The Comet was not only aerodynamic, but light in weight because it used aluminum framing and shrouding. Even the underbellies were fully-shrouded for aerodynamic efficiency. But also note those projecting rivets.


Surely Dohner would have preferred to eliminate those drag-producing rivet heads. Within just a few months, Howard Hughes set a cross-country speed-record in his H-1 Racer monoplane—one of the first to employ machined, countersunk flush rivets in its wings, fuselage, and empennage to reduce drag. Other new fabrication technologies appeared in quick succession. TIG aluminum welding for structural aluminum was introduced in 1941, and gas shielded metal arc welding (MIG) was perfected in 1948.


In 1934 the introduction of the new, speed-record breaking, stainless-steel Burlington Zephyr locomotive and train wowed the public and immediately garnered the name of “Streamliner.” But, it could not have used those smooth drag-reducing welded body shells until the E. G. Budd Company had devised a method for shot-welding stainless. Incidentally, that new speed record wasn’t solely due to aerodynamic streamlining. The Zephyr’s could not have achieved those astonishing speeds without the simultaneous perfection of the diesel-electric engine for rail locomotion—design as evolution.


The emergence of new metal alloys was also beginning to influence production methods. Steel alloys were being developed that were stronger, lighter, and allowed deeper draws. Similarly, high-volume die-casting tooling required soft, compound forms with generous draft, that helps speed the flow of the molten metal within the mold, minimizing stress lines and maximizing quick ejection from the mold.


Synthetic plastic choices were very limited, primarily urea and phenolics and a new clear acrylic resin called Lucite. Bakelite, which had formerly been restricted to electrical and military applications was, now starting to be used in mass-produced consumer products such as cameras, telephone handsets and table-radio shells, employing compression thermoset molding. In the late 1940s, the first commercial thermoplastic screw-injection machines were introduced, along with new polymers that opened up a vast new world of mass-produced form possibilities.


Finally, I would liFigure 8: Ice cream scoopFigure 8: Ice cream scoopke to offer this handsome, die cast-aluminum ice cream scoop designed by Sherman Kelly in 1935 (fig.8). It has proven to be timeless in its ergonomic perfection. From solely an appearance standpoint, would you call this design “streamlined,” merely because it has a soft, sleek, shiny rounded aerodynamic look? No, its form was dictated almost 100 percent by its function and production tooling method.


In summation, it was not only the talents of early industrial designers that manifested a strong influence on the attractive shapes and forms of static products for the masses during the “Streamline Era”. Those form factors also were influenced, and often dictated by, concurrent advances in new machinery, new methods, new systems, and new materials for the mass-production of goods.


For the most part, the early streamlining was sheet metal, at least in the beginning.  The locomotives and trains underneath the shiny exteriors and art deco interiors were no different, or indeed were the same equipment, just covered over, as the earlier machines.

That changed as the diesel electric engine entered the scene. Because the Diesel did not require the boiler that a steam locomotive did, the shape of a diesel was not driven by the boiler.  So it was possible to be as streamlined as desired as some railroads took full advantage of.  Also there due to the Depression, companies not usually associated with railroads entered the market pursuing innovative ideas, like the New Haven’s Comet built by Goodyear Zepplin.

The Electromotive Division of GM got into the game in a big way, which would give GM a huge advantage in the post war years. These Santa Fe trains are just some of the stuff that EMD built in the late 1930’s.


Santa Fe’s Streamlined trains of 1938.


The war put a damper on things and caused the early death for some trains as the aluminum they were constructed from was needed for the war effort.

After the war though the curved fronts and shiny finishes came right back, with EMD especially right at the front, along with the Budd company. EMD provided the round nosed giants on the front and Budd more or less provided the shiny new trains that followed.  There were some exception and efforts by the likes of ACF and it’s attempts to sell the Talgo trains that ACF was building for Spain here in the US.  While there was some interest and the New Haven and a few other railroads did buy lightweight trains, it was the stainless steel welded sides of Budd Coaches that defined the new trains of the 1950’s streamliners.


ACF’s 1949 Talgo Train

The John Quincy Adams and Speed Merchant

Dan’l Webster and the Xplorer

Precisely what the C&O is doing with these Talgo cars is unknown.  These pictures are very early for the Talgos.

Here’s a bunch of links of the wonderful trains

Streamliner Trains that Oozed the Elegance of Old World Travel

In the early 1950’s my grandfather rode the California Zephyr to California and being him, took pictures.

1956 cal z 18

Here’s some videos of trains from the era of the streamliners.

The railroads lost passenger business throughout the 1950’s to the airlines on the top end and the bus companies on the low end as well as to people driving on the new Interstate highways. The streamliner era was a brief bright spot that as reduced all to soon to the shorter trains and mediocre service of the 1960’s as the railroads struggled to survive. It was glorious while it lasted


  1. Joshua Moldover · August 4, 2018

    You ask “Precisely what the C&O is doing with these Talgo cars is unknown.” Strictly speaking, those aren’t Talgo cars, but are a demonstration “Train X” car, which was similar, but built by Pullman-Standard. These were the type used by the New Haven for the John Quincy Adams train, vs. the Talgo cars that were used for the Danl Webster trainset.


  2. jccarlton · August 4, 2018

    Apparently you are correct as the cars do not have corrugated roofs and the 1949 Talgo definitely does. I was basing my guess on the round windows in the car. The car felt more like the early Talgo than the Train X but I was by what I knew about the John Quincy Adams and not what Pullman may have been doing up to them. Still, if the pictures were indeed taken in 1949, there are some interesting questions that are probably lost to history.


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