Drumm, James Joseph (1896–1974), chemist, industrial technologist, and inventor, was born 25 January 1896 in Dundrum, Co. Down, one of three sons of John Drumm (or Drum), RIC constable, and his wife Bridget (née Connolly). The family moved to Derrygooney, Co. Monaghan (1905), and James attended St Macartan's College near Monaghan town. At UCD he graduated in science, subsequently taking his M.Sc. and in 1931 his doctorate.
Drumm worked as a research and production chemist for a number of chemical firms in England and Belgium during the early 1920s before returning to UCD. There he led a research team in developing a high-voltage industrial alkaline battery with low internal resistance, suitable for railway traction, an alternative to coal and petrol engines in a country of limited fuel resources. For this work, carried on under the supervision of the professor of experimental physics, J. J. Nolan (qv), he was awarded a D.Sc. in 1931. The invention was patented in 1929 and made his name, eponymously, as the Drumm traction battery. It was promoted by the Cumann na nGaedheal government as an Irish invention which might assist industrial development (using electricity from the new Shannon scheme), therefore attracting state funding if adopted by a railway company. The Great Southern Railway (GSR) experimented with the battery by mounting it on a formerly petrol-engined Drewry railcar (no. 386), reaching speeds of 50 mph (80.5 kph) as against the 40 mph (64.3 kph) maximum under petrol. The successful trials from the Inchicore works to Hazelhatch and Kingsbridge (later Heuston) secured Drumm his decade of glory. After an inaugural journey 2 December 1931 with executive council president W. T. Cosgrave (qv) and cabinet members on board, a two-coach ‘Drumm train’ (‘A’), designed and built at Inchicore, began regular service in February 1932 on the line from Amiens St. (later Connolly) station to Bray, followed later by a second set (‘B’). The 15-ton battery on each train powered two axle-mounted 200 h.p. motors and was rapidly recharged at the end of each journey from an overhead electrical supply line.
In 1932 the Drumm Battery Co. leased a workshop at Inchicore and in 1935 the Fianna Fáil government advanced it £30,000 for research. The Drumm trains were popular and even affectionately received by the public, owing as much to their modern, open-plan design as to their efficiency. They carried up to 140 passengers with parcels and prams on a particularly busy line whose destinations included not only Dublin's growing suburbs but several seaside resorts such as Bray. The thrill of excursion no doubt contributed to their popularity. Drumm himself had the brief satisfaction of being identified with an iconic machine: industrial design at its best, admired by his peers and loved by the public.
In 1939, with the emergency conditions of the second world war, the Harcourt St. line received delivery of 2 extra sets (‘C’ and ‘D’), built in 1938 to a new design. Shortly afterwards the entire Drumm fleet operated from Harcourt St. to Bray and occasionally Greystones, providing a predominantly battery-driven suburban service which in wartime saved fuel. One set also worked the coastal service from Amiens St. to Donabate, ten miles north of Dublin. In spite of their efficiency and popularity James Drumm's unique trains were denied a wider distribution (notwithstanding some experimental runs in Cork and Kerry) owing to withdrawal of government funding in 1941 and wartime restrictions on daytime electricity supply. With the formation of the national railway company Coras Iompair Éireann (CIÉ) under the Transport Act, 1944, Drumm's fortunes declined further as the new service overtook the private railway companies and prepared to replace the fleet with diesel stock. The ageing and by now worn-out Drumm trains, whose costly, nickel-bearing batteries required renewal, were victims of decision-making which in May 1949 resulted in their official abandonment after seventeen years of operation. The cars were temporarily used as coaches on remaining steam trains but were eventually scrapped. For Drumm it was the end of potential greatness. His invention had once had the opportunity of international renown: it worked well, its host vehicle was aesthetically attractive and popular, core elements of a transport classic. Drumm's battery was applied in miniature to commercial vehicles in Dublin (e.g. delivery vans) but was less efficient at that scale.
Drumm had other academic, scientific and industrial interests, including membership of the senate of NUI (1934–59), the vice-presidency of the Federation of Irish Industries (1935), and board membership of the Scientific Research Bureau (1941–5) set up during the Emergency. He was also a member of the Chemical Association of Ireland. He was Ireland's first importer of stainless steel and had his own company for small-scale chemical production and supply. James Drumm, who was first chairman of his local residents’ association, died suddenly at home in Rathgar 18 July 1974 and was buried at Mount Jerome cemetery.
He married (4 July 1928) Mary, daughter of Dublin millowner Michael O'Reilly of 21 Belvedere Place. They lived from 1929 at 70 Rathgar Road and had two sons, both UCD graduate engineers. James Drumm's two brothers Charles and Patrick were parish priests in the Clogher diocese, maintaining the family connection with south Ulster.