My books on manufacturing

My books on manufacturing
My books on manufacturing history

Saturday, April 27, 2024

Who else shaped the manufacturing world - American and European electricity

 Jill Jonnes in her book, Empires of Light, tells the story of the birth of the American giants of electricity.

Electricity was ‘discovered’ by a number of scientists in a number of countries. Its existence had been there for all mankind to witness in electrical storms; but what was it? How could it be used? In How Britain Shaped the Manufacturing World (HBSTMW) I focussed on Humphrey Davy and then Michael Faraday and his discovery of electromagnetism which was fundamental both to electricity generation by dynamos and the mechanical use of electrical power through electric motors. As a parallel exploit I wrote of the electric telegraph which employed low electric current to communicate with the use of cables, and drew in scientists such as Cooke and Wheatstone and William Siemens the brains behind the British Siemens Brothers. The broader geographical spread is indicated by Jonnes with her reference to electrostatic machines and the discovery of the transmission of electricity by Englishman, Stephen Gray. Holland was then home to the first storage of electricity in what became known as the Leyden jar. On the other side of the Atlantic, exploration was taken further by Benjamin Franklin who sought to understand better the nature of electricity. We then move to Italy and Luigi Galvani and Alessandro Volta to whom we owe the electric battery which produced electricity by chemical means. It was from here that Humphrey Davy derived his understanding of the electrochemical reactions that produce electricity. The Danish self-taught scientist Hans Christian Oersted discovered the link between electricity and magnetism and Andre Ampere took this a stage further by finding a correlation between the strength of the electric current and the strength of the magnetic field. American, Joseph Henry discovered the magnetic benefit of winding wire carrying current around a horseshoe. Good fortune led to Davy taking on the unknown Michael Faraday who rationalised this thinking into a theory of  electromagnetism. Faraday kept on experimenting into both the production of electricity by chemical reaction and the isolation of chemicals be electrolysis. Faraday became the director of the Royal Institution in London where he continued to experiment widely and began the Christmas lectures the continuation of which I remember as a schoolboy and which continue to this day.

Looking at the commercial development of electricity, we have as a first ‘chapter’ telegraph using small currents and voltages in communication. The fundamental equipment was cable and it is interesting that the British Siemens Brothers in conjunction with their German cousin Siemens & Halske led the field. Siemens Bothers built a factory at Woolwich on the Thames, simple access to water being key for cables were both bulky and heavy and transport by ship made sense for it was an international market. That Britain should have pivotal role was logical since by the mid nineteenth century it had a growing empire with which it needed to communicate. The design and manufacture of cable was not simple and I write about this in HBSTMW.

Following on relatively quickly from telegraph was telephone invented by the American Bell. We were still talking about low voltages and currents and the need for cable. Once again Siemens Brothers were well into the field and developed telephone exchanges and handsets. Again, I wrote about this in HBSTMW.

For the third chapter both currents and voltages increase. Davy and Faraday had demonstrated the potential of electricity at higher voltages carrying stronger currents but both, at least initially, went on to other areas of exploration. One of these led Davy to the arc-lamp and, despite its short life and excessive brightness, this became a manufactured reality in Britain but also Germany, America, France and developed countries across the globe.

The source of power for arc-lamps tested the inventiveness of Belgian, Zenobe-Theophilr Gamme who invented a dynamo. The first iteration was capable of producing direct current and, when this was found to burn out arc-lamps too quickly, he explored further and came up with a dynamo which produced a current which alternated in direction and so enabled a longer life.

It fell to Americans Wallace, Farmer and Brush to develop the dynamo further, powered by a steam engine. This happened at around the time of celebration of the centenary of independence, 1876.

Across the Atlantic in the old colonial power a German, William Siemens had nine years earlier given a paper to the Royal Society of Arts on electromagnetism and followed this by a filing for a patent for a dynamo. In his book, Siemens Brothers 1858-1958, J. D. Scott suggests that manufacture began straight away. The image is of an 1879 Siemens dynamo used to light the house of Magnus Volk who built the Brighton electric railway. However, it was the young Sebastian de Ferranti, who had learnt part of his trade in the Siemens laboratory, who with Sir William Thomson produced the first commercial dynamo in England in 1882. Ferranti developed his idea further by the use of the flywheel of the steam engine to power the alternator allowing higher speeds of rotation from an engine itself rotating slowly, thus saving power and providing a smoother flow of current.

A little earlier, American, Thomas Edison, began to explore the commercial opportunities which higher power electricity offered. He had been working with telegraph, telephone and  had patented his phonograph, the predecessor to the gramophone record. In 1878, he filed a patent for an incandescent lamp. At around the same time Englishman Joseph Swan filed his patent. These lamps lasted much longer than arc-lamps and could be of varying brightness, and thus suitable for domestic use. The two inventors founded a joint company Ediswan to manufacture their invention. Especially in America many smaller manufacturers, including the up and coming Thomson-Houston, began producing lamps risking patent infringement.

When the incandescent lamp was connected to a dynamo, the light would flicker. Experience soon showed that, if an accumulator was used, the flicker would go. So people began to charge an accumulator at night and draw current from it during the day to light their lamp. In Britain, this was where the company that would become GEC entered the picture. Two emigrees from Germany, Hugo Hirst and Gustav Bing, separately set up in business initially supplying gas equipment. In time they joined, and later GEC was born and was a supplier of the parts electricians needed. So, they supplied accumulators and then moved to switches and ceiling roses; this led to glass lamp shades and in time different styles of lamps. They only supplied the British market and, before they began to manufacture, they sourced items from both the UK and overseas. It was a very young industry, with much trial and error and a great deal of room for misunderstanding by the buying public. [Hirst gave series of talks on the early years of the business and the first chapter up to 1900 is available on line as a pdf].

The Americans were ahead of the game. Breaking the new ground were owners of large houses who installed their own Edison electrical systems comprising a steam engine powering a dynamo sending current round a circuit supplying a number of incandescent lights.

Edison was far from alone in exploring the commercial potential of electricity. George Westinghouse was also an inventor, indeed he invented brake and signalling equipment for railways. In relation to electricity, he saw the key advantage that Alternating Current (AC) had over Direct Current (DC) in the distance that power could travel using relatively fine copper cable; copper becoming ever more expensive. It was about distributing a low current at a high voltage which could then be transformed down to a high current at a lower voltage.

The logistical problem with high voltage AC was two-fold. Transmission would be more efficient if very high voltages were used because the current would be much lower and so the loss to heat generated in the copper wire much less. Of no less importance at the consumer end, the voltage had to be significantly reduced in order to be safe and usable. The answer was transformers and it fell to a Frenchman, Lucien Gaulard working with Englishman, John Gibbs to come up with the initial answer. Their secondary generators as they were called were used on the Grosvenor Gallery project of which I wrote in HBSTMW, but failed to live up to expectations.

We can follow the prototype transformers over the Atlantic, where they were introduced to Westinghouse and it fell to his master electrician, Stanley, to work through to a viable device. In England, the Grosvenor gallery owner called upon Sebastian de Ferranti to carry out the necessary re-design. With workable transformers, there was now a ‘Ferranti system’ of generation and Ferranti won the contract to replace the failed initial system at the Grosvenor Gallery. This was what really kick-started his career and the company that would bear his name. Britain was still far behind the USA; at the time there was only the Brighton Central system working in the UK, whilst in the USA Edison had over one hundred DC Central Stations

Serbian, Nikola Tesla was an inventor in the mould of Faraday and Ferranti. For him it was the thrill of discovery. He had patented his AC generator; he then devoted himself to the AC motor. Westinghouse was impressed and entered into a licence to use his generator patents. In time, the stresses of the market made this unviable and Tessler accepted that all payments for the use of his patent should cease. This saved Westinghouse, but impoverished Tessler who continued his experiments in comparative poverty. The word comparative needs to be placed in context for Tessler was a very particular young man. He dressed to impress. As a single man he lived in hotels. Jonnes has much of interest to say about him.

Westinghouse had everything in place for a full AC system, except for a fully functioning motor. The answer which Tesla came up with was the delivery of current to the magnets in three phases, ‘polyphase’. As is the nature of a developing technology, it is much easier to start with all the building blocks in place. The reality was that DC and single phase AC were dominant, with the single phases AC needing to be converted to DC for use in most motors.

Jonnes paints a vivid picture of American cities following the introduction of telegraph, telephone and then power for lighting: the streets were festooned with wire, hanging from building to building. Problems came when wires fell and broke. The high voltage AC proved fatal. Edison had laid his much heavier DC cables underground in trunking and so removed from any human contact. The argument raged over which system, AC or DC, should dominate. The issue was the danger of AC. The bizarre test came with the use of the electric chair for executions. Edison’s supporters wanted to demonstrate the dangers of AC and so argued that AC would be much more effective than DC for this purpose. They staged some unedifying experiments culminating in an execution where the current failed to kill the victim who thus suffered a long and painful death. Patents reared their ugly head in quite a big way in the battle that followed but AC eventually won the day.

Probably the most ambitious generation project undertaken in America was that to harness the power of the Niagara falls. The potential for electricity generation was huge, much greater than could be consumed nearby and so the plan was to transmit the current some twenty six miles to the town of Buffalo. Westinghouse could see from the start that his AC system was the one to choose. However the board set up to manage the project wanted an open system of bids and so received expression of interest from Westinghouse, Edison General Electric, Thomson-Houston and Siemens and Halske and AEG in Germany and Brown Boveri in Switzerland. Wilson suggests that Ferranti also bid.

The irony was that manufacturers of aluminium and carborundum requiring a lot of cheap electricity relocated to be near to the generation plant meaning that DC would have been the preferred system. In the event Westinghouse won the main contract. Edison General electric would late merge with Thomson-Houston to become General Electric.

It is interesting from a 21st century perspective that a similar project at the Victoria Falls in what was Rhodesia did not happen because local coal deposits made coal powered generation both quicker to build and economical.

Britain offered different challenges to faced offered by the USA and Germany. Having been first with steam power and the exploitation of coal, serious financial interests supported both lighting using gas and mechanisation using steam. There was thus less impetus for the development of electric lighting and traction. This made the business environment tough for Sebastian de Ferranti. As I tell in HBSTMW he had success with the Grosvenor and Deptford Power stations but this success did not sustain a long term business.

The Deptford project was ambitious in that it planned to supply electricity to a number of London boroughs. The problem was that the Act gave to each local authority the power to choose its own electricity supplier and for the Deptford project this would involve a large number of separate contracts each of which would need to accept common standards to make the scheme viable. To make matters yet more complicated, some boroughs had already adopted DC systems and each borough had their own electrical engineers who were accustomed to specifying bespoke systems. This made it very difficult to manufacture off-the-shelf products. Notwithstanding all of this, the project went ahead and was successful even though not on the scale originally planned.

The Deptford scheme followed the bursting of a financial bubble create when the American Brush set up a string of subsidiaries supplying electrical products only to tumble in the weak British home market. This discouraged investors in the risky field of electricity. At the same time, Ferranti was so attached to his freedom that he found it hard to accept third party investors even if they had been willing. So his company stumbled on with great technical achievement matched by poor commercial performance. This meant that, when the UK market was at last ripe for expansion, it was the American British Thomson-Houston and British Westinghouse that offered the best generators at the keenest prices. A third company, Dick, Kerr & Co, also competed keenly having followed the Americans in adopting American machine tools and practices. Even Ferranti, when he could afford them, bought American machine tools. The fourth company,  Siemens Brothers, had their German cousin to support their electric ambitions.

John Wilson in his book Ferranti A History Sebastian de Ferranti was committed to technological progress and less so to business. He observed that he, and many like him, would benefit from having as a partner someone like Matthew Boulton. The net result was that Ferranti didn’t build a great many generation stations but found markets for their electricity meters, switchgear and later on transformers. The Parsons steam turbine was superheated by Ferranti for Vickers. Parsons would go on to become the major UK manufacturer of steam turbines and I write of this in Vehicles to Vaccines.

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