My books on manufacturing

My books on manufacturing
My books on manufacturing history
Showing posts with label USA. Show all posts
Showing posts with label USA. Show all posts

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.

Thursday, April 18, 2024

Who else shaped the manufacturing world - American steel

 The story of American steel making begins in the wake of the Civil War. A number of academics take a start date of 1867 which coincides with the dramatic increase in US territory with the purchase of Alaska from Russia. Steel making though was to focus on the Commonwealth of Philadelphia where there were plentiful reserves of good quality ore. The invention of a process for the mass production of steel from iron by Englishman, Henry Bessemer, provided the key first step. A fascinating article in the journal of the Society for Industrial Archaeology by Henry Sisson entitled A Revolution in Steel: Mass Production in Pennsylvania, 1867-1901 offers a detailed account of both the technical developments and the companies, men and places involved.

In the years after the Civil War, railways were spreading across the vast continent and American steel makers were determined to see off foreign competitors. The Bessemer process was the starting point, but thereafter it was all about improvements in efficiency and also the quality of the finished product. This latter point came into sharper focus when manufacturing moved beyond basic rails to switches and ‘frogs’ ( common-crossing) but more importantly structural steel for bridges and the frames of buildings, eventually the skyscrapers in the 1880s. I shall pick up on some of Sisson’s detail.

He begins with some statistics. Before the Civil War, steel production was limited to specialist uses and amounted to under 12,000 tons per year. Once mass production had started in Steelton, Pennsylvania in 1870, production increased to just under 50,000 tons. By 1900, the country’s steel makers were producing just over ten and a half million tons of ingots and castings. In terms of productivity, the average tons of iron and steel per worker increased from 62 in 1880 to 132 in 1900.

John Fritz was one of the leading engineers and observed that ‘the modern practice of steel making has, in the hands of the mechanical engineer, the metallurgist and chemist, wrought wonders in producing a material which in quantity, physical qualities and cheapness would have been utterly impossible half a century ago, when steel rails, beams, angles and plates were not thought of, and steel was regarded as a luxury of the material of the working artisan’.

The driving force for this revolution was men like Andrew Carnegie who saw cost reduction as the fundamental measure of progress. He had the vision to see that capital expenditure, to ensure he was using the latest technology, was never in vain. The Bessemer process was a starting point; it needed the addition of a patent taken out by Robert Mushet. Renowned engineer Alexander Holley encouraged the holders of the two patents to join together and thereafter Holley installed the updated Bessemer plants throughout the steel making country.

As we saw in the case of Germany, Bessemer couldn’t cope with ore with a high phosphorous content; the answer was found in the open hearth furnace which were installed where needed.

So much for the process of converting iron into steel. American engineers worked at improving the efficiency of blast furnaces producing iron. This iron had to be handled and so mechanical means were introduced. Eventually iron furnaces were relocated close to the converters allowing molten iron to be used. All the time, engineers were looking for ways better to utilise the heat from the furnaces. Appropriately the produce from the converters in the form of rails were laid by the hundreds of miles to bring raw material to the sites and to take the finished products to end users.

It would be wrong to suggest that improvements were not being made in England or Germany, but the USA was spearheading mass production in steel products and this led to massive increases in manufacturing overall and hence to the shift from being an importer to being a major exporter of manufactured goods.

The position of England as described by Carr and Taplin in their History of the British Steel Industry is revealing. The Americans were much taken by the power of electricity and I will be writing about this elsewhere. They employed this power in rolling mills and a variety of other apparatus that improved the efficiency of the steel making process. We know that the British were slow in embracing the power of electricity, they were also the polar opposite of Carnegie in their reluctance to invest. The problem with steel-making was and indeed is that it is capital intensive and machine heavy, and so innovation comes at a price. Carnegie saw this as a price worth paying.

There was another factor. When the demand for steel rails slumped with the substantial completion of the rail network, alternative uses for steel were needed. Carnegie saw them with great clarity in the form of high-rise buildings constructed with a steel frame. The British were more conservative and it took half a century for that method of construction to be embraced in these islands. This was much later than continental European nations. The Eiffel Tower built in 1889 is but one example.

The exports of steel from European countries is also revealing, with England in the lead, followed by Germany and then Belgium. Belgium and indeed neighbouring Luxembourg had rich reserves of ore. But what about France? Carr and Taplin explain that France’s richest reserves in Alsace Lorraine had been taken by Germany. France had sufficient elsewhere for its own use, but not in order to play a significant role in export.

A twenty year period up to the start of the First World war witnessed a massive growth in America’s exports of manufactured goods including machinery and, in particular, electrical machinery, sewing machines and typewriters but also rails and structural steel. The reasons for the increase are intriguing. Firstly, new reserves of iron ore had been discovered near the Great Lakes, ore that was near the surface and very rich in iron. This reduced the costs of inputs which flowed through to the price of the finished product. The price steadied as Andrew Carnegie bought up some three quarters of the reserves. Mechanisation, in particular the use of electricity, in American steel production also reduced costs. A factor outside the control of the Americans was lengthy strike action in Britain in 1912 which left the door open to American goods. The American manufacturers of sewing machines (Singer) and electrical equipment (British Thomson Houston and British Westinghouse) soon followed their export success by setting up manufacturing in Britain.


Steel beams supporting the roof in Washington cathedral

Saturday, April 6, 2024

Who else shaped the Manufacturing World - The American System of Manufacturing

 Continuing my quest to discover who else shaped the manufacturing world, not unreasonably, I turn to America. 

An entry in the Oxford reference book is clear that America had a system of manufacturing that put it well ahead of other manufacturing nations. An academic article is more cautious looking at the American manufacturing system in the context of four products: guns, wooden timepieces, watches and axes. The system, in short, was to have interchangeable parts which could be machine made in bulk and then put together in the final product, the key being that all this could be done by unskilled workers. The article highlights one drawback that more time is needed for adjustment as interchangeable parts in practice don’t fit perfectly. Nonetheless, there it seems is the ‘system’.

The story of American manufacturing picks up from the accounts of the early settlements where the imperative was to secure food and shelter. Rebecca Fraser’s account of the Mayflower Generation focuses on the struggles with ill-health and the uninviting natural environment; relations with the native population were then not hostile. In time hostility grew as the native Indians took exception to the approach of some settlers. A third imperative was thus security.

As population increased and the infrastructure of society developed, American found itself as an exporter of agricultural produce not least tobacco, sugar and cotton. Imports were of slaves for the plantations but also manufactured goods. These goods would include weapons, agricultural tools, clothing and basic objects for the home.

The war of independence drew a line in the sand as the newly free nation weened itself off dependence on the old colonial power. This didn’t happen overnight and indeed had probably started before independence as Americans would invite in particular textile and arms manufacturers to help them set up their own facilities. As would be the case so often in the way Britain shaped the manufacturing world, the young countries would create new factories with new machinery and so not be incumbered with earlier processes or machines.

This opportunity to start with a clean sheet of paper surely contributed the what became known as the American System of Manufacturing where identical parts would be produced using machines instead of the then traditional more labour intensive and skilled manual process. Another driver of this was the need to move a workforce from agriculture to manufacturing without the time consuming learning of manual skills. The nature of the American republic is important. Where we talk of agricultural workers, we often mean small holders; men and women who had fought their way into self-sufficiency. There would therefore not be many prepared to give that up for the sake of a job in a factory. Equally in the agrarian society there were not skilled mechanics.

One name stands out in addressing this challenge and that was Eli Whitney whose career began in the southern states where he invented the cotton gin to improve the processing of raw cotton. He then moved north and set up in gun making. In order to meet the volumes needed, tasks needed to be undertaken by machines operated by unskilled labour.

Inventions alone were not enough, the creation of the American arms and textile industries was enabled by government purchasing for the needs of the army and so creating a level of demand that justified mechanisation. The position of US Ordnance is interesting. There were two main arsenals in Springfield, Massachusetts, and in Harpers Ferry, Virginia. In time these were supplemented by private manufacturers, principally Winchester Repeating Arms Company and Colt’s Patent Firearms Manufacturing both of which became successful leaders.

The evidence is that by 1851 the American system of manufacture was a known quantity as there is the story of Colt visiting the Great Exhibition and meeting a steam engine manufacturer, Richard Garrett, who was so impressed by Colt’s manufacturing methods that he built the first British factory geared to mass production, the Long Shop.

I can fast forward to the Second World War when Ford tried to make Rolls-Royce Merlin engines. These were handmade, but Ford needed to mass produce. Ford and Rolls-Royce engineers broke down the engine into parts and then into the engineering steps required to make those parts. These steps would be carried out on machines by largely unskilled workers many of whom were women new to the workplace.

Going back to the nineteenth century, America was becoming self-sufficient in manufacturing with one major exception. America, whilst rich in raw material, had only a very small capacity to produce iron and none really for steel, and it was steel that was needed not least for the massive project of connecting American by rail. This meant that not only England, but Germany and Belgium exported steel rails, tyres and other railway equipment including locomotives and rolling stock. I have written in HBSTMW how this export trade boosted British steel making and this was also the case with the German Krupp which I write about in a separate post. The story of the American steel industry is thus another strand which I will cover.

The image is of my mother and father together with the president of Chrysler at their WW2 tank factory which surely epitomised the American System of Manufacturing. You can read more of this by following this link.




How Britain Shaped the Manufacturing World is now available to pre-order

Phil Hamlyn Williams has completed his sixth book beginning an exploration of British manufacturing. His great-grandfather exhibited at the ...