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article number 131
article date 05-24-2012
copyright 2012 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
George Westinghouse & Crew Develop our Modern Electrical Distribution System – 1886
by I. E. Levine

From the book, Inventive Wizard George Westinghouse.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article appears to be easy reading for youngins. But for all of us, it illustrates the beginnings of our power distribution system, this history of which must be passed on from generation to generation so our kids will grow up thinking “outside the box”.

While George Westinghouse was busy developing his natural gas system, Thomas Alva Edison, whose invention of the electric light had initially threatened to ruin the gas industry, altogether, was faced with a serious dilemma. His incandescent bulb, now five years old, had made far less of an impact than had been expected. In 1879, when Edison first announced his achievement, editorial writers had glowingly prophesized that the tiny glass globe would have revolutionary results, but these predictions had failed to materialize. In truth, electric lighting was still a novelty, and the vast majority of homes still retained the old reliable gas jet which had served so well in the past.

The trouble lay not with the incandescent light itself but with the difficulty of transmitting current to power the lamp. In order to supply electricity, power stations had to be set up every few thousand feet, and the heavy copper cables required for transmission made the cost prohibitive for everyday use, and retarded its development.

Thomas Edison, who just a few years earlier invented the light bulb, could not sell it until we had electricity in homes.

George, who had followed Tom Edison’s meteoric career with avid professional interest, although he had never met him personally, was well aware of the difficulties that beset his fellow inventor and sympathized with him. Moreover, as a result of his work on electro-pneumatic railroad switches and signals, his interest in electricity had been whetted and he began to read everything he could lay his hands on that concerned itself with this remarkable new source of power.

Shortly after completing his successful development of the natural gas system, George received a pamphlet from Great Britain that told about a remarkable invention by a French man named Gaulard and an Englishman named Gibbs. The device was called a “secondary generator” or “transformer.” From the very moment that he finished reading the account, George was convinced that he had stumbled onto the mechanism that would ultimately revolutionize the field of electricity.

Before alternating current distribution, oil, gas or simple candle lighting was used in our homes.

In its earliest beginnings, electricity had been produced by batteries which created a small, steady current that flowed in one direction only and was known as “direct current.” All early motors and other electrical devices were designed to operate on direct current.

However, with the development of the dynamo which was driven by steam or water power and produced large quantities of electricity, a new type of current was created. It was produced not by chemical action, as in a battery, but by magnetic action, for a dynamo was simply coils of wire whirling around in a magnetic field. This new type of current flowed first in one direction, then in the other, and was known as “alternating current.”

In order to utilize alternating current for motors and other direct current equipment, the “commutator” was developed. It was simply a device to convert alternating current from a dynamo into a flow of direct current.

Unfortunately direct current had a serious disadvantage because it was a “high current” traveling at a “low voltage.” Voltage was the “pressure” that “pushed” electricity along a conductor. In their laboratories physicists had discovered that a high voltage could send a low current over a line much more efficiently than a low voltage transmitting a high current. The latter required thick, costly copper wire as a conductor, for a lot of electrical energy was converted to heat and wasted. Thus it could not be sent more than a few hundred yards without becoming prohibitively expensive and generating stations had to be set up at close intervals to supply power.

So costly was direct current, that it loomed as the major stumbling block to further electrical development.

It was no wonder then that with his lifelong habit of poking his curious nose into everything, George Westinghouse found himself fascinated by the Gaulard-Gibbs transformer. The published account described it as a simple device made up of two coils of wire separated from each other. When an alternating current was sent through one of the coils it “induced” a current in the other. And, depending on the number of turns of wire in each coil, the transformer had the amazing ability of “stepping up” or “stepping down” voltages. Thus a voltage sent through a primary coil having ten windings would induce in a secondary coil having a hundred windings, a voltage ten times as great. At the same time, the size of the current would be decreased to one-tenth. By simply reversing the coils a voltage could be stepped down in the same way, and the amount of current increased.

Patent drawing for early Westinghouse alternating current system.

George was aware from the pamphlet’s account of the Gaulard-Gibbs transformer that it was still in a primitive state, that it was little more than an experimental curiosity, but it was enough to spark his imagination. He was soon convinced that the invention held the key to the whole problem of electrical development, for if voltages could be stepped up a hundred, even a thousand times or more, it would be possible to use inexpensive small-gauge wire to transmit electricity over vast distances. In this way the cost of power would be low enough to benefit communities everywhere.

There would be problems, of course, and one of the most important was how to utilize high-voltage current safely. It was well known that such current could cause serious injury, even death, and if his idea was to succeed, adequate safeguards would have to be devised. The solution, he decided, was to install a transformer to step up the voltage at the source of power for efficient, inexpensive transmission over well-insulated lines, then reversing the procedure at the receiving end by using another transformer to step down the voltage to a safe level for use in the home or in industry.

A second problem stemmed from the fact that while the transformer worked only when alternating current was used, electric motors were all designed to operate on direct current. It was for this reason that commutators were installed on dynamos generating electricity—to change the alternating current produced, into direct current that could be used. Here again his analysis of the difficulty led to a solution that was startlingly simple—he would eliminate the commutator from the source of power, the dynamo, and place it at the point of use, in the motor itself. In this way alternating current produced at a power station would be stepped up in voltage for transmission, stepped down again at a receiving station and converted into direct current only after it reached the motor.

Explaining the idea to his brother Herman who was now fully involved in the Westinghouse enterprises, he announced that he was prepared to go into alternating current development on a major scale. “I want you to coordinate the program,” he said. “The first step is to send a man to Europe to buy the American patent rights to the Gaulard-Gibbs device, and I don’t want him to come back without it!”

A young engineer, Guido Pantaleoni, got the assignment. Less than a month later he cabled from England that he had tracked down the inventors and closed the deal. The price was fifty thousand dollars.


Pantaleoni returned, bringing with him a signed agreement and several sample transformers. When George examined them he was astonished at their appearance, for they were crude devices made of stamped copper disks and soldered joints. “Why these look like laboratory toys, and poorly made ones at that,” he observed with dismay. “They aren’t nearly ready for commercial development.”

Herman asked if they had erred in purchasing the rights to the transformer so hastily—sight unseen, in fact—and George replied that they would soon find out. He directed an engineer to hook up one of the devices to an electrical circuit, and he and Herman watched carefully while tests were carried out.

In spite of its primitive appearance the transformer worked, but George knew at once that it would never do from a practical standpoint because to produce it in quantity would involve an endless job of hand-soldering and fitting copper disks into place. The expense would be prohibitive, he pointed out.

During the next few days he applied himself conscientiously to improving the Gaulard-Gibbs design, but after making several changes he realized that the basic construction concept itself was faulty. Scientifically, the transformer principle was sound, but mechanically the device was completely wrong. So he decided on a drastic step: he would discard the Gaulard-Gibbs transformer and start from scratch using the same principle but make an entirely new design of his own!

The principal task was to discover a quick, inexpensive way of winding the primary and secondary coils, and here he decided to return to that remarkable all-purpose machine he had learned to use as a boy—the lathe. Instead of complicated copper disks and soldered joints, why not wind the core with ordinary insulated copper wire? he asked himself. Taking a laminated iron core, he locked it into the jaws of a lathe, wound a few turns of wire onto the machine and started it. As the lathe spun he played out more wire. It reeled itself onto the core neatly in a matter of seconds. Why it wasn’t so different from the old trick of using a lathe to cut iron pipe, he told himself with a grin as he recalled that first summer in his father’s shop.

Since voltage was stepped up by the same ratio as the windings on the transformer’s primary and secondary coils, the lathe proved to be perfect for the job. Winding a thousand or two thousand turns of wire onto the core was now no task at all. Within three weeks George had designed a new transformer that bore almost no resemblance to the Gaulard-Gibbs apparatus. His engineers suggested other improvements, and these, too, were incorporated into the Westinghouse design.

Within a few years after initial development, power lines on poles would cross the nation.

On December 23, 1885, George, his brother Herman and a group of associates applied for a charter to establish a new corporation for electrical development, to be known as the Westinghouse Electric Company.

The charter was granted and George lost no time in getting started. He had recently moved the Union Switch and Signal Company to a suburb of Pittsburgh, and since the old factory was standing idle, he put it to use manufacturing electrical equipment.

One of his key men was a young engineer, William Stanley, who had contributed valuable suggestions for improving the Westinghouse transformer. Just as they were about to begin commercial development, Stanley came down with a pulmonary ailment and announced he was returning to Great Barrington, Massachusetts, where his parents lived.

William Stanley.

“I’m sorry to let you down, chief,” he told George apologetically.

“You’re not going to let me down,” George replied. “You didn’t think I was going to allow you to get away from me, did you? Here at Westinghouse we consider talent a valuable asset.” He told the surprised engineer that he was assuming the entire expense of setting up a special laboratory at Great Barrington where Stanley could prepare a practical demonstration of the transformer’s use in the transmission of alternating current. He also promised to assign another engineer named Belfield to go to Massachusetts to assist him in the project.

For the next three months Stanley and Belfield worked entirely on their own. George gave orders that any equipment they needed was to be shipped from Pittsburgh at once. When Stanley sent an urgent message asking for a special type of dynamo, one of the men in the supply division of the Westinghouse Electric Company came running to George’s office frantically waving the request. “It’s from Stanley, sir!” he exclaimed. “Now he wants a new kind of dynamo.” “We’ll send it to him,” George replied without looking up from his drawing board. “But he’s beyond his budget,” the exasperated employee protested. “Send it to him anyway,” George repeated as he held up a sketch and examined it critically. “But you don’t understand, Mister Westinghouse. This dynamo can only be obtained from England. It will have to be shipped at enormous expense.”

George put down his drawing, winked in a conspiratorial manner and said, “Let’s order the dynamo anyway, Sanders. It will be our secret, yours and mine. And if you promise not to say anything about Stanley’s budget, I’ll not say anything about it, either.” Sanders left wearing a perplexed frown.

Early pole transformer, the necessary component for bringing electricity to your home. High voltage carried efficiently over smaller outdoor power wires is transformed to lower voltage which is safer in your home.

In mid-March of 1886 George received a telegraph message from William Stanley. It read, “All is ready. Come at once.” George dropped everything, and he and Herman—who served as vice-president of the Westinghouse Electric Company—boarded a train for Massachusetts. In Great Barrington they were met by Belfield who took them out to Stanley’s laboratory.

Stanley, a thin pale man with intense features, showed them around the small building. George and Herman were amazed at what the two engineers had accomplished in such a short time. They had set up a full-scale generating plant using the dynamo imported from England. They had also installed a power line from the dynamo to a building in the town of Lawrenceville, four miles away. Using transformers, they had stepped up the voltage at the dynamo to three thousand volts for transmission.

George, Herman, Stanley and Belfield climbed into a carriage and drove to Lawrenceville, leaving a technician in charge of the dynamo. When they arrived at the town they followed Stanley into an old building where a dozen Westinghouse transformers piped off electricity from the power line and stepped down the power to five hundred volts. The current fed four hundred incandescent lamps which had been installed around the building.

“Have you tried it yet?” George asked, examining the system with his meticulous eye for detail. “No, chief. We wanted you to have the honor of pulling the switch the first time,” Stanley said, his bony face relaxing in a smile.

“How do you know it will work?” George shot back with mock severity. “You didn’t drag me out here on a wild goose chase, did you?”

“Well we did ‘cheat’ a little,” Stanley admitted. “A few weeks back we installed a system like this in Great Barrington. We wired a couple of stores for lighting. But the lamps were only a short distance from the dynamo.”

“Did it work?”


“Very well, let’s get on with the show,” George said.

Without further ado he turned on the master switch. Four hundred lamps sparked to life, giving off a festive glow that made his younger brother gasp. “Why it’s beautiful!” Herman exclaimed in awe.

“Gentlemen,” George announced solemnly, “we are witnessing the true dawn of the Age of Electricity.”

For the next 15 days the lights in Lawrenceville continued to burn. George stayed on in Massachusetts to see the results of the endurance test. Each day he and William Stanley visited the building in Lawrenceville to see how the alternating current system was standing up under continual use.

They were not disappointed. The thin copper wires did not burn out as some skeptical Westinghouse engineers had predicted. The transformers and other apparatus functioned perfectly without breaking down. Moreover, in spite of the dangerously high voltage used, there wasn’t a single injury to any of the workmen, because Stanley had insulated the lines with great care.

At the end of the two-week period, George shut off the master switch with a decisive gesture and told Stanley, “Well, Bill, I’m convinced. I think we’re ready to demonstrate to the public what we’ve come up with.”

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