Who invented the very first generator? How did they develop to become the powerhouses they are today? Here, we reveal the bright sparks (sorry…) who gave us the generator we so rely on today.
Depending on how far back you want to go, the generator as we know it today evolved from the work of Michael Faraday and Joseph Henry in the 1830s. These two inventors discovered and documented the phenomena of electromagnetic induction, now known as “Faraday’s law”. Without being too technical, the principle states that an electromotive force is generated in an electrical conductor, which encircles a varying magnetic flux. Based on this. Faraday also built the first electromagnetic generator – the Faraday disk.
Word of Faraday’s law spread and in 1832, Frenchman Hippolyte Pixii built the first dynamo generator. His model created pulses of electricity separated by no current. By accident, he also created the first alternator. He didn’t know what to do with the changing current, so he concentrated on trying to eliminate the alternating current to get DC power.
While the dynamo was the first electrical generator capable of delivering power for industry, for the next 30 years, the battery continued to be the most powerful way to supply electricity. And even the battery was having problems. A battery-powered electric train from Washington DC to Baltimore failed, proving a gross embarrassment to the new field of electricity. After millions of dollars wasted, good old-fashioned steam still proved to be a better power source. Engineers still had long way to go to make electricity seem reliable and viable.
Enter Antonio Pacinotti. In 1860, Pacinotti created a dynamo that provided continuous DC power for the first time. A few years later, Werner Von Siemens and Charles Wheatstone created a more powerful and useful dynamo using a self-powered electromagnet instead of the weak permanent magnet.
Things were looking brighter for electricity, and in 1871 a turning point was reached. Zenobe Gramme filled the magnetic field with an iron core, which made a better path for magnetic flux. This increased the power of the dynamo to the point were it was usable for many commercial applications. Gramme’s invention sparked an explosion of new designs in dynamos, yet only a few stood out as being superior in efficiency. The most reliable and efficient dynamo design was credited to American Charles F. Brush in 1876. His invention was sold through the Telegraph Supply Company.
By the end of the 1870s, the Ganz Company began to use AC generators in small commercial installations in Budapest and by 1880, Charles F. Brush had over 5000 arc lights in operation, representing 80 per cent of all lamps worldwide. With that, the economic power of electrical age had arrived.
However, with DC dynamos reigning supreme in the lucrative American market, people were sceptical to invest in AC generators. The systems for control and distribution of AC power needed to be vastly improved before it could compete with DC on a market.
By the end of the century, the US, Germany, Italy and others had developed AC systems with better control and powerful electric motors that finally allowed AC to compete. This was made official at the International ElectroTechnical Exhibition in Frankfurt in 1891, where three-phase AC power proved to be the best system for power generation and distribution. The commercial interest and financial backing available helped improve generator design, with Westinghouse, Siemens, Oerlikon, and General Electric leading the charge.
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