The Era of Giants   (1837 – 1879)

Getting Electricity to Work for Man


One hundred years after the founding of the new republic, the age of transition from an agrarian to an industrial society was heralded by a huge, boisterous Centennial Fair that opened in Philadelphia on May 10, 1876 and played host to a celebration that lasted through the summer.

Eight million visitors from all walks of life came to wonder at the latest marvels, displayed in the Fair's biggest attraction, Machinery Hall, as the world paid homage to the fledgling nation and its accomplishments.

The symbol of entry into the industrial era was a monster Corliss steam engine the largest that had ever been built – which generated 1600 horsepower. The output of its giant shaft turned the wheels for all the machinery in the hall.

German composer Richard Wagner wrote a special "Centennial Inauguration March" for the Fair's opening ceremonies. The British sent a delegation, and royalty was represented by the Emperor Dom Pedro of Brazil, who was personally responsible for calling attention to one of the exhibits, a "talking telegraph" invented by Alexander Graham Bell. It was solely upon Dom Pedro's insistence that the Fair's judging committee listened to the new device on June 25.

The judges' overwhelming delight and praise for the instrument that would carry a voice over a wire ushered in what was to be the most exciting era in communications for many years to come. It was the culmination of an age that saw the telegraph grow from a single 40–mile demonstration line between Washington and Baltimore, in 1844, to thousands of lines that criss–crossed the United States and spanned the Atlantic.

Development of electric power

But the breakthroughs to make electrical power rival and exceed steam power were yet to come. Although the implications of Michael Faraday's work on electromagnetic generation remained to be developed, there were ceaseless efforts by many to produce an electric generator capable of providing massive amounts of power, and a motor able to use that energy.

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Pixii's magneto-electric machine, developed in 1832, was the first practical mechanical generator of electrical current that used concepts demonstrated by Faraday.

The development of electricity as a motive power was taken up by a host of inventors as early as 1832, when a rotary electromagnetic engine was constructed in England by William Sturgeon. It was exhibited in London the following spring.

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Henry Wilde's generator of 1866, considered to be "a machine of enormous and unprecedented power," employed a small, shaft–driven Siemens machine to energize the field coils of the larger dynamo.

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Thermo–electric generators were developed in Europe to replace costly battery power. Clamond's thermo–electric battery was heated with gas and was demonstrated in France in April, 1874.

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The first electric light was produced by "candles" and arc lights. Charles F. Brush invented an arc–lamp system that could light a greater number of lamps in a single circuit than could any competition,

In the United States the earliest practical electric motor was made a year later by Thomas Davenport, an ingenious Vermont blacksmith. A magnet used to extract iron from pulverized ore gave him the idea of applying magnetism to the propulsion of machinery.

Working independently, he produced his own rotary electromagnetic engine in 1834, and exhibited it in Springfield, MA, during the fall of 1835, using the motor to drive an electric locomotive model around a circular railway. In 1840 he used another of his own motors to drive a printing press, and produced a publication entitled The Electro–Magnet and Mechanics Intelligencer.

Others occupied themselves with similar undertakings. In St. Petersburg, Russia, Professor Moritz Hermann Jacobi invented a magnetic motor, and with the financial assistance of Czar Nicholas, constructed in 1839 a 28–ft boat propelled by an electric motor with a large number of battery cells. It carried 14 passengers, at a speed of three miles per hour. Robert Davidson of Scotland experimented in 1838 – 1839 with an electric railway car 16 feet long and weighing, with the batteries, six tons. It attained a speed of four miles per hour.

Probably the most spectacular demonstration of electricity as motive power was achieved by Dr. Charles Grafton Page, who for many years occupied an important position at the Patent Office in Washington. In 1838 Page exhibited in London a locomotive propelled by battery power around a circular railway track.

As early as 1845 it had been observed by Morse's partner Alfred N. Vail that a hollow coil of wire possesses the curious property of sucking a soft iron core into its center with considerable force when an electric current is applied.

Page saw this phenomenon demonstrated, and from it conceived the idea of using that force in an electric motor. In 1850, after numerous experiments, he constructed a machine that developed over 10 horsepower.

A battery driven train

The Congress of the United States was preoccupied at this time with the Compromise of 1850, a proposal by Henry Clay that temporarily settled differences between the North and South over states' rights and the extension of slavery. As a direct result, California was admitted to the Union as a free state, and the territories of Utah and New Mexico were permitted to practice slavery.

Despite the stormy political atmosphere, Congress found time to appropriate sufficient money for Page to construct an electric locomotive and send it on an experimental trip from Washington, DC, to Bladensburg, MD, on April 29, 1851.

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When two of Gramme's dynamos were accidentally connected together in 1873, with the first machine driven by a steam engine, the second began rotating backwards as a motor. It was the first demonstration of the transmission of mechanical power through electrical means.

The electric engine reached a speed of 19 miles per hour on level ground. But with this battery–driven engine, as with other efforts of the period, the high cost of producing electricity by zinc primary batteries precluded commercial use.

Thomas Hall of Boston, who had constructed much of Page's apparatus, made a small model of an electric locomotive soon after, and established the practicality of carrying an electric current to a moving car by employing the wheels and rails as electrical conductors. This dispensed with the need for transporting batteries on board the vehicle.

One of the most enthusiastic experimenters with electromagnetic machinery was Dr. James Prescott Joule of Manchester, England. In a letter written in 1839 he said, "I can scarcely doubt that electromagnetism will eventually be substituted for steam in propelling machinery."

Some years later, after he had made his famous investigations into the mechanical equivalent of heat, his enthusiasm dimmed. From his researches he estimated that one grain of zinc could produce only about one–eighth the mechanical equivalent of a grain of coal. But the zinc cost 20 times as much.

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The vast improvements in dynamos of the late 1870s, and Gramme's discovery that they could be run as motors, led inventors to renewed interest in an electric railway. Edison's locomotive was demonstrated at Menlo Park, NJ, in 1880.

His conclusions were accepted as authoritative and further efforts to apply electromagnetism as a prime mover were discouraged for many years. But efforts to overcome high costs continued to stimulate efforts to generate electricity by mechanical means.

Faraday was the first one to produce a machine for mechanically producing electrical currents, but since he was interested only in discovery, not application, he went no further.

Producing current mechanically

In 1832, after the publication of Faraday's experiments, Hippolyte Pixii, an electrical instrument maker in Paris, constructed a device in which a rotating permanent magnet induced an alternating current in the field coils of a stationary horseshoe electromagnet. This was the first practical device for producing an electric current by mechanical means. Pixii called it a "magnetoelectric" machine.

Later that same year Pixii produced a second machine, at Ampère's suggestion, with a commutator to rectify the ac currents. Pixii's first device was improved upon in 1833 by Joseph Saxton of Philadelphia who used a rotating electromagnet, the inverse of Pixii's design. The resulting magneto-electric "shock machine" was regarded for many years as a toy, but later found widespread use as the crank telephone bell ringer.

Another milestone in boosting the output of current-generating equipment was the substitution of electromagnets for the permanent magnet, patented by Sir Charles Wheatstone in 1845 and by James Watt in 1852. Both men used a battery to energize the coils.

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Edison's improvements on the dynamos of his contemporaries led to his efficient 1888 machine, which initiated the practical application of electricity throughout America.

By this time arc lights had been experimentally demonstrated using a set of carbons and primary batteries, but the first use came in 1846 at the new Paris Opera House, to light up the skating scene in Giacomo Meyerbeer's The Prophet. It required 360 Bunsen cells set up in a large room on the ground floor.

Such extravagance was an exception in the theater. Elsewhere, to illuminate a stage, limelight — an intense light produced by the incandescence of a stick or ball of lime in the flame of a combination of oxygen and hydrogen gases was universally used.

The production of oxygen and hydrogen was expensive, so in 1850 Professor M. Nollet of Brussels began making a high–current magnet electric machine for decomposing water into hydrogen and oxygen. The gases were to be sold for lime lights.

Nollet proceeded to work under the auspices of a combined French–and–English firm known as the Alliance Company. Experiments were made with a large machine in 1853, but were interrupted by Nollet's death. F. H. Holmes of England picked up the work. He studied the machine and made several alterations, producing a device admirably suited for the production of light between two carbon points.

Under the supervision of Faraday himself, Alliance dynamos were installed in two English lighthouses. The electric arc searchlight first cast a beam out over the sea from South Foreland lighthouse, December 8, 1858. Some three and a half years later the second light was in operation in Dungeness. Unforeseen flaws in the machine's design caused frequent accidents to machine tenders and to the equipment itself, and the world's enjoyment of electricity as a means of illumination was postponed several years.

Still, the creation of powerful, reliable electric generating machines was getting closer. A significant but little–noticed link in the chain of development was forged in 1856 by the invention of a magneto–electric machine with a long, shuttle–wound armature. Produced by Werner Siemens in Germany, the machine was small and produced little power, but would gain significance later.

Maxwell interprets Faraday

Edouard Manet shocked the Parisian art world in 1862 with Dejuener sur L'Herbe (Dinner on the Grass), which displayed a modern French lady in the nude. (It was acceptable to show ancient Greek or Roman women unclad, but . . . . ) The United States was deeply preoccupied with the Civil War. Many citizens in the North openly called for a strong stand against slavery. In response, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863.

At the same time, James Clerk Maxwell was hired by King's College, London, where he interpreted many of Faraday's ideas in a systematic mathematical form. These concepts gave the world precise mathematical definitions that even today stand unchallenged. They were published later in a series of historical documents on the theory of electromagnetic radiation and the dynamics of the electromagnetic field.

For seven years following Siemens' 1856 invention, no new developments of record appear. Then in 1863 the elusive trail of the practical, high–power electric generating machine was picked up by Henry Wilde of Manchester, England. For the next three years he carried on extensive experimentation, and in 1866 described a powerful generator he had designed. It used a Siemens armature revolving between the poles of a large electromagnet that was excited by a smaller Siemens generator driven by the same mechanical power source that turned the large machine's armature.

Wilde ultimately carried this "piggyback" arrangement, a step further, using a third machine in a concatenated sequence. With this system he was able, in 1867, to produce an arc capable of fusing an iron rod 15 inches long and one-quarter inch thick.

The first self–excited machines

The final step in the development of the generator ("Electron Pump" — Tommy C. — ) occurred suddenly, as if a flash of cognition had spread throughout the world. In 1866 Moses G. Farmer of Connecticut, Alfred Varley and Wheatstone in England, and Werner Siemens of Berlin, announced independent discovery of the self—excited machine. Current generated by the new machine excited its own field coils. This was to be the final form for both ac and dc dynamo–electric machines.

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The mirror galvanometer, invented by Sir William Thomson, was the only instrument sensitive enough to receive messages over the early transatlantic cables. A typical setup is shown. In 1867 he invented a new receiver that recorded signals by spurting ink from a fine glass siphon, upon a moving paper ribbon.

Using principles set forth by Varley and the armature form employed by Antonio Pacinotti in 1860, Zenobe Theopile Gramme invented a continuous–current generator that produced remarkably large currents from a small machine. But a fortunate accident occurred in Gramme's career that completely overshadowed his invention.

At an industrial exhibition in Vienna, 1873, several Gramme machines were being placed in position to demonstrate the various uses to which they could be put.

In making the electrical connections to one of the machines that had not yet been belted to its engine shaft, a careless workman attached — by mistake — a pair of wires that were already connected to another dynamo machine, which was in rapid motion. To the worker's amazement, the second machine commenced to, revolve rapidly in a reverse direction.

Gramme, hastily called to the scene, at once perceived that the second machine was performing like a motor. For the first time the world had seen the transference of mechanical power through the medium of electricity.

James Clerk Maxwell, when asked what he thought was the greatest discovery of the period said: The fact that the Gramme machine was found to run backwards.

The principle of converting mechanical energy into electric currents and reconverting them into mechanical power fired imaginations with the concept of transmitting power over great distances via conductors.

Charles W. Siemens of London insisted in 1877 that by such a means the enormous energy of the water coming over Niagara Falls could be transferred to New York City and used there for mechanical power. Two years later Sir William Thomson asserted his belief that an insulated copper wire half an inch in diameter could be used to extract 26,000 horsepower from water wheels driven by Niagara Falls and, with losses, could deliver 21,000 horsepower a distance of 300 miles.

While the enormous potential of such a system attracted general attention in scientific circles, its application to useful purposes was deferred several years by the profit opportunities in electric lighting, which promised investors larger and more immediate gains.

Electric trains

One of the earliest applications of the transmission of power was the revival of the electrically operated railway. Its commercial development had been suspended until machinery was available to furnish large quantities of electricity at moderate cost.

Werner Siemens devised and constructed a circular railway, 1000 feet long and with a one–meter gauge, for display at the Berlin Industrial Exhibition in the summer of 1879. A five horsepower steam engine drove the dynamo–electric machine.

Meanwhile, several American inventors were at work on electric transportation, among them Stephen D. Field of San Francisco, Dr. Joseph R. Finney of Pittsburgh, and Thomas Edison of New Jersey. Edison, in the spring of 1880, at Menlo Park, NJ, was the first to construct a dynamo–electric railway in America. The tracks carried the current.

Finney's plan used a wire suspended above the railway line. A small trolley ran on this wire and the return path for the current was through the rails. His first experimental car, exhibited in Allegheny, PA, in the summer of 1882, provided a model for the overhead power feed.

With the impetus given to the production and commercial use of electric power, and with the key developments that occurred from 1865 through 1867, the stage was set for the rapid expansion of electrical networks in cities, first for street lighting and industrial power, and in the final decades of the 19th century for home lighting and appliances.

Interestingly enough, the first dc watt–hour meters — called Weber meters — used a current shunt to plate zinc plates in a zinc sulfate solution. The amount of zinc transferred from one plate to another in a month was one one–thousandth of the quantity of electricity used. Each month the plates were changed and weighed.

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By the 1890s electricity was powering many of the same basic household lighting, cooking and appliances we have today. A wiring plan of that period shows the many items serviced by electricity.

The age of wire communication began with Samuel F. B. Morse's invention of the telegraph in 1837, after which the system proceeded to expand slowly through the first few decades of its existence. Morse formed a private stock company in 1845 after problems resulting from the war with Mexico cut off government funding for the telegraph. Within a few years, hundreds of communities between the eastern seaboard and the Mississippi were connected with the rapidly expanding network of telegraph lines.

One major problem that confronted system users was that only a single operator could send at a time. Until 1852 no one had devised a system to make simultaneous use of the lines. But in that year, Moses G. Farmer invented a synchronous multiple telegraph in which he proposed to employ two rotation switches, one at each end of the line.

Farmer's system had all the basic elements of what in later years were to be successful time–division multiplexed equipment, but it never became practical; he was never able to keep both rotating switches in synchronism during trials of the system. That problem was not to be solved until 1872.

In the intervening years attempts to send a telegraph message frequently proved to be a nightmare. Since there was no organized traffic system a dozen or more operators might be trying to send a message at the same time on the same wire. Order began to emerge from the chaos with the organization of Western Union in 1856.

Hardly had the system begun to be rationalized than the Civil War intervened. One week after it started the United States government closed down the Washington Office of the American Telegraph Company as a precaution against espionage.

U.S. General George McClellan was one of the first to appreciate the telegraph as a tactical weapon. The Union Army first used it in Virginia on June 3, 1861.

A conflict between the telegraph companies and the Signal Corps over jurisdiction was won by the telegraph companies, and a separate telegraph department was set up under the direct control of the Secretary of War.

All this time the system was still plagued by the inability of a line to carry more than one message at a time. It was not until the early part of 1872 that Joseph B. Stearns of Boston solved the major problem that had defeated earlier designs the effects of the capacitive discharge of the line upon release of the key. Western Union rapidly acquired rights to Stearns' system and used his duplex system successfully.

The French connection

One of the most profound influences on multiplex printing–telegraph design was due to the inventive genius of Jean Maurice Emile Baudot, an officer of the French Telegraph Service.

Baudot developed a five–unit code — the shortest practicable code for land lines — and combined it with a division of line time originally suggested by Farmer, producing a practical multiple–user system of printing telegraphy. Its first trials, in 1875, used a system that allowed five messages to be sent at once. In 1877 the French officially adopted that system. Since then it has become universal.

After repeated failures in the 1850s to bridge the Atlantic with a cable that endured — failures costing millions of dollars — Cyrus Field, aboard The Great Eastern, linked Valentia Bay in Ireland with Heart's Content in Newfoundland in 1866.

It was a venture that proved the problems plaguing the laying and operation of the submarine cable had been licked. By the end of the 19th Century all the world's principal cities had been linked by a massive submarine cable network.


Based on the bicentennial issue of

Electronic Design
for engineers and engineering managers

Vol 24, number 4   Feb. 16, 1976
© 1976   Hayden Publishing Company Inc.
50 Essex St.   Rochelle Park, NJ   07662


Historical Time Line — Introduction

The Foundation Years   The Era of Giants   The Communications Era

The Vacuum Tube Era   The Transistor Era   The Integrated Circuit Era

AM Broadcast Basics
The Original Theory for Radio was Presented by James Clerk Maxwell in 1873.
Nikola Tesla was the first to patent a workable system.

Gravity   Site Link List   Crossed-Field AM Antenna  

Magnetism   Maxwell's Equations in Magnetic Media

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