The History of the Transformer

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Transformers are an essential requirement for the power grid. They take generated power and convert it to voltages for transmission and distribution to residential, commercial, and industrial customers.

While electricity has been researched for centuries, it was difficult to harness. The transformer would help take the concept of widespread electrical power and make it a reality.

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The Invention of the Transformer

The transformer was invented by three men in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1878. Miksa Deri, Otto Blathy, and Karoly Zipernowsky created a basic transformer built on the idea of induction. They used this ZBD Transformer in their experiments and some early commercial systems, but it was too expensive and unreliable for widespread use.

Upgrading the Idea: Gaulard and Gibbs

In 1881, John Dixon Gibbs and Lucien Gaulard, two London engineers, designed a transformer that could actually be used in a practical power system. Their transformers would be put to use in the Italian city of Turin in 1884. This early transformer lit up about 25 miles of a local railway. While their electrical system was far from perfect, it would serve as the basis for experiments done by an American entrepreneur.

George Westinghouse’s Upgrades

George Westinghouse, Jr., a rival of Thomas Edison, was working on electrical systems during the same time period. While Edison was trying to use direct current to power cities, Westinghouse was more interested in alternating current. Westinghouse and his two associates, Franklin Leonard Pope and William Stanley, set out to take the Gaulard and Gibbs transformer and upgrade it. Despite powering 25 miles of railway, the design still had some flaws. For example, if one light in the chain went out, it would take down the entire 25 miles of lights.

The three began experimenting with combining the transformer with an AC power generator. In 1886, they unveiled their first multiple-voltage AC electrical power system in the town of Great Barrington, Massachusetts. Based on a 500 volt AC hydropower generator, the Westinghouse system used transformers to step the current up to 3,000 volts. This higher voltage power was transmitted to individual lights, where another transformer stepped it down to a usable 100 volts.

This was the breakthrough needed to make electrical current practical, and while the system has been refined over the years, it’s still fundamentally the same.

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