The transformation of transformers

Steps realized in the development of transformers and the story about how GE Renewable Energy’s Grid Solutions’ ancestor companies contributed to that evolution

byWritten by François DEVAUX


The transformation of transformers



From Michael Faraday’s observation of electromagnetic induction in 1831 through today’s largest standard, converter and industrial power transformers, this article summarizes the major steps realized in the development of transformers since the beginning. It also showcases how GE Renewable Energy’s Grid Solutions’ ancestor companies such as DELLE, British Electric, Thomson-Houston, GEC Alsthom, AEG to name few of them, played a pioneering role in that evolution.


1.    Introduction

Little did Michael Faraday know that his observation of electromagnetic induction in 1831 would revolutionize the application of electricity and lead to the development of transformers as a key segment of the electric power industry. A number of pioneers (Nicolas Callen, Charles Page, Antoine Massen and Heinrich Ruhmkorff, among others) took Faraday’s discovery further, inducing a high voltage using a spark inductor – the forerunner of today’s transformer. Though it was considered a DC device, the spark inducer contributed significantly to the development of transformer technology. By the 1850s, alternating current finally found its application in the form of electric lighting. In 1882, Lucien Gaulard from France and the Englishman, John Dixon Gibbs, patented a distributing power system that used alternating current with two-coil induction devices linked by an open iron core. By 1883, devices, now known as secondary generators, were used in the first alternating current distribution system to light a 12 km section of the London Underground. At the same time, in Italy, all the stations of the Torino-Lanzo railway line where equipped with electric lighting, the most distant lamp being situated 40 km away from the 2000 volt generator operating at 133 Hz frequency. The following year, George Westinghouse realized the potential of secondary generators and developed the first high-powered device that could be manufactured cost-effectively. This device was the first commercial application of the “induction coil”, lighting offices and shops in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. Around the same time, the Ganz Company in Budapest created a closed-core device (the “ZBD” system). In its patent application, it was referred to as a “transformer”. The name has stuck ever since.


2.         The transformer’s commercial era

As production lines started up at the end of the 19th century, the transformer became an essential device for the transmission and distribution of electric power. One of the manufacturing pioneers was Compagnie Francaise Thomson-Houston (CFTH) in Saint-Ouen near Paris, an ancestor company of GE’s that began production in 1893.

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