Scanning the Past: A History of Electrical Engineers from the Past


Copyright 1991 IEEE Reprinted with permission from the IEEE publication, "Scanning the Past" which covers a reprint of an article appearing in the Proceedings of the IEEE Vol. 79, No. 8, August 1991


Charles E. L. Brown and Power Transmission from Lauffen to Frankfurt in 1891


Last year the IEEE Board of Directors voted to designate 1991 as the centennial year for the industrial use of alternating current power. Among the reasons for selecting 1991 was the successful and well-publicized transmission of polyphase power beginning August 24, 1891 from Lauffen, Germany, to the site of an international electrical exhibition in Frankfurt, a distance of about 175 km. This demonstration provided convincing evidence of the economic and technical feasibility of supplying power generated at remote locations to industrial centers.


The Lauffen-Frankfurt project was essentially a joint venture of a German electrical company, Allgemeine Elektrizitats Gesellschaft (AEG) and a Swiss company, Maschinenfabrik Oerlikon. Michael 0. Dolivo-Dobrowolsky of AEG designed a polyphase motor that drove a pump supplying an artificial waterfall at the Frankfurt exhibition. An Oerlikon engineer, C. E. L. Brown, designed an innovative polyphase generator which was driven by a water turbine on the Neckar River in Lauffen. He also designed an oil-insulated transformer for the project. A portion of the power brought from Lauffen was used for an illuminated sign with 1000 incandescent lamps.


The well known British engineer, William E. Earthen, who attended the Frankfurt exhibition wrote that it had shown engineers that towns far from water power sources might become industrial centers. He commented that "it is, indeed, as if it had been shown that such towns stood on an inexhaustible field of smokeless, dustless coal." The demonstration convinced the city of Frankfurt to adopt alternating current for its municipal power plant which began operation in 1894 and also influenced the adoption of alternating current at the large hydroelectric plant at Niagara Falls, New York, which began operation in 1895.


C. E. L. Brown (1863-1924) was born in Winterthur, Switzerland, His mother was Swiss and his British father worked in Switzerland as a consulting engineer and designer of steam engines. Brown was educated in Swiss schools and served an apprenticeship in a machine shop in Basel before joining the Oerlikon company in 1884. Two years later he became director of the electrical department at Oerlikon. He designed a variety of direct and alternating current machines for Oerlikon and was awarded a grand prize for a dynamo design at the Paris exhibition in 1889. A biographical sketch of Brown published in a technical periodical in 1891 described him as being "one of the brightest and best known of the continental electricians [with] a reputation of international importance."


In 1891, Brown and Walter Boveri, also an engineer with Oerlikon, decided to leave Oerlikon and form their own electrical manufacturing company, Brown, Boveri, and Company in Baden, Switzerland. The new firm received the contract to build the municipal power plant in Frankfurt and acquired rights to manufacture steam turbines covered by the patents of Charles Parsons. American versions of the Lauffen type alternator were introduced by General Electric in 1897 and later by the Westinghouse Company and Allis-Chalmers.


Brown-Boveri grew into one of the world's leading manufacturers of power machinery. In 1987, Brown-Boveri merged with Allmanna Svenska Elektriska Aktiebolaget (Asea) of Sweden to become reportedly "the world's largest electrotechnical concern, Asea Brown-Boveri." In April 1988 Asea Brown-Boveri and Westinghouse reached an agreement to engage in joint ventures in power generation and distribution. These developments have raised concern over the U.S. becoming increasingly dependent on non-U.S. firms for electrical power machinery and related apparatus. Similar concerns were voiced a century ago when Westinghouse was selected instead of Brown--Boveri to supply the generators for the first power plant at Niagara Falls.


James E. Brittain

School of History, Technology, and Society

Georgia Institute of Technology