The 19th century was the century of electricity. Or at least it was the crucial period in which the human being began to tame that energy that made it possible to light bulbs and move machines and vehicles. An apparently invisible energy that was going to revolutionize all areas of human society to this day. Many had tried it before, but working on names like Thomas Alva Edison (1847-1931), Nicholas Tesla (1856-1943) or Michael Faraday (1791-1867) made possible the domestication of electricity. An uncoordinated teamwork that would give rise to revolutions in fields such as industry, transport, communications and the daily life of people.
There are a thousand and one stories of the discovery and domestication of electricity. Earlier I spoke of the inventions that appeared at the International Exhibition of 1881, a before and after where inventions were seen that we have become accustomed to today but that back then represented a whole futuristic revolution. There are many examples, but we could highlight the electric lighting, the light bulbs or the electric vehicle. Of course, they are very different in origin from what we enjoy today.
And of the many stories that can be told around electricity, there is one that stands out for its simplicity but, at the same time, everything that it meant from now on. It’s about the gramme machine, also known as gramme ring, by its shape, or dynamo of gramme. To his credit, this seemingly simple device enabled electricity to be generated for industrial use, and shortly thereafter also proved useful in becoming the first commercially successful electric motor. Its inventor, the Belgian Zénobe Gramme. This is his story.
From Faraday to Gramme: electromagnetism
I often remember that an invention sometimes has unique paternity, but that it is due to previous work of many others. Nothing comes from nothing, it is always based on previous knowledge that is improved over the years. And the case at hand is not an exception.
So, before talking about Gramme we should mention Michael Faraday, an English physicist and chemist who we know especially for his “Faraday cage” but who laid the foundations for knowledge about electromagnetism and electrochemistry. Or what is the same, without it there would have been possible inventions such as radio, microwave, television or telecommunications. And what about the batteries we use today to power every mobile electronic device, from smart watches to large vehicles.
In the subject at hand, to Faraday we owe her faraday album or dynamo of faraday, an invention presented in 1832 and that we could say was the first electromagnetic generator. Employing an electrical conductor through a magnetic field, magnetic energy was converted into electrical energy. As simple, from today’s perspective, as placing a copper disc that revolved around a horseshoe-shaped magnet. This device would end up being called dynamo or dynamo, in generic, and its creator French Hippolyte Pixii. But it would not be the first to exist.
Precisely, the protagonist of this story, the Belgian Zénobe Gramme, presented in 1870 his own dynamo, which would be known as Gramme’s dynamo, machine or ring. Based on the theory of Faraday and in the practice of Pixii, together with the knowledge of Italian Antonio Pacinotti, who created his own machine in 1860 and the dynamo of SiemensPatented in 1866, Gramme created his own large-scale dynamo, a commercial electricity generator.
In 1871, Gramme showed his invention at the Paris Academy of Sciences. And in 1873 he did the same in the Vienna International Dog Show. That same year, with the collaboration of Hippolyte Fontaine, they accidentally discovered that their dynamo was reversible. That is, in addition to generating electrical energy from mechanical energy, they could do the opposite. They had discovered a electric motor direct current. Precisely, in the Exhibition of 1873 he will present both inventions: the Electric generator and the electric motor.
But let’s go back to the beginning of this story, to the figure of Zénobe Gramme, a self-taught like many others at that time. Zénobe Théophile Gramme was born in Belgium in 1826. He first starts as an apprentice in the workshop Duchesne from Hannut (Belgium). In 1848, he started evening courses at the Huy Industrial School (Belgium). And the following year he moved to Liège to work as a wood turner in the workshops Perat. During the day turning and at night he continues studying at the industrial school in Liège.
In 1855 he finished his studies and moved to Brussels, Marseille and finally to Paris, where in 1856 he went to work in a carpentry shop. In 1860, he will change jobs. He will do it at the electrical construction company L’Alliance until 1866. There you will become familiar with magnetic machines and electric generators. We have already mentioned the rest of the story: in 1867 he patented an alternating current motor. In 1868, he built his dynamo that he would present in 1870 onwards.
Precisely, in 1870 Gramme founded the Societé General des Machines Magnetoeléctriques Gramme, or in Spanish, the General Society of Electromagnetic Machines Gramme. The company will be possible with the financial help of the count Ivernois. He will make it possible for Gramme to meet Fontaine, with whom you will discover that your dynamo can also be an electric motor.
So in 1871 Gramme designs the first commercial power plant from its dynamo. It will be capable of generating enough energy to power any industry from electricity obtained through electromagnetism. And in 1873, you will discover that by inverting your machine you will get a high powered electric motor.
The connection with Nikola Tesla
We said before that in 1873, Zénobe Gramme will present at the Vienna World Fair its two most recent inventions: the electric generator and its electric motor. And in 1878 they will appear again at the Universal exposition of that year, this time in Paris. It is not necessary to remember the success of both inventions, since in addition to being attractive they were practical. In other words, several businessmen were interested in them and used them in practice.
Source: Musée des arts et métiers, Cnam
As a final curiosity, in 1875 Nicholas Tesla was able to observe and become familiar with a Gramme machine in the Graz University of Technology, in Austria. The machine inspired him to produce alternating current, an idea to which he devoted much of his life. And although at the time the figure of Tesla did not have the deserved recognitionIn recent years, he has been rewarded to the point of being part of popular culture.
The same did not happen with Gramme, who although he was awarded the Legion of Honor French and the Leopold’s Order Belgian, her figure has not stood so well over the years in the collective memory. With everything, we will always have the gramme machine and all the inheritance he left to the inventors who came later.
Note: The image at the top of this article is the property of Frédéric Bisson and corresponds to an installation that you will find at the Center d’Histoire Sociale de Haute-Normandie.