The history of transformers began with that of electricity itself. As voltages became ever higher, transformers became ever more powerful. GE Renewable Energy’s Grid Solutions’ ancestor companies played a pioneering role in that evolution.

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-kilometer 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.

1.- 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 Paris, an ancestor company of GE’s that began production in 1893.

Fig. 1: Thomson-Houston opens a subsidiary in Hamburg, Germany.

At this time, manufacturers worked largely with local utilities for local industrial needs. Rated power was only a few thousand kVA and voltage levels a few kV.
The huge increase in demand for electric power led to more generation, more transmission and considerably higher voltages.

The beginning of the 20th century saw a major voltage leap to 220 kV, and then again to 400 kV by the 1950s, while the 1960s witnessed the first 800 kV networks. This huge and rapid development was only possible thanks to improvements in transformer technology, design, manufacturing and materials. In particular, insulating materials – paper, pressboard, oil, silicon steel – have made great advances; in fact, it can be said that transformer development helped to boost the steel, paper and oil industries.

ALS.THOM three-phase power transformer manufactured in 1932 destined for customer Énergie Électrique du Rhin.

Fig. 2 – A 1928 air-cooled three-phase transformer (4,000 A/13.2 kV) from GE Grid Solutions’ ancestor company CFTH.
Fig. 3 – 1932: ALS.THOM three-phase transformer destined for customer Énergie Électrique du Rhin.

2.- Grid Solutions’ contribution

As one of the pioneers of transformers, GE’s Grid Solutions and its ancestor companies have made major contributions to the sector with its patents and technological breakthroughs, such as the interleaved disc winding for greater reliability, barrier shielding, and the first 1,050 kV transformer for extra-high voltage test lines in the 1960s.

Fig. 34: 1958 – The World’s most powerful transformer at that time – Fig. 5: GE’s first 1,050 kV transformer for extra-high voltage test lines in the 1960s

In the following decades, Grid Solutions showcased some of the world’s largest power transformers, and produced some of the most complex and advanced special transformers and reactors (including Quadrature Boosters, Series and Shunt Reactors and transformers for industrial and traction applications).

As large emerging economies have begun expanding or strengthening their networks, so the need to transmit high-voltage DC power over long distances has also been growing rapidly. This has meant investing in the development and production of new, more powerful transformers for DC networks. Since delivering HVDC converter transformers for the France-UK HVDC link in 1981, Grid Solutions has been in the vanguard of this evolution, developing transformer technology to match the specifications of DC current.

3.- Time line

1831Michael Faraday demonstrates the principle of electromagnetic induction
1836Nicolas Callan increases the voltage generated by using a two-coil converter
1853Heinrich Ruhmkorff builds a spark inductor – a high-voltage transformer
1882-83Lucien Gaulard and John Dixon Gibbs patent a distributing power system. that uses alternating current with two-coil induction devices. In 1883, secondary generators are used to light a 12-kilometer section of the London Underground
1885K. Zipernowsky, O. Bláthy and M. Déri patent the “ZBD transformer”
1886George Westinghouse produces the first commercial “induction coil”
1893Creation of Compagnie Française Thomson Houston; start of transformer production in Paris in cooperation with the future General Electric Corporation of the USA.
Early 20th centuryVoltage leap to 220 kV
1928Merger of CFTH and Société Alsacienne de Construction Mécanique to create ALS.THOM
19293.5 MVA-100/27.7 kV inter-connection transformer
193340 MVA-220/8.8 kV three-phase transformer
Mid of 20th century400 kV voltage level achieved
1960sAdvent of the first 800 kV networks
1960sDevelopment of interleaved disc winding
1970sGrid Solutions manufactures largest 600 MVA generator transformers
End 1980sManufacture of amorphous core distribution transformers
End 1990sHermetically sealed power transformers
2006First vegetable-oil 245 kV shunt reactors
2007The world’s first very large rating special arc furnace transformer (above 300 MVA)
2010UHVDC 800 kV prototype transformer produced and tested for the planned Chinese UHVDC network
2015GE acquires Alstom Grid which becomes Grid Solutions

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