History The invention of the electric motor 18001854

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The invention of the electric motor 1800-1854

A short history of electric motors — Part 1

Univ.-Prof. Dr.-Ing. Martin Doppelbauer


With the invention of the battery (Allessandro Volta, 1800), the generation of a magnetic field from electric current (Hans Christian Oersted, 1820) and the electromagnet (William Sturgeon, 1825) the foundation for building electric motors was laid. At that time it was still open whether electric motors should be rotating or reciprocating machines, i.e. simulate a plunger rod of a steam engine.

Worldwide, many inventors worked in parallel on this task — it was a fashion problem. New phenomena were discovered almost daily. Inventions in the field of electrical science and its applications were in the air.

Often the inventors knew nothing about each other and developed similar solutions independently. National histories are shaped accordingly until present day. The following is an attempt to provide a comprehensive and neutral picture.

The first rotating device driven by electromagnetism was built by the Englishman Peter Barlow in 1822 (Barlow’s Wheel).

After many other more or less successful attempts with relatively weak rotating and reciprocating apparatus the German-speaking Prussian Moritz Jacobi created the first real rotating electric motor in May 1834 that actually developed a remarkable mechanical output power. His motor set a world record which was improved only four years later in September 1838 by Jacobi himself. His second motor was powerful enough to drive a boat with 14 people across a wide river.

It was not until 1839/40 that other developers worldwide managed to build motors of similar and later also of higher performance.

Already in 1833 the German Heinrich Friedrich Emil Lenz published an article about the law of reciprocity of the magneto-electric and electromagnetic phenomena, i.e. the reversibility of electric generator and motor . In 1838 he provided a detailed description of his experiments with a Pixii-generator that he operated as a motor.

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In 1835 the two Dutchmen Sibrandus Stratingh and Christopher Becker built an electric motor that powered a small model car. This is the first known practical application of an electric motor. In February 1837 the first patent for an electric motor was granted to the US-american Thomas Davenport.

However, all the early developments by Jacobi, Stratingh, Davenport and others eventually did not lead to the electric motors we know today.

The DC motor was not created from these engines, but rather from the development of power generators (dynamometers). The foundations were laid by William Ritchie and Hippolyte Pixii in 1832 with the invention of the commutator and, most importantly, by Werner Siemens in 1856 with the Double-T-anchor and by his chief engineer, Friedrich Hefner-Alteneck, in 1872 with the drum armature. DC motors still have a dominant market position today in the low power (below 1 kW) and low voltage (below 60 V) range.

The years 1885 until 1889 saw the invention of the three-phase electric power system which is the basis for modern electrical power transmission and advanced electric motors. A single inventor for the three-phase power system can not be named. There are several more or less well known names who were all deeply involved in the inventions (Bradley, Dolivo-Dobrowolsky, Ferraris, Haselwander, Tesla and Wenström).

Today, the three-phase  synchronous motor is used mostly in highly dynamic applications (for example in robots) and in electric cars. It was developed first by Friedrich August Haselwander in 1887.

The highly successful three-phase cage induction motor  was built first by Michael Dolivo-Dobrowolsky in 1889. Today, this is the most frequently produced machine in the power range of 1 kW and above.

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