William Stanley’s Search For Immortality
William Stanley contributed in a major way to a major invention: the transformer, the key element in the alternating-current system that delivers almost all of the world’s electricity. He also helped build two major corporations, both the Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company and its archrival General Electric. But hardly anyone remembers him.
His name is worth reviving a hundred years after his greatest achievement, not only because of what he did but because of what he shows us about invention. Like many other leading inventors of his time, he spent his life in a stubborn, frustrated search for recognition and in a complex on-and-off relationship with major corporations. People tend to think inventing is done by either lone individuals or corporations. In truth, it is as often a complex tangle involving both. In the late nineteenth century in the electrical industry—as in other industries and other times—there was a troubled symbiosis between even such powerful corporations as Westinghouse and GE and so fiercely independent an inventor as William Stanley. Corporations and independent inventors couldn’t live with each other, but they also couldn’t live without each other.
Most of the great independent electrical inventors of the age—including Stanley, Thomas Edison, Elihu Thomson, Frank Sprague, and Nikola Tesla—consulted for, sold out to, quit, or got fired from at least one big corporation. Some did all these things, and some did them more than once. They got mixed up again and again with big businesses, and not just because that was where the money was. As much as they wanted to make money, they also wanted freedom to create. And they wanted to put bulbs, boxes, and signs with their names on them into living rooms, kitchens, factories, and electric-power systems all across their nations.
That last motive—to make their names live—may have been the most important of all. It certainly caused the most trouble. To get your name on products across America takes big resources, and an organization that has those resources generally doesn’t want any name on the box except its own. So one by one, giant corporations swallowed up the company names that memorialized the inventors—Charles Brush, Edison, Thomson and E. J. Houston, Sprague, Stanley, and many even more obscure, like Daft (did the Daft Electric Company ever inspire much investor confidence?). They all disappeared into the banker-created General Electric or the company founded by the one individual inventor strong enough to keep his name before the public, George Westinghouse—whose most important inventions fell outside the field of electricity.
Because it usually took someone other than an organization man to make the real leap ahead, the corporations needed the lone inventor. Indeed, the four key inventions on which modern electric power are based—the high-resistance incandescent lamp, the transformer, the polyphase induction motor, and the steam-turbine generator—were all pioneered by individuals. But each inventor eventually gave way, willingly or not, to a large corporation in order to get the follow-through that put his invention to work. Walk along the roads of America and look up at the power lines, and you will see gray objects that look like small garbage cans hanging from the poles. Those are transformers. If William Stanley had had his way, each of those millions of cans would display his name on its side. In 1886 Stanley became the first man in America to build an electric-power system the modern way, distributing electricity in the form of alternating current, with transformers stepping down the high transmission voltage to low household voltage. He hadn’t discovered the principle of the transformer, and he wasn’t the first person to make it work. But he was its American pioneer, and he designed the first transformers that were easily manufactured, and then he put them to use. Those are very significant achievements, but for a man seeking to make his name live, they were not enough.
Stanley was born in Brooklyn in 1858, the son of a well-todo lawyer. Early on, his interests ran to mechanical pursuits. Like many ten-year-olds, he figured out how to take apart a watch; unlike most, he also figured out how to put it back together so it ran. His father wanted him to follow in his footsteps with a degree from Yale and a career in law, but Stanley was determined to become an inventor. He took a first semester in New Haven, in 1879, but it could hardly compete with the attractions not far to the south, where Thomas Edison and his rivals were racing in a glare of publicity to perfect the electric light. That winter, as Edison prepared to unveil his winning product, Stanley dropped out of school for good. “Have had enough of this, am going to New York,” he wrote to his parents.
At first he worked briefly for a maker of telegraph apparatus; then he borrowed two thousand dollars from his father and went into the electroplating business. Within a year he had taught himself both electrochemistry and salesmanship, repaid the loan, and moved on to a post with Edison’s chief rival in electric lighting, Hiram Maxim. Stanley directed Maxim’s first successful lighting project. Maxim later remembered him as “very tall and thin, but what he lacked in bulk he made up in activity. Nothing went fast enough for him.” Stanley’s energy made him enemies; some of them got him fired after he accidentally started a fire at Maxim’s factory. But Maxim hired him back as his chief laboratory assistant and then sailed for Paris, leaving Stanley as second-incommand under another outstanding inventor, Edward Weston. The two found they could not work in harness, so Stanley soon left for a stint as an experimenter for the Swan Electric Light Company in Boston. He then returned to the family home, now in Englewood, New Jersey, to set up his own electrochemical laboratory, hoping to develop an electric storage battery for use in lighting systems.
This might sound like a whole career’s worth of experience; it was certainly a superb four-year education, both theoretical and practical. Stanley’s notebooks from the time show a sophisticated understanding of electrical principles and calculation methods and a talent for thinking visually, manifested in beautifully executed drawings. By 1884 Stanley had married a banker’s daughter and was ready to go back into the lighting business, not as a beginner but as an experienced electrical engineer. He was made a partner in an electrical venture being launched in Pittsburgh by one of the nation’s most renowned inventor-industrialists, George Westinghouse.
The pairing was explosive. The aggressive and self-confident Westinghouse had left college to learn engineering in the shop in 1865. His invention of the air brake had made him a millionaire manufacturer and public figure. Stanley, twelve years younger, had less of a track record but no less creativity and energy; his whirlwind tour through the early electrical world had convinced him that his ideas could stand up against anyone’s. He would not back down even to Westinghouse himself when it came to defending the value of an invention and his right to a share in the rewards and recognition it would bring.
In his first year and a half with Westinghouse, Stanley patented fourteen inventions, and he took the new Westinghouse lighting system on the road as a salesman in the Midwest. While on the train from Pittsburgh to Fort Wayne in April 1885, he found time to fit in among reports about equipment and inventions a letter to his wife. “Dearest Bones,” he wrote, “I think I never saw grass look fresher and more beautiful than it does this spring.… I think that I will surely get up and leave Pittsburgh for good.”
He had other reasons for restlessness besides that spring grass, As a leader of the Westinghouse effort tactfully put it, “Stanley’s best work was done away from contact with the everyday, never-ending mental work, discipline and industry of either the main office of the shops or the working laboratory.” Stanley was more blunt, describing how work and friction with colleagues had worn him down: “By the spring of 1885 my health gave out and there seemed to be a grave question as to my ability to withstand Pittsburgh and its work. My doctor began to advise me to go to the country. I was rather discouraged.”
But not so discouraged as to depart without a financial arrangement. George Westinghouse established an independent laboratory for Stanley in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, and gave him two hundred dollars a month to run it plus an annual salary of four thousand dollars. Stanley in return promised Westinghouse first option on any inventions that fitted the plans of the new company.
The Stanley-Westinghouse arrangement was tumultuous. Stanley, the independent inventor, would later call the deal onerous; Westinghouse, the corporate chieftain, would call it generous. Westinghouse saw Stanley’s laboratory as a mere extension of his company’s efforts; Stanley pointed out that anything he did unrelated to their agreement, such as proposing a wholly new principle for light bulbs—he called it molecular light—belonged to him alone.
But molecular light was only a side issue, and it never panned out anyway. Stanley now focused his work on a far more promising problem clearly of mutual interest: alternating-current (AC) lighting systems. Westinghouse had secured patent rights to a transformer designed by a Briton and a Frenchman, John Gibbs and Lucien Gaulard, and asked Stanley to put it to work. Stanley, already interested in AC,rushed ahead.
In the mid-1880s electric lighting was proving far more expensive than anyone had expected, threatening to become a mere luxury for the rich rather than a rival to gas and kerosene. An obvious way to reduce costs would be by expanding the small area that could be powered from a single central station, but this would require sending power through wires over much greater distances. There were, and are, two basic ways to do this: Either increase the voltage (in rough terms, this is the pressure pushing the electricity along) or increase the current (the amount of electricity passing a given cross section of wire each second). Increased current would heat wire dangerously unless the wires were made much thicker, but as Stanley himself put it, “if one should attempt to light Fifth Avenue [in New York] from Fourteenth to Fifty-sixth Street, the conductors would have to be as large as a man’s leg.” The cost of that much copper would ruin an electric-power company.
So why not raise the voltage? With Edison’s direct-current (DC) system, increasing voltage was also difficult and dangerous. What was needed was some sort of electric pump, to take a moderate voltage off a generator, raise it up to hundreds or even thousands of volts for efficient transmission through thin copper wires, and then let it down again at the other end for domestic use at a safe 110 volts. Only with alternating current could such a pump be possible.
The pump actually had been invented a half-century earlier, when Michael Faraday made one of science’s epochal discoveries: Coil many turns of a long insulated wire around a bar of soft iron, and coil many turns of a second insulated wire around that. Put an alternating voltage (one that reverses its direction at regular intervals) across the first coil. An alternating voltage will then occur across the ends of the second coil. If the second coil has more turns than the first, its voltage will be higher than that of the first; if it has fewer turns, it will be lower. In other words, you’ve got an electric pump.
All this was established physics by the 1880s, but a transformer based on Faraday’s experiment would be hopelessly inefficient—not because fundamental science was lacking but because engineering design was. When Gaulard and Gibbs had revived the transformer, they hadn’t been interested in increasing transmission distance, so they hadn’t significantly improved on Faraday’s design. Three Hungarian inventors, Max Déri, Charles Zipernowski, and Otto Titus Bláthy, had improved it somewhat, bending the iron bar into a ring to contain as much of the magnetic field as possible within the two coils and hooking up transformers in parallel to give each customer an identical voltage.
Stanley couldn’t claim ignorance of Gaulard and Gibbs’s work, but he could and did claim ignorance of the Hungarian system. He was probably less than candid. He was an assiduous reader of the technical literature, and the Hungarian Ganz and Company had demonstrated the system to, among others, George Westinghouse himself.
Whatever he already knew, Stanley went ahead in 1885 and rapidly evolved his own design through and beyond a doughnut-shaped transformer much like the Hungarian model. He figured out the right way to use the transformers, hooking them up in parallel. Then he made his truly important innovations. Through a series of evolutionary steps, he refashioned the transformer into an assembly of easily stamped-out E-shaped sheets, with the two coils wrapped around the middle leg of the E and another set of plates bolted across the open ends to secure the coils in place and close the magnetic circuit. He learned how to proportion the magnetic and electrical circuits so as to minimize the energy loss when there was no electrical load on the system and to give constant voltage when there was a load, no matter how many lamps happened to be turned on at any moment—an important consideration because small changes in voltage had dramatic effects on the life and efficiency of light bulbs.
He then constructed not only a device but a system. In March 1886 he celebrated the return of spring to the Berkshires by using transformers to boost a hundred volts of electricity up to five hundred volts, then send it from his lab across the four thousand feet to town and let it back down to a hundred volts in order to light up electric bulbs in the post office, two dentists’ offices, the telephone exchange, and a handful of Great Barrington stores.
This was a signal event in technological history, but it was not a resounding success for Stanley. As happened often, he won the inventive battle but lost the publicity war. A week before the demonstration, a conventional Edison system had brought electric light to a nearby mansion with what the local newspapers called A BRILLIANT SPECTACLE . Stanley’s subsequent feat was praised in the papers in lower case; it was just the second lighting system in town. Only gradually was its importance realized. George Westinghouse, too, was less taken with the achievement than Stanley felt he should have been. The system was a success, and Westinghouse’s engineers back in Pittsburgh would put it to work commercially in Buffalo by the end of 1886, but it would also drive Stanley and Westinghouse farther apart.
They agreed that Westinghouse’s company should now hit the road to start taking on Thomas Edison’s DC system, which could not deliver power to more than a few square miles without using those ruinously expensive thick conductors. Edison knew about the advantage of alternating current—in fact, he owned the American option on the Hungarian patents—but he thought the idea was too complicated, too dangerous, and too expensive.
In the long run Edison’s miscalculation helped knock him out of the electrical business; in the short run he was almost right. The Stanley system’s high voltages did threaten fire and shock. “As I look back on the plant now,” Stanley admitted in 1911, after AC had become safe and accepted, “I tremble for the safety of the inhabitants of Great Barrington.” Furthermore, you couldn’t run a practical motor with this early AC, and it played havoc with telephone signals. In the late 188Os the battle of the currents was still undecided.
Although Westinghouse and Stanley agreed about defeating Edison, they differed on other main points, such as what exactly Stanley had done and what he should get for it. Stanley felt he had made a key contribution that ought to be recorded in a patent with his name on it, even though the patent would become the property of the Westinghouse company. George Westinghouse felt Stanley was running a laboratory for him, plain and simple. Some of Stanley’s 1885 ideas might be patented, but not the key developments of 1886, such as the redesign of the transformer and the proportioning of the magnetic circuit. These were simply engineering improvements and had been brought down to Pittsburgh and made practical by Westinghouse’s engineers. The alternating-current system would go out into the world protected by the Gaulard-Gibbs patent that Westinghouse had already bought. George Westinghouse didn’t much care to have any name on the invention—other than his own.
From here on accounts diverge. Stanley’s version of events begins to sound like a spy novel. Westinghouse sent an agent skulking around Europe, looking for an inventor with sufficiently low morals to put his name on work he hadn’t done. The agent found Gaulard and Gibbs and filed the Stanley patent under their names, in effect stealing Stanley’s work. Meanwhile, back in Massachusetts, an inventor with the alarming name of Marmaduke M. Slattery also stole Stanley’s ideas and got a patent that he later defended successfully against Westinghouse.
The Slattery patent does appear to have been a case ot blatant imitation. But the only evidence to support Stanley’s allegations against Westinghouse is Stanley’s own recollection, written in a letter to a friend nearly thirty years later. Any other evidence was destroyed when a fire consumed most of Stanley’s papers. (Winthrop Knowlton, a grandson of Stanley, has used family tradition about the fire as the basis of a novel, False Premises , a thinly disguised saga of Stanley’s career.)
Told from the Westinghouse side, the story is a good deal less sinister. Patents on Stanley’s work weren’t necessary when his key ideas were already expressed in foreign patents and technical papers. His contribution had been to show that it all could work, and that was the service Westinghouse had bought from him and had paid for in full.
Facing a growing list of rivals planning to build alternating-current systems under the Slattery patent, Westinghouse and Stanley stuck together for four more years, from 1886 to 1890. In explaining this, Stanley later wrote, “I had already thought the matter over and taken the advice from my father who said it was better to help out a rascal if your friends were with him than to try to punish him.” In other words, Westinghouse was a rascal, but he was our rascal.
Still, two such strong-minded personalities could not last together long. In 1890, Stanley claimed, he got Westinghouse to agree in writing to put Stanley’s name on all those transformers. It never showed up there. Before the agreement could go into effect, the Westinghouse company hit a downturn and cut off all support for Stanley’s work at the Great Barrington laboratory. Stanley decided to sever his ties with Westinghouse and go it alone. And he promptly put his name on all his company’s products.
By now the electric-power industry was facing a big new challenge. Before AC could win a complete victory over DC, a good motor that could run on AC would have to be invented. Lots of ideas for this were in the air, and every major inventor in the field was lining up behind the one he thought best. Stanley raised some money in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and formed an alliance with two men who had talents that he lacked: John Kelly, a careful and systematic engineer, and Cummings C. Chesney, who was very good at running a factory. Together they formed a pair of companies: a laboratory to be run by Stanley and a manufacturing company to be run by the other two.
As he had with Westinghouse, Stanley carefully arranged to protect his inventive independence. Kelly and Chesney would be responsible for getting products out the back door of the Stanley Manufacturing Company; the inventor himself, in charge of the Stanley Laboratory, would handle “designing and improving,” but not “drawings, models or exact supervision.” Stanley chose what he thought was the best alternating-current motor and built around it a system for generating, distributing, and using electricity, the Stanley-Kelly-Chesney, or SKC, system.
He chose wrong. He used a capacitor-based motor, which is one way to do the job, but capacitors were then too expensive and unreliable for running factory-size motors. Had the success of the company depended only on that key choice, that would have been the end of the story.
But Stanley had done something more important than pick an idea: he had picked a team. And it is easier for a good team to fix a bad idea than for a good idea to fix a bad team. Stanley, Kelly, and Chesney realized they might not win the big prize—founding the universal electric system—so by 1893 they had abandoned the capacitor and adopted the polyphase system, the ultimate winner of the battle of the currents. It achieved the same end as the capacitor system more efficiently, reliably, and cheaply by sending separate out-of-step currents through separate wires to the motor.
Then the Stanley team focused again on the area where it could lead the world: transformers. By the 1890s electricity had crossed the nation. In California, unlike Massachusetts, the best sources of power were remote waterfalls tens or even hundreds of miles from where power was needed. It was easy to see that higher voltages than ever would be required for efficient transmission over such distances, but when voltage was raised too high, the system broke down. How high was too high?
The Californians who wanted to transmit power took that question to the two electrical giants—Westinghouse and a company called General Electric, which had been formed from a merger of Edison’s companies with those of his rival Elihu Thomson. Both companies gave cautious answers. Then Stanley, Kelly, and Chesney made what sounded to GE and Westinghouse like a foolhardy proposal. They would guarantee electricity transmission at sixty thousand volts.
That doesn’t sound like much today, when voltages in the hundreds of thousands are routine, but in 1899 the great electrical engineer Charles Proteus Steinmetz of General Electric wrote: “This voltage has never been used or approached on any transmission line.… I do not believe it can be operated successfully at the present.” So GE and Westinghouse stood back as Stanley’s ideas were used for some of the biggest power-transmission jobs out West. Stanley and his partners turned out to be correct. The voltages could be, and were, handled successfully. By the late 189Os the Stanley Manufacturing Company had become a valuable and profitable business.
But not valuable and profitable enough to guarantee freedom from the giants. Stanley and his partners had more brains than capital, so they were ripe for picking by someone with more capital than brains. The more successful the Stanley company became, the more attractive it looked to the goliath in Schenectady, which it had often outmaneuvered. By the late 189Os the stage had been set for a hostile takeover, a move that was not invented in the 1980s.
Stanley Electric looked for what is today called a white knight and sold out in 1899 to a third party, the Roebling family, builders of the Brooklyn Bridge and makers of wire for bridges, pianos, and electric-power systems. But the Roeblings soon lost interest, so the company remained under siege.
The electrical giants then attacked on a new front. GE and Westinghouse had in 1896 signed a patent-sharing agreement that enabled them to stop suing each other and to create a joint body called the Board of Patent Control, enabling them to sue independents like Stanley. In 1902 the Westinghouse company took the Stanley Manufacturing Company to court for using SKC transformers—and cited as the patent being infringed the very one Stanley had assigned to Westinghouse in 1888, covering Stanley’s improvements of 1886. Only GE and itself, Westinghouse argued, could legally make Stanley-style transformers.
This seemed an odd use of a patent system created to induce inventors to give their ideas to the world. A Westinghouse man actually admitted in court that the objection to SKC’s transformers was that they were undercutting the giants’ prices. The litigation had its intended effect. In 1903 GE acquired the Stanley Manufacturing Company. Meanwhile, Stanley, who hadn’t had much to do with the company for several years, had formed another firm, to develop electric meters. Westinghouse used patent litigation to shut it down, too.
Stanley now had to content himself by writing letters to newspapers and technical periodicals describing how, when beaten in the laboratory and marketplace, the big companies had used drawn-out legal battles to wear down the lone inventor, to “annul his usefulness, discourage his endeavors, disgust him with surrounding conditions, and finally remove him from the land.”
Stanley and General Electric discovered, in 1906, the arrangement that today we call a golden parachute. GE bought twenty-two of Stanley’s patents for thirty-two thousand dollars and offered him a healthy salary of twelve thousand dollars a year (something like two hundred thousand dollars today) plus support for a new laboratory. All Stanley had to do was spend up to half his time working on problems sent his way by GE’s third vice-president, and he could devote the other half to new businesses—as long as they were “not in conflict with GE.” He chose to help GE with heating devices. To assist him, GE sent down from Schenectady a young chemist named Irving Langmuir, who went on to win the 1932 Nobel Prize for chemistry.
Stanley chose as his own business the manufacture of thermos bottles, and he made some significant improvements in them, such as a better welding process to make the seams more leakproof. And he finally began to spend more time enjoying the Berkshires, where he took up fishing and shooting. Neighbors began to speak of his generosity and hospitality. One account noted his “grace of manner, warm, frank nature and engaging personality.” But the old contentiousness still smoldered, as revealed in an angry letter he sent to a former colleague in 1913, raking up the coals of his disputes with Westinghouse.
The heating and thermos-bottle projects were scarcely under way when William Stanley died, in 1916, at the age of fifty-seven. No GE heating devices today bear his name, but the thermos bottles still say Stanley , a trade name now belonging to the Tennessee company that makes them. A century after his greatest achievement, you can find William Stanley’s name only there and in a few other places—at a social club for Pittsfield GE employees, on a wall at GE’s Pittsfield plant, and at Stanley Park, in Great Barrington.
The fading away of his name is too bad, for the story of William Stanley, George Westinghouse, and General Electric reminds us that inventors are in it for more than money or excitement. They want their ideas used and their names memorialized. To get these things, they often need the support of an institution foreign to their nature and to the idea of keeping names alive. This was true not only for Stanley but for other greats of electricity and electronics as well—Thomson, Tesla, Edison, Sprague, Lee de Forest, and Edwin H. Armstrong. In all these men, personal charm coexisted with a stubborn combativeness that, far from being incidental, was essential to their inventiveness. They all depended on that fervor at key points in their careers, when rivals, or the very backers or corporations that had initially supported their work, threatened to push them and their work aside. They all, like Stanley, carried on occasionally bitter controversies in defense of their originality and their names, sometimes long after all financial questions had been settled. They wanted not only to get their money out of an invention but also to get their ideas inside it and their names on it. In almost every case the people who ran the big corporations would let them take out the money and put in the ideas, but they wouldn’t put on the name.
The failure of Stanley and most of his colleagues to make their names live also reflects a simpler reality of invention. No one made the electrical revolution, or even a single one of its major inventions, all alone. Gray cans holding transformers now hang on power poles all across America. Nobody even notices they’re up there. The transformer’s elegant design, with its simply shaped, punched, laminated sheets fitted around the coils, is recognizably Stanley’s, but you can’t see it hidden inside that can. And even if the little metal tag on the side did bear the name Stanley, or Gaulard and Gibbs, or Déri, Zipernowski, and Bláthy, or even the name of the man who really invented the transformer, Michael Faraday, it would still be too high up for anyone to read.