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Copper History Pt. IV

Copper & the Electrical Age


Along with the advances in metallurgical studies that occurred during the industrial revolution, bringing about an unprecedented number of new applications for copper and copper alloys, the period was also marked by major developments in electrical engineering.

The importance of the development of electrical engineering to copper cannot be understated, as evidenced by the fact that electrical applications now account for about 65% of all copper demand.

A full history of early electrical engineering and telegraphy is out of the scope of this abbreviated history of copper, but a brief summary of important developments is central to understanding the copper market of today.

The year 1600 can be seen as a starting point for modern electrical engineering. In that year, the English physician William Gilbert published De Magnete, Magneticisique Corporibus et de Magno Tellure (On the Magnet and Magnetic Bodies, and on that Magnet the Earth), a summary of his years of research on magnetism and electricity.

Following on Gilbert's research, European scientists advanced the study of electricity through the 17th century, leading to the invention of the leyden jar - generally considered as the first electrical capacitor - in 1745.

During the same period, an English scientist named Stephen Gray began systematically examining the ability of different materials to conduct electricity, and in 1729 he used brass wire in the first recorded attempt to transmit electricity.

By the early 19th century, many scientists were advancing this new understanding of magnetism and electricity in the pursuit of developing a tool for power generation. And in 1866 Michael Faraday's research into electromagnet induction culminated in the creation of the first electric generator. By attaching two wires through a sliding contact to a copper disc, and rotating the disc between poles of a horseshoe magnet, an electric current was produced that flowed through the wire.

Early Telegraphy:
While studies into power generation in the mid-19th century were proceeding quite rapidly, many researchers were also studying the use of electrical transmissions as a method for transmitting messages - otherwise known as telegraphy.

By 1812, electrically conductive copper wires were already being used in detonating devices in mines. But it would be another 30 years before copper wires would begin to transmit messages.

A major initial step towards early telecommunications came in 1816 when Francis Ronalds developed the first electric telegraph. In 1832, Baron Pavel (Paul) Schilling then set-up the first electro-magnetic telegraph cable line, which included a keyboard as a transmitting device. Yet it was Samuel Morse, while working at New York University in the 1830s, who developed a practical and commercially successful version of the telegraph.

Lines were first installed between Washington and Baltimore in 1844, and by 1857 telegraphic transmissions were being used to dispatch trains. Within 5 years, Western Union laid the first transcontinental telegraph line, running nearly 2000 miles from the Mississippi River to Sacramento, bringing an end to the famous Pony Express. In the UK, meanwhile, 16,000 miles of telegraph line were installed by 1866.

The telegraph dominated communications technology until 1877 and the invention of the telephone. Nevertheless, the technology continued to advance, with automated transmission first appearing in 1914, teleprinting in 1925 and the telex in 1959.

Harnessing Electrical Power:
Faraday's initial generator inspired many to develop larger and more powerful power generators. In 1866, H. Wilde, an electrical engineer from Manchester, was the first to produce a generator that used power from the magneto to supply the field to the larger alternator. Werner Siemens then bettered this by making a dynamo that used part of the generator's working current to power the field winding, thereby eliminating the need for permanent magnets.

With the development electrical power, came modern lighting. Early light bulbs evolved from Humphry Davy's initial designs, produced in 1809. Filaments made from charcoal, paper and bamboo had all been experimented and used prior to the development of carbon fibre filaments in 1878. The arc lamps being used at the time, however, were still very difficult to maintain. Yet, Thomas Edison's evacuated glass bulb, which made use of a carbonized filament and platinum wires, resolved many of the efficiency issues (1879).

In support of his technology, Edison critically also developed and marketed the copper, brass and various other parts required for a functioning lighting system, including wiring, fuses, switches and sockets. This helped to standardize many of the competing technologies.

On top of his work on lighting, Edison helped to install three 125-horsepower jumbo generators at the Pearl Street Station in New York. By 1882, this powered 5000 lamps in 225 houses in lower Manhattan.

From Faraday's first generator, which used only about 7 pounds (3.2kgs) of copper, to Wilde's 'Alliance generator' that required 576 pounds (262kgs) of the metal, the development of electrical power generation and distribution brought with it greater and greater demand for copper. This has not changed. Modern 500MW turbo-generators each require an estimated 14 tons of copper in their construction.

One other development of the early electrical age was the electric trolley car. Electric trolley cars (or trams), which were power by current carried through copper-cadmium alloy cables, were first installed in St. Petersburgh, Russia and Berlin, Germany in 1880. Toronto, Canada (1883), Vienna, Austria (1883) and Richmond, Virginia (1888) followed soon after. A two-kilometer line along the seafront in Brighton, England, today, remains the oldest operating train in the world.

Looking back at the growth and maturation of electrical engineering that occurred in the 19th century, the speed at which this new technology spread was remarkable. Within 10 years of the 1878 Paris Exposition - where electric arc lighting, powered by AC dynamos was first put on public display - dozens of cities around the world had already installed electricity generation and distribution systems. The ability of electrical technologies to function - whether phones, telegrams, trolleys or light bulbs - was then, just as it is today, dependent on the conductive properties of copper.

Power Standards. Early History of Electric Power.
URL: http://www.powerstandards.com/EarlyHistory_ElectricPower.php
Bellis, Mary. "The History of the Electric Telegraph and Telegraphy". About.com: Inventors.
Gamble, James. Wiring a Continent: The Making of the US Transcontinental Telegraph Line. The Californian (1881).
URL: http://www.telegraph-history.org/transcontinental-telegraph/index.html

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