A brief history of meter companies and meter evolution

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This section contains a brief history of most of the companies that have manufactured watthour meters in the US as well as pointing out highlights of meter development from the first crude attempts at metering to today's highly accurate electronic models. A few related events that had some impact on the companies and on meter development are also included for additional perspective.
Up to the 1870s, electricity had little use beyond the telephone and telegraph. The earliest use of electricity for power was to operate strings of arc lamps connected in series. Since the current was constant and the voltage required for each lamp was known, and all of the lamps were controlled by one switch, it was adequate to measure only the time current flowed in the circuit (lamp-hours).
1872:Samuel Gardiner takes out the first known patent on an electric meter. This was a DC lamp-hour meter that was a clock with an electromagnet that started and stopped the mechanism.
1878:J.B. Fuller takes out a patent on an AC lamp-hour meter that was a clock operated by an armature that vibrated between two coils.
After the invention of the incandescent lamp by Edison in 1879 and the subdivision of lighting circuits for individual control of the lamps, it was no longer practical to measure lamp-hours, but this practice continued (with arc-lamp street lighting circuits) into the 1890s.
1881:The Fort Wayne Electric Light Co. was incorporated to sell a dynamo and arc lamps patented by James Jenney. Ronald T. McDonald was the founder and president of this company.
1882:Edison starts up his first electric company for incandescent illumination. Initially he started out with a per-lamp rate. This was unsatisfactory so he developed a chemical ampere-hour meter that consisted of a jar holding two zinc plates connected across a shunt in the customer's circuit. Each month the electrodes were weighed and the customer's bill determined from the change in their weight. This meter was inefficient and error-prone. Edison did also develop a motor-type meter but preferred the chemical meter because of his interest in chemistry.
1883:The Thomson-Houston Electric Co. is organized in Lynn, Massachusetts to manufacture the inventions of Professors Elihu Thomson and Edwin Houston. Charles A. Coffin was the president and one of the investors who helped establish this company.
1884:George Westinghouse establishes the Union Switch & Signal Co. in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. William Stanley soon joins the new company, followed by Oliver B. Shallenberger who resigned from the Navy to take up his interest in electricity.
1885:Westinghouse buys the US rights to a transformer patented in Europe by Gaulard and Gibbs. Stanley took this crude design and refined it into a commercially usable version. (Thomson had already independently developed a similar transformer around 1879)
Once the transformer was commercially feasible, it helped make the present system of AC transmission and distribution possible since it had none of DC's drawbacks at the time (voltage drop in long lines and lack of an easy way to increase or decrease the voltage). There was one major obstacle, however: there was no meter to accurately record the usage of electricity on AC circuits.
1885:Galileo Ferraris of Turin, Italy makes a key discovery that two out of phase AC fields can make a solid armature rotate. This discovery spurred development of induction-type motors as well as paving the way for the development of the induction-type watthour meter.
1886:Professor Forbes of London, England came up with the first meter for use on AC circuits that used a heating element connected into the circuit which operated a small windmill connected to a register. Unfortunately, this meter was far too delicate for commercial use.
 The Union Switch & Signal Co. reorganizes into the Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Co. to exploit the then-new AC system of transmission and distribution. William Stanley was the chief electrical engineer, and under him, Shallenberger was the chief electrician.
Around this time, Elihu Thomson begins development of a recording wattmeter, and Thomas Duncan (who had emigrated from Scotland) was one of the people involved with this project.
1888:The Fort Wayne Electric Light Co. needed additional capital to expand its operations, and since Ronald T. McDonald was a good friend of Charles A. Coffin he contacted Thomson-Houston Electric Co. and they purchased a controlling interest in his company. Around this time, a second lighting system was developed by Slattery and was added to Fort Wayne Electric Co.'s product line. One part of this system was a fairly complex lamp-hour meter.
 In April of this year at Westinghouse, O.B. Shallenberger and an assistant were working on a new AC arc lamp and a spring fell out and came to rest on a ledge inside the lamp. The assistant reached over and was going to put it back when Shallenberger noticed the spring had rotated. He held back the assistant, determined to find out why the spring rotated. After he realized that the spring had rotated due to rotating electric fields in the lamp, he seized on this opportunity and designed an AC ampere-hour meter in just 3 weeks, and it went on the market 3 months later. Over 120,000 Shallenberger ampere-hour meters were sold over the next 10 years.
1889:Thomson introduced his recording wattmeter. This was the first true watthour meter, and it was an immediate commercial success, many utilities adopting it as their "standard" model. Although this meter was initially designed for use on AC circuits, it worked equally well with the DC circuits in use at the time. The introduction and rapid acceptance of induction-type watthour meters in the late 1890s relegated the use of this commutator-type meter to DC circuits.
 The Edison Electric Light Company goes to court against one of several competitors that infringed on its light bulb patent (the lawsuit was actually filed in 1886), and a bitter fight continued over the next two years. (Shortly before the trial started, the various Edison manufacturing companies consolidated into the Edison General Electric Co.)
1890:William Stanley and one of his assistants (Cummings C. Chesney) leave Westinghouse and form the Stanley Electric Co. in Pittsfield, MA in November of that year (and would eventually be sold to GE in 1903)
 Fort Wayne Electric Co. decides the Jenney and Slattery arc-light systems could be improved, and purchases a part interest in James J. Wood's arc-light system from Thomson-Houston. Wood moved to Fort Wayne, IN with 100 Thomson-Houston employees (one of these employees was Thomas Duncan). By this time, the company's name had been simplified by dropping "Light" from its name. One of the first meters developed by Duncan for Fort Wayne Electric. Co. was an AC ampere-hour meter that was similar to Shallenberger's meter.
1891:Edison General Electric Co. wins the lawsuit over the light bulb patent, and Thomson-Houston soon opens discussions with Edison General Electric about merging both companies. They held patents that complemented each other, particularly Edison's light bulb and Thomson's alternating-current system of distribution. Also, it was getting harder for the two companies to offer certain electrical devices without infringing on each others' patents.
1892:Thomson-Houston and Edison General Electric merge into the General Electric Co.
 Duncan develops the first induction watthour meter to use a single disk for both the driving and braking element but this design never went into actual production.
1893:Siemens & Halske of Germany open a US branch in Chicago. Initially, all the employees were German, but in time, local residents were hired. This company mostly sold electric measuring instruments but eventually offered one model of watthour meter.
 Nikola Tesla takes out a patent covering Ferraris' discovery of the induction motor principle. There was a brief patent infringement suit, but Tesla was awarded priority. This was just one of Tesla's many patents later purchased by George Westinghouse.
1894:With the rapid growth of the electric industry at this time, AC was now being used to run motors, and the existing ampere-hour meters and commutator-type watthour meters were unable to take into account varying voltages and low power factors on AC circuits. Several inventors worked to develop a new meter to meet this need, but Shallenberger hit on the most workable approach - a small induction motor with the voltage and current coils 90 degrees out of phase with each other. This concept was refined into the first commercially produced induction watthour meter. This model was one of the heaviest ever offered at 41 pounds and one of the most expensive of its time.
 The Fort Wayne Electric Company fell on hard times because of the panic of 1893, and with help of GE (who held a controlling interest), it reorganized into the Fort Wayne Electric Corporation.
1895:The Diamond Meter Co. was organized In Peoria, IL. G.A. Scheeffer designed the meters sold by this company. This company was unable to get a foothold in the market and was gone by 1905.
 Also, during this year, William Stanley returned to Great Barrington, MA to establish the Stanley Instrument Co. to sell watthour meters designed by himself and Fredrick Darlington. This meter was unique - it used a disk that was floated in the magnet gap without using the traditional jewel bearing. This model worked at first but problems forced the company to produce a few other models with jewel bearings.
1896:Ludwig Gutmann approaches Illinois Watch Co. in Springfield, Illinois about manufacturing an induction watthour meter he had designed.
 In response to a need for a meter that would work on a polyphase circuit, Shallenberger modified his watthour meter for use on polyphase circuits but the close spacing of the stators and the use of a solid disk resulted in the meter being less accurate than expected.
 Another patent clash loomed, this time between GE and Westinghouse. It was soon agreed that a merger of the two companies was not the answer. Instead, both companies set up a Board of Patent Control that handled licensing patents between the two companies. This allowed both companies to compete with each other without fear of infringing on each others' patents. (This board was dissolved in 1911 after an antitrust suit against GE).
1897:With a push to reduce costs in the electric industry, the Shallenberger watthour meter fell out of favor because it was too expensive and bulky. Since Shallenberger was too ill to do any further design work, two other engineers (H. P. Davis and Frank Conrad) were given the task of redesigning the Shallenberger meter. Their result was a smaller, lighter (12 pounds), and cheaper meter known as the Round Type, and it was as popular as the Thomson Recording Wattmeter had been a few years earlier.
 GE introduces their first induction meter, the Thomson Induction Wattmeter. This meter used a cup-shaped rotor for the driving element and a separate disk for the brake.
 Robert C. Lanphier graduated from Yale and returned to his hometown of Springfield, Illinois for a summer's vacation before going back east to work for GE. At the town picnic, he was approached by Jacob Bunn (vice-president of Illinois Watch Co.) and told of Gutmann's model. Lanphier is introduced to Gutmann and they work on improving the model into usable form.
1898:The Stanley Instrument Co. introduces a radically different meter which attempted to eliminate the sapphire or diamond bearings in use at the time (which required regular maintenance). This meter had the disk held in place by a piece of piano wire and floated in the gap of the brake magnets and the stator windings. It worked at first but soon failed and the idea was abandoned.
 Duncan develops a watthour meter for Fort Wayne Electric Corp. This meter resembled GE's Thomson Recording Wattmeter except that it was an induction type with a cup-shaped rotor.
 Ronald T. McDonald (the founder of Ft. Wayne Electric Corp.) dies and GE buys out the remaining shares of the company, operating it as a subsidiary (Fort Wayne Electric Works). Thomas Duncan leaves for Siemens & Halske in Chicago.
1899:The Fort Wayne Electric Works offers a new line of watthour meters designed by E. J. King and these meters were different from all other meters being offered with their vertical brake magnets and arrangement of the coils around the cup-shaped rotor. Also, a line of demand metering equipment was developed and sold through this branch.
 GE introduces its first attempt at a polyphase meter known simply as the Thomson Polyphase Wattmeter. This meter was massive due to the large disk and widely spaced stators in an attempt to eliminate interference between the stators. It was not very popular since the industry preferred a more compact meter.
 An engineer at Westinghouse (Paul McGahan) comes up with a workable design for polyphase meters. Two single-phase meters were installed in a tall case with a common shaft and register. This design was adopted by all manufacturers and built in various forms until 1969.
 In Springfield, IL, Jacob Bunn, Robert C. Lanphier, and Ludwig Gutmann incorporate the Sangamo Electric Co. as a subsidiary of Illinois Watch Co. to manufacture Gutmann's meters. This meter used a spirally slotted cylinder with a braking disk on the bottom.
 During this year, GE introduced a new concept of metering. Usually, the meters are read then the customer is billed. A new version of their Thomson Recording Wattmeter, combined with an external prepayment device allowed collection in advance for electric service. This developed into a line of AC and DC prepayment meters offered by GE. Fort Wayne, Westinghouse (and much later) Sangamo follow suit with models of their own.
 Siemens & Halske introduces a watthour meter developed by Thomas Duncan.
1900:GE buys Siemens & Halske's branch in Chicago, and Thomas Duncan leaves the company.
1901:Thomas Duncan settles in Lafayette, IN and establishes the Duncan Electric Manufacturing Co. The first plant was located in downtown Lafayette and the first meters were shipped in 1902.
 Sangamo Electric Co. brings out a new model (Gutmann Type B) which used a spirally slotted disk. These meters incorporated a "bay window" in the cover to accommodate the disk. This model was factory-sealed with NO provision to open it in the field for adjustment.
1902:Westinghouse introduces the first ball bearing on their Type A meter instead of the pivot bearing in general use at that time (the ball bearing would eventually be adopted by all the manufacturers by the 1930s).
1903:GE buys the Stanley Electric Company and absorbs it into its organization.
 Westinghouse sued Sangamo, Duncan, and Stanley over infringement of Tesla's patents. GE and Fort Wayne were exempt from the suit because of the licensing pact with Westinghouse. Sangamo bitterly fought this suit, but in the end was forced to discontinue its line of Gutmann meters. Duncan had to stick to commutator-type meters (but did offer one model for AC service). Stanley apparently fought his former employer but ended up closing up shop in 1907.
 GE introduced the Type I meter which was the first AC watthour meter to be mass-produced. This model was also considered the first "modern" meter as it has all the major features found in today's meters. As late as 1960, many of these were still in use.
1904:Sangamo Electric Company, barred from making induction-type meters until Tesla's patent expired in 1910, introduces a new line of DC ampere-hour and watthour meters based on the mercury-motor ampere-hour meters widely used in England at that time. In an attempt to get back into the AC meter business, some of the DC mercury-motor watthour meters were redesigned for use on AC circuits. Although these meters were finicky and not as accurate as induction-type meters, they could easily be used on circuits of any commercial frequency from 25Hz to 133 Hz.
1910s:The Columbia Meter Co. was incorporated in Indianapolis and made a brief stand before folding. Following Columbia's demise, a new company (Holcomb and Hoke) appeared in Indianapolis and offered at least one model before focusing on other products. G.A. Scheeffer designed the meters built by these companies before moving on to Sewickley, PA.
1911:After the Tesla patents expired in December 1910, Sangamo immediately introduced a new induction-type meter known as the Type H. As with the previous Gutmann meters, the disk rotated clockwise (to the left) unlike its competitors' which all rotated to the right.
1912:20 years after Duncan developed his single-disk meter, the Duncan Electric Mfg. Co. introduces its first induction-type meter, the Model M. It was not as sound as its competitors' offerings as two improved versions of this model (Models M1 and M2) came out in the next 3 years.
1914:WWI interrupts the supply of tungsten, a key component in the steel used in meter brake magnets, and the manufacturers switch to a different type of steel using chromium.
1915:General Electric absorbs the Fort Wayne Electric Works and operates it as an extension of its meter plant in Lynn, Massachusetts (meter production ceased at Ft. Wayne in 1929). Two GE models that were transferred to Fort wayne were the I-14 and IP-5 prepayment.
1922:The Sewickley Electric Mfg. Co. was incorporated in Sewickley, PA and this short-lived company offered one model before it folded.
1924:Westinghouse opens a new meter factory in Newark, NJ and introduces the Type OB meter which was the smallest watthour meter made in the US.
The late 1920s saw several key advances in meter design. With the introduction of meter service cabinets to protect the meter connections, polyphase meters were redesigned to move the terminal chambers from the sides to the bottom. Also, all meters were redesigned to add two types of compensation to improve performance. Temperature compensation enabled meters to maintain accuracy over a wide range of temperatures. Before temperature compensation, the utilities were seeing seasonal fluctuations in accuracy that required readjustment of the meter. Overload compensation enabled meters to handle a broader range of loads and provide accurate metering over this range (in fact, a typical modern meter that can handle 200 amperes actually has a nominal rating of 30 amperes). Before overload compensation was added, low-capacity meters could not handle overloads well, and high-capacity meters were insensitive to light loads.
1928:Westinghouse introduces the first socket-type meter, the OB "detachable".
1931:The National Electric Code was revised to allow the meter to be connected ahead of switches and fuses, which made it harder for dishonest customers to tap into the unmetered part of the electrical service on their property. This change along with the introduction of socket-type meters a couple years later made it possible for utilities to start moving the meters outside where they could be read without entering the customer's premises.
Up to the mid-1930s, meters made by different manufacturers (or even different models or versions of the same model) were made with little attention to consistency in design. This resulted in a problem for electric utilities in that a meter changeout often required rearranging the wiring to the meter. In 1934, a committee consisting of representatives from the manufacturers and the larger electric utilities came up with two new standardized designs ("S" type or socket and "A-base" or bottom-connected) for the meter enclosures. This simplified meter change-outs in the field to simply taking out the old meter and installing the new.
1934:Sangamo introduces the last mechanical prepayment meter, the Type HFP. By this time, prepayment metering was falling out of favor due to fraud and decreasing costs of electricity.
The late 1930s saw another round of improvements to meter design. Polyphase meters were redesigned to incorporate a laminated disk, which allowed the stators in the meter to be placed side by side without interacting with each other. Polyphase meters made with this new design were only slightly larger than single-phase meters (Westinghouse continued with the multiple-disk design until 1954, and Duncan abandoned the laminated disk in 1950, reverting to the multiple-disk design until 1969). The other major improvement was in response to a problem that became obvious once meters were installed outdoors in rural areas. After lightning storms, some meters started running fast since the brake magnets were weakened by power surges during the storm. This was solved by replacing the chrome steel magnets with magnets that were made of Alnico, which did a much better job of holding their strength. Westinghouse took a different approach by heavily copper-plating their chrome steel magnets and continued this practice until 1954.
1940:GE begins development on a new type of bearing using the magnetic suspension principle (as attempted in the Stanley meters) but work on this was put on hold when the US entered WWII.
The Roller-Smith Co. (a long established manufacturer of panel meters) makes a brief entry into the watthour meter field with a single-phase model but soon drops it and goes back to making panel meters.
1948:GE opened a new meter plant in Somersworth, NH. Also, the magnetic bearing GE had been working on was finally introduced on the I-50 singlephase meter (which was billed "The first all-new meter in 50 years").
1952:Duncan relocates its meter plant to a larger location (where it remains today) just outside Lafayette, IN.
1954:GE moves all remaining watthour meter production from the original Lynn, MA plant to Somersworth, NH.
1957:Westinghouse moves meter production from Newark, NJ to a new plant in Raleigh, NC.
The mid- to late 1950s saw another fundamental evolution in meter design, which was to abandon the metal base used in socket meters in favor of compression-molded bases made of various materials. Also, an improved type of Alnico magnet was introduced which allowed the brake magnets to be incorporated into the frame, simplifying the design and improving calibration stability.
1960:Duncan, Sangamo, and Westinghouse all introduce meters using magnetic bearings.
In the late 1960s, the single-phase watthour meter underwent its final major change: It was redesigned for a lower profile to make it less obvious and less prone to damage. This redesign also had another benefit - the new models were at least one pound lighter than the older models.
1975:Landis & Gyr of Switzerland buys Duncan Electric Co. and continued operations in Lafayette, IN unchanged, relabelling the meters with the Landis & Gyr name starting in 1984.
 Schlumberger of France buys Sangamo Electric Co. and moved meter production from the original facility in Springfield, IL to another one of Sangamo's plants in West Union, SC.
With the advances in electronics in the 1970s, the manufacturers (as well as a few third-party companies) started introducing electronic registers and automatic meter reading devices.
By the mid-1980s, the manufacturers were offering hybrid meters with electronic registers mounted on induction-type meters.
1990:ABB of Switzerland buys Westinghouse's meter and load control division and continues production unchanged except for re-labeling all the product with the ABB logo. (In 1998, the load control business was sold to Cannon Technologies.)
By the early 1990s, further advances in electronics allowed the manufacturers to start introducing meters that were fully electronic and used no moving parts (aside from the switches used to access various functions on the meters). Following acceptance of the new electronic meters, the manufacturers begin dropping induction-type polyphase models from their product lines, and when electronic singlephase models became feasible and popular, all 4 manufacturers cut back on and some discontinued the singlephase models.
1998:Siemens of Germany buys Landis & Gyr's metering division and renames it Siemens PT&D.
In recent years, there have been additional changes:
General Electric transferred a portion of its meter production from its main Somersworth, NH facility to the IUSA meter plant in Mexico.
Siemens PT&D was sold to a different group of investors and renamed Landis+Gyr; its manufacturing operations were later moved to Mexico.
The US metering operations of Schlumberger were sold to Itron.
ABB's meter division was sold and renamed Elster Electricity.
Today, all four major companies (Landis+Gyr, GE, Itron, and Elster) manufacture electronic meters; as of mid-2009, no more electromechanical models are being produced.
Bibliography / Acknowledgements:
"Electric Measuring Instruments and Meters" by Ft. Wayne Correspondence School (1912)
"Electric Meter History and Progress" by R.C. Lanphier (1925)
"Men and Volts: A history of General Electric" by Hammond (1941)
"Progress in the Art of Electric Metering", Electrical Engineering, (Sept-Dec. 1941)
"Yardstick for Power: 50 years of Electric Metering" by Sangamo Electric Co. (1949)
Duncan Electric Co. employee handbook (early 1970s)
GE metering course booklets GEZ-3550-1 and GEZ-3785-1 (ca. 1960)
Westinghouse Handbook on Watthour meters (various editions)
Electrical Meterman's Handbook by the Edison Electric Institute (various editions)
the late 'Bud' Russell / TheMeterguy.com (site now gone)
GE Hall of Electrical History / Schenectady Museum Archives