A Brief History of Meter Companies and Meter Evolution

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).


First known patent

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.


AC lamp-hour patent

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.


Dynamo and arc lamps

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.


Edison's first electric company

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.


Thomson-Houston Electric Co

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.


Union Switch & Signal Co.

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.


Transformer patented by Gaulard and Gibbs

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.


Discovery of two out of phase AC fields can make a solid armature rotate

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.


First meter for use on AC circuits

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.


Second lighting system was developed by Slattery

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.


First true watthour meter

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.). 


Stanley Electric Co.

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.


Light bulb patent

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.


General Electric Co.

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.


Induction motor principle

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.


AC was now being used to run motors

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.


Diamond Meter Co.

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.


Board of Patent Control

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).


Thomson Induction Wattmeter

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.