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William Stanley, inventor of the induction coil, or what is known today as a
transformer, was born on November 28, 1858 in Brooklyn, New York. His parents sent him to private schools
when he was young, and he later enrolled at Yale University with plans to
become a lawyer, like his father.
Stanley abandoned these plans at the age of 21 when he decided his real passion was invention,
particularly in electrical areas. Electricity was an emerging field then, full of promise and
excitement. He took a job as an electrician with one of the early manufacturers of telegraph keys and
fire alarms. Later he began working for a metal-plating company, and then he got his "big break," accepting
a position working with Hiram Maxim, inventor of the machine gun and
an electrical industry trailblazer.
As Maxim's assistant, Stanley was presented with a number of opportunities that allowed him to learn
and exercise his engineering abilities. He worked with Maxim to direct, for example, one of the country's
first electrical installations in a store on Fifth Avenue in New York. Soon, Stanley had a distinguished
reputation of his own within the electrical industry and inventor
George Westinghouse hired him as
his chief engineer at his Pittsburgh factory.
In the 1880s electricity distribution systems used direct current (DC) only,
which was impractical for long distances. Transmitting at low voltage required
thick wires, but transmitting at high voltage was dangerous and could not be
reduced for consumer uses such as lighting. Engineers knew that alternating
current, or AC, voltage could be varied by use of induction coils. But so far,
no usable system was available. While working for Westinghouse, Stanley began
working on ideas that would eventually lead to the creation of the device that
would change everything: the transformer. In 1885, however, he became ill and
had to move to Great Barrington, Massachusetts for health reasons. There, amid
relative peace and quiet, he was able to develop some of his transformer ideas
further, and by spring of 1886 he had a prototype.
On March 20, 1886, Stanley demonstrated a system of high voltage transmission via a "parallel connected
transformer." The device, combined with high-voltage transmission lines, made it possible to spread electric
service over a wide area and allowed alternating current to be available at different voltages. He
demonstrated his AC system by lighting stores along Great Barrington's main street. Stanleys transformer
design became the prototype for all future transformers.
In 1890, he founded his own company, the Stanley Electric Manufacturing Company,
in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. He planned to make transformers, auxiliary electrical
equipment and electrical appliances. He joined forces with John J. Kelley, an
accomplished designer of motors, and Cummings C. Chesney, a former laboratory
worker. The trio worked together to come up with the "SKC" system, which won
several early transmission contracts. When the developers of the Blue Falls
project in California proposed a 200-mile, 60,000 volt transmission line, it
was a version of the SKC system that did the job.
In 1893, General Electric bought Stanley Electric. In 1906, its
facilities were renamed the GE Pittsfield Works. GE credits the effort which Stanley began as having
formed a basis for the company’s current dominance in the field of power transition. During his lifetime
Stanley was granted 129 patents covering a wide range of electric devices including the tranformer,
of course, as well as the alternating-current watt-hour meter, which made it possible to measure
electricity accurately. He died on May 14, 1916.