Lamme used math to make electricity practical

Clark County native was chief engineer for Westinghouse.

In “The Power Makers: Steam, Electricity and the Men Who Invented Modern America,” historian Maury Klein says the key events in America’s powering up for the electric era came during the Chicago World’s Fair of 1883 and the building of the hydroelectric dam just downstream from Niagara Falls.

Clark County’s Benjamin Lamme was a key player in both.

That’s one reason the man who used the power of mathematics to put the genius of Thomas Edison and Nicolai Tesla to practical use has his image stamped on the gold medal the Ohio State University’s College of Engineering awards for Meritorious Achievement.

In the introduction to Lamme’s autobiography, friend and associate Charles Scott presents readers with a picture of a 16-year-old on a Clark County farm fascinated by a description of an Edison dynamo in “Harper’s Weekly” of 1880.

“Before another 16 years had passed,” Scott adds, “he had designed the great generators for Niagara, which were without precedent …. and ushered in a new era in electrical power.”

Lammes’ autobiography says the boy born Jan. 12, 1864, grew up collecting Indian artifacts on his father’s farm, was fascinated by tools and blocks and so interested in mathematics that, during his school days, he memorized times tables to 36.

Some of his mathematical memorization was driven by a frustration at his own inability to remember long passages of writing. But in the course of memorizing, he began recognizing patterns in mathematics he subsequently saw expressed in Algebra. And his ability to bring patterns expressed in mathematics to bear on real world problems powered an imagination that eventual produced 162 patents.

Calculations he did in a Westinghouse laboratory in Pittsburgh after his 1888 graduation from Ohio State University proved solid enough to improve company products, to earn Lamme a series of raises, and to come to the attention of the father of his company, George Westinghouse.

Author Klein, a professor emeritus at the University of Rhode Island, said Westinghouse soon put his promising calculator to work on a crucial project.

The electric railway “was becoming a huge business” for firms on the ground floor of practical applications for electric power, Klein said, “and probably the biggest problem facing (the industry) was finding a suitable motor.”

In his book, Klein writes that Lamme’s “No. 3 motor progressed so rapidly that it went on sale in the spring of 1891 and immediately rendered its predecessors obsolete.”

So good was it, he said, that “it remained the standard motor design for the life of street cars.”

But Lamme’s gift was not limited to solving the problem itself.

“Unlike Edison and his generation of inventors, Lamme had not arrived at his creation through endless trial and error,” Klein writes, but through the power of calculations and mathematics.

And that success “gave me the idea that other types of electrical machines could be improved, or even revolutionized by calculations,” Lamme later said.

“Edison (succeeded) because he was a genius,” Klein said in a telephone interview with the News-Sun. “Guys like Lamme could work these things out through experiments, within a body of knowledge.”

The same year he designed Westinghouse’s industry changing electric railway motor, Klein writes, Lamme “started work on a rotary converter.”

It was one of the things that lit up the White City of the Columbia World’s Exposition, better known as the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, the debutante ball for the power of electricity.

“The White City Could be the White City because everything was run by electricity,” Klein said. “Westinghouse got the contract to provide the electricity, and Lamme, Tesla and others were key helpers in carrying that out.”

In some ways, Lamme and Tesla don’t belong in the same sentence, he said.

“Tesla is by far the greater inventor. He’s another genius, but he’s a mad genius.”

On the other hand, the practical Lamme was crucial in working out the rotary converter, which converted AC electrical current into DC current at the point of use.

Klein called that “absolutely critical for a couple of things” in electrical power.

First, “because AC current is alternating current, you can carry it greater distances” over wires, he said. Because DC power can travel “less than a mile,” Klein explained, in any city powered by DC current “half the city would be power stations.”

The converter, which converts DC into AC current so that it can travel on transmission lines, then steps it back down to AC for on-site use, made AC transmission practical, Klein said.

At the Chicago Fair, however, many considered the results magical rather than practical, as Klein shows in this quote from contemporary journalist Murat Halstead: “Looked at from a distance at night … it is as if the earth and sky were transformed by the immeasurable wands of colossal magicians …. The cornices of the White City are defined with celestial fire. The waters that are at play leap and flash with it .”

In addition to putting his best people to make magic in Chicago, George Westinghouse assigned Lamme and others the job of converting the massive potential the Niagara River had in producing hydroelectric power into a practical power source for the city of Buffalo.

“I don’t think it was the first attempt” to work out the practicality of large-scale electrical transmission, Klein said in the interview, “but the scale of it was colossal.”

“Power Makers” quotes this passage from Electrical World magazine of Feb. 6, 1892: “We today are on the very eve of electrical developments in the line of transmission power that are destined, perhaps, to change profoundly our industrial methods.”

Lamme’s career was made. In 1900, he became Westinghouse’s assistant chief engineer and in 1903 its chief engineer. The U.S. government tapped him as a consultant for the Navy in World War I, and he had various free-time activities spelled out by the Ohio Historical Society on its Ohio History Central web site.

“Lamme participated in archaeology … engaged in philanthropy including endowing two scholarships in engineering” at Ohio State.

As the dates on the medal honoring him note, Lamme was 60 when he died on July 8, 1924. By then, his practical and mathematical prowess had not only help to convert electricity into a practical source of power for society but had established how the methods he relied on could light the way for engineers of generations to come.

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