Guest column: 130 years ago, Great Barrington experiment lit path to future


Editor's note: On March 20, 1886, William Stanley Jr. demonstrated the first electrical system that allowed the distribution of electrical power over wide areas, lighting offices and stores in downtown Great Barrington.

On this day 130 years ago in Great Barrington, inventor and chief engineer for Westinghouse Electric Co., William Stanley, Jr., working for and with inventor and industrialist George Westinghouse, demonstrated the first complete system for high voltage alternating current transmission.

Many inventors from around the world contributed to this achievement, but Stanley's ingenious idea of how to change the first transformer to one that could be put to practical and economic use in a commercial electrical system was the turning point.

With his transformers, Stanley was able to allow 3,000 volts of electricity to travel from an AC generator installed near Cottage Street through wires strung along Main Street. There, in six basements in buildings along that main thoroughfare, his machines "transformed" the high voltage current by reducing it to 500 volts so that it could safely light 30 100-volt incandescent lamps connected to the system.

The Great Barrington demonstration proved an economical, practical, safe and affordable method of providing electricity to general populations. It is a day to be celebrated in Great Barrington, and across the world. We continue to use the same basic features today to power homes, hospitals and businesses, from life-saving equipment to the common conveniences we rely on every day.

Westinghouse Electric Co. celebrates this day as a milestone in company history. By November 1886, Westinghouse sold its first patented system to operate the first commercial AC generating station in Buffalo, N.Y. The lighting of Great Barrington moved the company forward.

Soon after, Nikola Tesla and his patents for the AC polyphase system were onboard. By 1888 with the integrated AC system all of their efforts created, Westinghouse had installed more than 300 power stations.

George Westinghouse and his company brought together inventors from around the world to develop ideas into practical systems to provide solutions for societal needs. This inclusive innovative approach remains our foundation. Today, nuclear power is the source we innovate for and invest in, and it has been just as revolutionary.

And, rather than lighting 30 bulbs, today one reactor powers about 250 million homes — or almost every home in Boston.

Westinghouse Electric Co. continues to provide safe, clean and affordable energy while operating with the innovation spirit of 1886, William Stanley and George Westinghouse.

Jeff Benjamin is senior vice president of new plants and major projects for Westinghouse Electric Co.


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