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6 ways Edward Weston helped advance the late 19 century electrical distribution effort

Editor’s note

: We bring you some more of Howard Skolnik’s collection of electrical and electronic devices, but this time we use some of his collection that will look at how Weston meters helped in the growth of the electricity distribution business.

These devices and so many more are available in Skolnik’s collection. See EDN article on some of his collection just from the 1950s.

Skolnik has been searching for a proper institution to maintain his collection which took 50 years to acquire. He is hoping to find a home for these classic devices to help preserve some of the history of electrical/electronic devices. Please comment below if you have any ideas to help in this effort. Now let’s get on with our history lesson:

Edward Weston, founder of the Weston Electrical Instrument Company, introduced the first portable and direct-reading current and voltage meters during the period 1888-1893. His inventions which made these meters possible included: the first truly permanent magnets; temperature-insensitive conductors; low-resistance and non-magnetic springs; metal coil frames where induced eddy currents provided pointer damping (1887); the electric shunt (1893) for the measurement of large currents; and multiple current ranges in a single meter1 .

Please click on the image below which will take you on a journey in the late 19th century as we see the advent of electrical distribution come to life.

Weston DC Millivoltmeter Model 1, S/N 45910, first introduced in 1888

In the late 1800s, electricity began to find many applications. Electric power companies were beginning to emerge and create distribution system networks to bring power to locations where industrial and consumer uses were abounding. The electric lightbulb slowly began to replace gas lamps. The power companies needed to measure the electricity usage by their customers in order to bill them. In 1879, Thomas Edison began his electric power and light industries which had multiple power generators that needed accurate measurements of wattage, voltage and amperage. Edison started out with billing on a per-lamp rate. He moved on to a better system comprised of a jar-based chemical device with two zinc plates connected across a shunt in the customer's circuit. The jars were weighed monthly to determine what the customer would pay according to the weight gained from the month before.
Along came Weston after being hired as a consultant to come up with a way to measure the efficiency of a generator, which took him about a week. This effort led Weston to begin the inventions of equipment that would be more stable, robust, portable and calibrated. Prior such designs suffered changes due to the Earth's magnetic field and the absence of permanent magnets. These previous designs by others were very sensitive to resistive heating during measurement and were not very accurate and repeatable. Weston's inventions took care of these problems and ultimately became the international standard of measurement which facilitated the spread and growth of electricity usage.

In the late 1800s, electricity began to find many applications. Electric power companies were beginning to emerge and create distribution system networks to bring power to locations where industrial and consumer uses were abounding. The electric lightbulb slowly began to replace gas lamps. The power companies needed to measure the electricity usage by their customers in order to bill them. In 1879, Thomas Edison began his electric power and light industries which had multiple power generators that needed accurate measurements of wattage, voltage and amperage. Edison started out with billing on a per-lamp rate. He moved on to a better system comprised of a jar-based chemical device with two zinc plates connected across a shunt in the customer’s circuit. The jars were weighed monthly to determine what the customer would pay according to the weight gained from the month before.

Along came Weston after being hired as a consultant to come up with a way to measure the efficiency of a generator, which took him about a week. This effort led Weston to begin the inventions of equipment that would be more stable, robust, portable and calibrated. Prior such designs suffered changes due to the Earth’s magnetic field and the absence of permanent magnets. These previous designs by others were very sensitive to resistive heating during measurement and were not very accurate and repeatable. Weston’s inventions took care of these problems and ultimately became the international standard of measurement which facilitated the spread and growth of electricity usage.

10 comments on “6 ways Edward Weston helped advance the late 19 century electrical distribution effort

  1. jerry87
    October 9, 2016

    What could have been done without electricity? … It is clear that innovation has its advantages! 🙂

  2. Thomas7
    October 10, 2016

    Thanks for great post!

  3. Eloïse
    October 12, 2016

    Yes, thank you for this great post!

  4. cookiejar
    October 12, 2016

    I've always been impressed with Weston Meters, whether in the labs at University, the cal lab at work, in our development lab and of course exclusively used in Heathkits, at one time owned by the same corporation.  I didn't realize how sophisticated and complex the meter technology developed by Edward Weston truly was.

    My favorite Weston meter had a unique current measuring function.  The probes each had a pair of coaxial contacts – the external ring for current, the internal for voltage.  In this mode, the AC powered meter would drive current, which it displayed, opposite to the current in the active circuit until the voltage between the probes was zero.  One could test all the currents in a PC board and quickly determine defective ICs and other components sucking too much current. You had to be careful you actually applied the probes to the same conductor, otherwise you could blow the fuse inside.  I wish I didn't have to leave that meter when I left that employer. 

    Another unique Weston device was a temperature probe.  This one had a set of adapters for clamping on to electronic components (before the days of SMDs).  As most other temperature probes, the temperature was displayed –  no big deal so far.  This system used a Peltier device in the main unit to pump coolant to the probe and heat or cool the component the probe was attached to through a wide range of temperatures (-55C to 100C).  It provided a beautifully controlled and impressively easy way to measure the temperature response of individual components, certainly more sophisticated that destructive freeze mist.

    What happened to the Weston Meter Company?  Did they go the way of Heathkit and GR?

  5. Steve Taranovich
    October 12, 2016

    @cookiejar—sadly Weston no longer exists. See this site for details http://www.westonmeter.org.uk/thecompany.htm

  6. David Ashton
    October 12, 2016

    My dad was into photography and had an ancient Weston light meter, that did not work very well.  it had a bubble-glass window on one side and a meter on the other, but would only deflect slightly when exposed to a really bright light (eg the sun).  By the time I got it cameras commonly had light meters built in or were automatic, so I never bothered doing anything with it, though I thought about how I'd fix it (the photovoltaic cell had obviously died, not the meter itself).  It even had the riveted on brass label as in your photo.  Long lost now, I wish I'd kept it, it was a thing of beauty.

    Oops… just looked at part 1.  My Dad's lightmeter was probably fairly long after the one shown there, it was squarer and neater and came in a suede leather pouch.

  7. Eloïse
    October 13, 2016

    Thank you for post !

  8. Atoria
    February 23, 2017

    Did not actually know about this. I have been reading stuff on facebook lately (actually on Instagram too whne we talk about the social media) and was really disappointed…

  9. Diet Pills
    April 10, 2017

    And when I said that i did not actually know about this and I have been reading stuff on facebook lately and instagram too, I meant that the widget is less and less used as the time goes.

  10. sarahill
    April 20, 2017

     Nice information, thanks for this article!

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