2013-01-11 - This month marks the 25th anniversary of the historic merger of Sweden’s ASEA and Switzerland’s Brown Boveri. At the start of January in 1988, both companies merged to form ABB Asea Brown Boveri & Cie, integrating 850 subsidiary companies and 180,000 employees operating in 140 countries.
Much of the technology that our society now relies on was devised or commercialized by ABB and its founding companies, making ABB the largest supplier of industrial motors and drives, the largest provider of generators for the wind industry and the largest supplier of power grids worldwide.
Our most recent breakthrough, the development in 2012 of a hybrid high-voltage direct current (HVDC) breaker suitable for the creation of large, inter-regional DC grids, solves a technical question that has mystified engineers since the ‘war of currents’ between alternate current (AC) and direct current (DC) in the 1890s, taking us back full circle to the time of our founding companies.
Over a century of innovation across the Baltic sea
Both companies were themselves the result of previous mergers of other pioneering ventures. As far back as 1890, Ludvig Fredholm’s Elektriska Aktiebolaget company in Stockholm, founded in 1883 as a manufacturer of electrical lighting and generators, merged with the year-old Wenströms & Granströms Elektriska Kraftbolag to form Allmänna Svenska Elektriska Aktiebolaget, later shortened to ASEA.
A year later, in Switzerland, Charles E.L. Brown and Walter Boveri established Brown, Boveri & Cie (BBC), shortly to become the first company to transmit high-voltage power. Despite the miles between them, there were soon marked parallels between the two companies. ASEA’s business was ‘the generation and application of electric power’ and their products soon ranged from steam turbines for power plants to the new, high-speed electric passenger trains. Meanwhile, BBC was producing DC and AC motors, generators, steam turbines (the first in Europe), gas turbines, transformers and electrical components for trains.
In 1893, ASEA built the first three-phase transmission system in Sweden, while Brown Boveri supplied Europe’s first large-scale combined heat and power plant, which produced alternating current. And so it continued throughout the early 20th century, with both companies at the forefront of current technology.
Their achievements over the following decades continued to shape the technology we have today. In the 70s, ASEA built the first nuclear power plant in Sweden and went on to build nine of the country’s twelve reactors, as well as one of the first industrial robots; BBC built the most powerful transformer in the world (at 1,300 MVA) and by the 80s was installing its generators in the world’s largest hydro-electric power station at Itaipú in South America.
A fusion of complementarity
In some ways it is as though the two companies, across the seas, were growing steadily outwards until it was inevitable that they met as one. By 1987, both were of a similar size with regard to their annual sales, net worth and number of employees; both had implemented similar lines of decentralized control and their management strengths and geographical locations were a good fit.
Following the merger, the new group, now headquartered in Zurich, Switzerland, had become the world’s leading supplier in the electric power industry and controlled a third of Europe’s business and over 20 percent of the world market. ABB kept ASEA’s and BBC’s respective positions at the forefront of technology and continued to innovate, launching products such as the Azipod electric propulsion systems in 1990 and the FlexPicker delta robot in 1998. More recent innovations reflect its growing focus on green technology, such as the world’s first commercial high-voltage shore-to-ship electric power in 2000, which vastly contributes to reducing greenhouse gas emissions at the Swedish port of Gothenburg.
Further achievements in the past decade reflect the global growth of ABB. 2002 saw the world’s longest underground transmission, linking the alternate current AC networks of South Australia and Victoria, and the world’s first extruded HVDC submarine transmission, between Connecticut and Long Island, US. In 2010 a 2,000 km ultrahigh-voltage direct current (UHVDC) connection was installed to link up Shanghai with the Xiangjiaba hydropower plant in south-west China.
Celebrating 25 years of ABB throughout 2013
To view some of the key milestones in the history of ABB both prior to and following the merger, please click here.