125 years of pioneering technology – Serving the world from Switzerland

2016-01-14 - In 1891, Charles Brown and Walter Boveri founded BBC Brown Boveri in Baden, Switzerland. The electrical engineering pioneers saw electricity as the pace setter for a new age. The predecessor company of ABB set about realizing this vision at breathtaking speed – and was also involved in the rail sector early on.

Charles Brown and Walter Boveri complemented each other perfectly. Charles, son of an English engineer, was a brilliant designer; while German-born Walter was considered a cool-headed and technically accomplished project manager. The future internationalism of the Swiss company began in the cradle as it were.

Although not yet 25 years old, Brown and Boveri had already made a name for themselves by the mid-1880s with their achievements at the Oerlikon engineering works in Zurich. Their entrepreneurial spirit led them to pool their skills and establish their own company. Their vision was clear: electric current can also be transported over long distances; it would light up the world and make a difference.

This vision grew out of the success that Brown had already achieved. He had designed the transformer and generator for the power station at Lauffen in Germany. This allowed the relatively low-loss transmission of high-voltage alternating current for the first time over a long distance to Frankfurt am Main about 175 km away. This success is seen as decisive in resolving the key question in the War of the Currents during that pioneering age – namely, whether direct current or alternating current was more suitable for electric power distribution. Decades later, with its developments in high-voltage direct current transmission, BBC/ABB would again exploit the advantages of direct current for the long-distance transmission of electric power.

The search for a site for their start-up company led the two innovative engineers to Baden, a small town on the river Limmat, around 20 km west of Zurich. Here, the newly established electricity company wanted to build a run-of-river (ROR) power station to bring the industrial boom to this spa town, which was going through a crisis at the time.

Brown and Boveri were awarded the contract to build the generators for this ROR power station – and at the same time the town offered them building land for the construction of a design office and factories. The two engineers saw the advantages of this arrangement and accepted the offer – even today ABB seeks proximity to its customers worldwide in order to produce where there is demand. The power station to be built also promised a reliable power supply for their own company which they were aiming to build up.

BBC was thus established in Baden on 2 October 1891. And in February 1892 the first employees already began work in the rapidly constructed factory. In the very same year, the first machine group of the ROR power station were started up. The supply of electricity to the town of Baden and BBC itself could begin. The rest is history – a story that will be told in detail during this jubilee year.

BBC grew at breakneck speed – and was also quick to diversify. For example, in 1895 the ambitious company was already supplying electrical equipment for the tram system in Switzerland’s Italian-speaking city of Lugano and, three years later, also for the rack-and-pinion rail service up the Gornergrat and the Jungfraujoch in the Swiss Alps. Brown and Boveri also developed an electrically driven locomotive together. This was used in Switzerland by the Burgdorf-Thun railway in 1899 on what was Europe‘s first electrified normal-gauge track.

This laid the basic foundations of the rail sector, which was to become an important business segment at BBC in the years to come – along with innovations such as steam and gas turbines, powerful transformers and electronic controls for industrial automation.

BBC was so convinced of its vision of the electrification of public transport that, in 1905, the company electrified the Simplon rail tunnel, which had just been completed between Switzerland and Italy, at its own expense; a pioneering achievement for replacing steam-driven trains throughout Europe.

In 1967, the company came full circle: BBC acquired Maschinenfabrik Oerlikon (MFO), the engineering works in which Brown and Boveri got to know each other and gained their first credentials. MFO had – like BBC – produced electric locomotives, such as the legendary Crocodile for goods transport on the steep Gotthard section, which all rail fans worldwide still recognize today by its silhouette.

In 1988, BBC merged with the Swedish company ASEA to form ABB. Electrical engineering systems for trains and also for rail infrastructure continue to form one of the main features in the company’s power engineering and automation portfolio. Allegra, the state-of-the-art train of the Rhaetian Railway (RhB), for example, houses an energy-efficient drive package from ABB. This consists of compact power converters and transformers, especially geared to the demanding conditions in the mountainous region of Graubünden.

Transformers and power converters produced in Geneva and Turgi – i.e. in Switzerland, where ABB has now been engaged for 125 years. Here and in another hundred or so countries around the world, our company is realizing its vision of “Power and Productivity for a Better World” by implementing its Next Level Strategy, focused on sustainable growth and pioneering innovations.

A world driven by electric power is what motivated Charles Brown and Walter Boveri all those years ago. And ABB is continuing the legacy to design the generation, distribution and utilization of electric power with even greater efficiency and more responsible use of resources.

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