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Icons of EE: Sebastian Ziani de Ferranti

The name Ferranti has been notorious in electrical engineering history until Ferranti International P.L.C. finally went bankrupt in 1993, after having experienced over a century of business. This article will reveal the achievements of a very important player in the Current War, although he did not appear in many of the media at the time. Ferranti was less a man of drama, he rather let his inventions speak for themselves.

Sebastian Ziani de Ferranti was born in Liverpool on the 9th of April 1864, as direct descendant of the Doge Sebastiano Ziani, one of the princes of Merchant Venice that settled in Bologna. Eventually Sebastian’s father set up a photographic studio in Liverpool. Where both parents had a career in photography and arts, Ferranti revealed a strong interest in science and engineering early on. While still in school, he was allowed his own room to try out new ideas, where he had a new design electric arc lamp and a forerunner to the full scale electric dynamo he would bring out in 1882.

After school, he worked for Siemens Brothers for a short while. After having gained some experience at Siemens, he dared to start Ferranti, Thompson & Ince Ltd. Together with an engineer friend and the support of wealthy London lawyer Francis Ince, he developed a dynamo with a novel zig-zag armature.

When both he and Sir William Thomson (A.K.A. Lord Kelvin) had a similar view for the new dynamo, they combined their ideas to create the Ferranti-Thomson dynamo. It’s sensational capability to output five times the power of a similar sized dynamo at the time, established a reputation for Ferranti, although financial success was still far-fetched. The company had to be liquidated, there was now time to develop something entirely new.

Fifty years had passed since Faraday’s discoveries of the fundamental principles of magnetic induction, but progress in electric lightning in England had been relatively slow. The periodical ‘The Electrician’ of 20 July 1878 pitied the extending use of electric light in Paris, ‘yet in London there is not one such light to be seen’. Around 1885, the controversy started to take shape between direct and alternating currents.

The Electric Lighting act of 1882 had encouraged the setting up of small direct current low voltage systems scattered throughout London, similar to Edison’s system, who followed this identical pattern. In 1887 the London Electric Supply Company was founded under the Grosvenor Gallery Company. Ferranti was appointed Chief Engineer and allowed a million pounds to construct a large generating plant at Deptford, realizing Ferranti’s centralised alternating current systems.

It consisted of twelve 10,000 hp units generating at 10kV each. To transport the high voltage safely, he needed to develop a new transmission method with added insulation. An inner hollow tube of copper was insulated with layers of brown paper which had been dried an impregnated with a mineral wax. Another copper tube, similarly insulated was drawn tightly over the first. Both were sealed into an outer iron protecting tube. The cables were made into 20 foot lengths, and intended to be laid into the ground. He demonstrated the safety of the cable himself, by publicly holding the line with a live voltage of 10kV, which obviously would have shown if it would not have isolated sufficiently.

Figure 1: Artist’s impression of dramatic test to demonstrate safety of Ferranti’s 10 000 volt concentric main, 1890. Retrieved from [3].

Figure 1: Artist’s impression of dramatic test to demonstrate safety of Ferranti’s 10 000 volt concentric main, 1890. Retrieved from [3].

Thomas Alva Edison visited Deptford himself on 25 September 1889. Although greatly impressed, Edison expressed doubts about the wisdom of such a vast system of centralization. ‘You may be slow to begin with but I must say that when you do go ahead, you may even beat us.’

The system started operating on 16 February 1891, and continued service until 24 November 1933, and could have been used for a lot more years to come. Organising and setting up the total operation of building a revolutionary plant at such a young age, he felt justified in writing to the Directors of Grosvenor Gallery Company: ‘I desire to call the attention to the fact that from the commencement of your operations to the present time no engineering or electrical difficulties whatever have arisen, which I have not been able to overcome.’

He always had been interested in the application of electricity to the increase of comfort in the home. He put many of his ideas to practise in his own house, by installing his own generator driven by a 25 hp oil engine and constructed a 6-ton hot water storage. The house and garden were wired for electric power use and lighting. He had an electric washer, ironer and clothes dryer implemented as well. All the principal rooms were equipped with concealed heating panels in the ceilings, consisting of hot water pipes supplied from the main hot water tank.

Figure 2: Retrieved from [3].

Figure 2: Retrieved from [3].

During 1910 and 1911, he was appointed President of the Institution of Electrical Engineers. His sons both fought in the First World War, at the cost of his oldest son who was killed in action. Both received a Military Cross and his second son, Vincent, led on to take over his fathers legacy by expanding the Ferranti company a big deal and eventually also becoming president of the Institution of Electrical Engineers.

After the Deptford project, he turned his attention to building up a new business in the manufacturing of generators, meters, transformers, and switchgear. Ferranti International plc would eventually become a large player in the power supply distribution industry and would develop important defence electronics during World War II. Subsequently, in the late 1940’s, the Ferranti company joined University-based research groups to help develop early computers. Ivan Idelson, employee at Ferranti, would inspire the development of ASCII with the Cluff-Foster-Idelson coding, initialising a 7-track paper tape for the British Standards Institution committee. Eventually, Ferranti had to file bankruptcy in December 1993 due to the acquisition of International Signal and Control, which pleaded guilty to fraud consisting of illegal arms sales. The Belgian subsidiary lives on as Ferranti Computer Systems and is just recently acquired by the Nijkerk Holding.

Sebastian Ziani de Ferranti died on the 13th of January, 1930. He always showed a clear appreciation of the basic elements of a problem, and used techniques from different fields to solve it. He was an Engineer, in the finest tradition of that profession, whose practitioners always face the stern discipline of making their ideas work.

Cover image source: “Erecting 1000 kW 10 000 volt alternator at Deptford, 1889.” Retrieved from [3].

[1] Sebastian Ziani de Ferranti, Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sebastian_Ziani_de_Ferranti)

[2] Ferranti, Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ferranti)

[3] Pioneer of Electric Power Transmission: An Account of Some of the Early Work of Sebastian Ziani de Ferranti, D.Sc., F.R.S. (1864-1930), S.Z. de Ferranti, Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London, Vol. 19, No. 1 (Jun., 1964), pp. (https://www.jstor.org/stable/3519859) Accessed: 24-05-2020