Biography of Benjamin Garver Lamme


Benjamin Garver Lamme spent most of his life working for the Westinghouse Electric Company as an inventor and a developer of electrical machinery. He pioneered the design of rotary converters, developed direct current railway motors and produced the first commercially successful induction motor. He was one of the engineers developing the first Niagara Falls power system. Benjamin Lamme was born on a farm near Springfield, Ohio, on 12 January 1864.

At a very early age Lamme liked to tinker with machinery and tools, and tried out ideas at every opportunity around the family farm. He liked things that rotated, and had a special liking for things that turned at high speed. In his autobiography, Lamme told of his experience with a scheme to rotate a spool at high speed.

He rigged up, in line, his father’s grindstone, a wheel barrow turned upside down, and a spool threaded on a piece of wire that served as an axle. Using heavy cord, he coupled the grindstone to the axle of the wheel barrow, and a second cord around the rim of the barrow’s wheel to thespool. He calculated he would turn the grindstone at 150 rpm and would cause the spool to rotate at about 30,000 rpm. After some trials, he started turning the grindstone and the speed of the spool became high enough to cause the spool to fly apart.

As a youngster attending a country school, he discovered a deep interest in arithmetic, and mental arithmetic was particularly fascinating to him. It was required he learn multiplication tables to 12 times 12. With his fascination for numbers he developed his ability to twenty-five times twenty-five, and later to thirty-six times thirty-six. In later years he solved complex problems in his engineering work using mental calculations.

As a high school student he accompanied his father to the Cincinnati Exposition where he saw the Brush Arc Machine with four arc lamps lighting a small exhibit. On that trip he also visited the Pumping Station of the Cincinnati Water works and was fascinated by the large engines driving the pumps. It was at that time he obtained a copy of the Ohio State University course catalogue, found the description of the mechanical engineering course and decided that it was what he would pursue after high school.

Lamme entered Ohio State University in 1883 and did well in engineering courses. His ability for mental computation proved to be an advantage throughout his studies. He was once asked by his professor to check certain mathematical tables that had been established for a project; he checked their accuracy in such a short time his professor scorned him for not doing it accurately; eventually the professor found Lamme had done it correctly. His fellow students frequently called on Lamme for help with their work assignments.

He was graduated from Ohio State University in 1888 with the degree of Mechanical Engineer. There was not a course in electrical engineering at that time, however Lamme had become interested in electrical principles and machinery as a youngster, having seen the Brush electrical generator at the Cincinnati Exposition, read books on physics, and studied intensively an article and photograph of Edison’s dynamo that was published in Harper’s Weekly.

After graduating from college he worked in the family farm throughout the summer and winter of 1888 because of his father’s illness and death. In the Fall he obtained a copy of Professor Sylvanus Thompson’s Dynamo Electric Machinery. He studied the text and diagrams intensively and developed many questions about the subject. He later had an opportunity to pose those questions to a professor at Ohio State University, and the Professor could not provide answers. In subsequent years at Westinghouse, Lamme recognized that the professor could not answer his questions because the technology had not yet been developed.

In early 1889 Lamme read an article about Westinghouse forming the Philadelphia Natural Gas Company of Pittsburgh. He wrote to George Westinghouse, telling of his work as a student in the study of gas flow in a pipeline. Westinghouse responded promptly telling him to report to the Superintendent of the Philadelphia company.

After a couple months at the Natural Gas Company, on May 1, 1889, he was transferred to the Westinghouse Electric Company, where his prime interest lay. He started working in the shops and test rooms, reporting to Mr. Albert Schmid, the Superintendent; his pay was $30 per month.

From his observations and inquiries about the electrical machines being built in the Westinghouse shop Lamme determined the machines were the result of empirical design, with little information about aspects of magnetic fields and current circuits.

This led to his actively studying the designs of the machines and developing computations that would produce designs based on scientific knowledge of the times. By the summer of 1890, he was recommending changes to the design of salient pole machines based on his computations. The resulting improvements in machine performance and increased output resulted in Lamme being put in charge of the Test Rooms, and the design of new machines.

He became involved in the study and engineering of electrical machines, especially those for the street railway systems that were spreading throughout the United States. His development of design technology for electric machines was impressive. It included the single-reduction motor for street railway that took the industry by storm and replaced the double-reduction motors, the Rotary Converter, railroad electrification systems, the Westinghouse Type C Induction Motor, and the first 5000 kW generators for power development at Niagara Falls.

In his autobiography, Lamme relates that when he first came to the Westinghouse Electric shops in the spring of 1889, the factory work was being carried on by Mr. Tesla, assisted by Mr. Charles F. Scott, and he liked to watch Mr. Tesla carry on his tests. However in 1890, the induction motor work was abandoned because of the lack of suitable polyphase systems. Practically all power distribution circuits at that time were single phase, 1600 alterations per second (133 cycles). After Mr. Tesla left Westinghouse, Mr. Scott carried on the induction motor work. It was several years later that Lamme redesigned the induction motor, making it as we know it today.

Mr. Lamme spent many years developing advanced analysis and computational methods for designing machines, doing much of the work at night. Beginning with his work in 1890, he estimated that for the next 15 years he averaged three hours per night, five nights each week, working not on routine items of current activity, but, instead, on analysis of the theory and performance of electric machines, with emphasis in advancement of the engineering and methodology thereof. Over a period of several years, Lamme developed a design methodology based on the field-form method of analysis. He later wrote that his method had “proved of incalculable value, especially in the analysis and development of new types of apparatus.”

He would check for validity of his calculation methods during tests on ac and dc machines, to ensure the reliability of his computational work The importance of Lamme’s methodology was realized in 1893 when Westinghouse began designing the first Niagara Falls 5000 kW generators using his computation methods. Lamme designed much of the apparatus for the Westinghouse exhibit at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, including alternating-current generators, induction motors, and rotary converters.

Lamme wrote that his faculty for mental computation proved to be of great assistance in his design work, especially where development of principles and relationships were of quantitative nature. By means of that faculty he felt he was able to see relationships not obvious to those who depended upon paper work. He could take a table of disconnected data and discover curious relationships and sometimes indications of a rule or law running throughout. This would open the way to a new line of study or endeavor. He felt the faculty of mental computation was of more value to him than any other major trait. It gave him a quantitative or dimensional sense-a sixth sense.

Lamme never used a slide rule, except for a short period as an experimental exercise. He used it for a few weeks during his early years and soon realized he was losing his quantitative sense and his ability to do mental computation. He also realized he was not retaining figures and results as he did before using the slide rule.

In addition to his design work on the Niagara Falls alternators, Lamme designed the “monster machines” for the power plant of the Manhattan Elevated Railway in New York City. The plant used eight slow-speed direct-current generators, each of which was forty feet high and weighed approximately a million pounds. Lamme was responsible for designing the popular type C induction motor which came on the market in 1896 and was described at the time as having performance characteristics that were “unsurpassed.”

He used a technique of reducing the voltage applied to the motor when starting to limit the surge in line current. Lamme was among the leaders in the introduction of large turboelectric generators which began to supplant older slow-speed, engine-driven, generators in the first decade of the 20th century. He later wrote in his autobiography that he had “always liked high speed” and thus had become and enthusiastic participant in “the race for higher speeds” in the field of electric machinery.

Lamme became chief engineer at Westinghouse in 1903 and held the position for the rest of his life. During World War I, he represented the American Institute of Electrical Engineers (AIEE) on the Naval Consulting Board. Lamee received the IEEE Edison Medal on May 16, 1919, in the Auditorium of the Engineering Societies Building-the site that preceded the United Engineering Building of recent times-in New York City. The citation was “For Invention and Development of Electrical Machinery.”

The Edison Medal is presented for “a career of meritorious achievements in electrical science or electrical engineering or electrical arts.” The award consists of a gold medal, small gold replica, certificate, and ten thousand dollars. On January 11, 1923 Ohio State University presented Mr. Lamme with the Joseph Sullivant Gold Medal; the initial presentation of that award.

The award is given at five year intervals to an Alumnus in recognition of “notable achievement in the form of an important invention, discovery, contribution to science, the practical solution of a significant engineering, Economic, or Agricultural problem, or the production of a valuable literary, artistic, historical, philosophical, or other work.” Other electrical engineers who have received this award are Charles F. Kettering, James Finney Lincoln (Lincoln Electric) and John D. Kraus.

During his lifetime Lamme was granted one hundred sixty two patents. They were, as he termed them, “by-products” of design and development work, and most important, many resulted from the work of solving difficult problems in machines. Two of his patents are exemplified below:

“Speed Control for Induction Motors”, Patent No. 1,387,496; Filed: October 21, 1916; Issued: August 16, 1921,
Patent Assignee: Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

“System of Electrical Ship Propulsion”, Patent No. 1,390,624; Filed: June 29, 1918; Issued: September 13, 1921,
Patent Assignee: Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Beginning with his early days at the Westinghouse Electric, he was an educator. In those early times he frequently spoke and wrote instructions for the workmen, explaining operation and elementary theory of the electrical machines they were building and testing.

As the technology advanced, one of Mr. Lamme’s responsibilities was to recruit, evaluate, and train new engineering graduates employed by the Westinghouse Company. He developed criteria for selecting the most talented persons for the design engineering work. He developed and taught the Westinghouse Engineering Course in which those selected spent full time for six months. The first class was started in 1912. Those who had studied under him organized a club known as “Laminations” which featured invited lectures by Lamme and others.

Lamme disliked, and found difficult, writing technical papers. He wrote one hundred and one papers that were published, most of them in the Transactions and Proceedings of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers (AIEE, predecessor of the IEEE). A few of the papers were published in the Electrical Journal, a Westinghouse periodical.

In his writings Lamme used a minimum of mathematical calculations, adhering to his policy that if an author is diligent, he can present the mathematical aspects in explanatory form rather than with formulae. He believed most readers preferred text without extensive math presentations. His papers on the theory of commutation became classic documents used by design engineers in the profession.

In 1915 the Secretary of the U.S. Navy asked all engineering societies to designate two members to a Naval Advisory Board; the AIEE appointed Mr. Lamme and Mr. Frank Sprague (AIEE President 1892-93). In 1922, the AIEE planned to issue new electrical standards. Charles Proteus Steinmetz was appointed a member of a committee to do the revisions, and he asked Lamme to join him in the endeavor.

Lamme was a quiet and reticent person, yet very fond of close friendships with those with whom he worked. He had an aversion for attending banquets. When told by his sister that in a few days he would be receiving the Ohio State University Sullivant Medal, he remarked “Yes, and I am enjoying it about as much as the early Christians enjoyed the prospect of being fed to the lions.” Monetary compensation was secondary to the reward of accomplishment he enjoyed from an endeavor that benefited mankind. When he became interested in anything which strongly appealed to him, he pursued it with enthusiasm. When he achieved the maximum of the activity he quickly lost interest.

Lamme’s great interest in the people with whom he worked was returned by their affection, esteem and admiration for him as a great engineer. His associates always addressed him by the nickname “B.G.”

He was an inveterate reader, preferring fiction, history and scientific literature; he did not read stories of “thunder and bolt.” For many years Mr. Lamme and Charles P. Steinmetz, of the General Electric Company, were friends and shared common interests, one being a liking for fiction. Steinmetz once asked Lamme for a list of his books of this type. Lamme sent him the list containing eighty-six books with a notation for each, such as weird, imaginative, a story of the future, vampire story, historical, etc. and a rating for each book, such as fair, good, very good. Some of the authors in the list were H.G. Wells, Conan Doyle, Haggard, and Burroughs. Lamme had a lifelong interest in archeology and had a sizable personal collection of projectile points and other artifacts. He was also an amateur photographer and had an interest in mathematical puzzles.

Very fond of classical music, Lamme accumulated a large collection of records. He could cite from memory the name of any selection being played, the name of the composer, opera, and artist. He went many years without owning an automobile, probably because as a child, he suffered discomfort when riding in any vehicle. He eventually bought a car and it became his hobby to drive it, putting in 32,000 miles in two years. He knew all the back roads of the Pittsburgh area, and would drive Pittsburgh to Washington, DC, or to Philadelphia in one day. He became interested in photography and on his first trip to Europe he bought a camera, took many photos of his travels, and got involved in all aspects of the hobby. On his last trip, to the Mediterranean countries, he took 1500 pictures of scientific, artistic, and scenic subjects.

Bertha Lamme

Mr. Lamme never married and made his home with sisters. His sister Bertha Lamme graduated from Ohio State University with an engineering degree. She was the first woman who graduated in a major field of engineering other than areas related to civil engineering. She worked at Westinghouse as a electrical design engineer under her brother’s direction until she left to marry Mr. R.S. Feicht, a member of the engineering department.

Lamme died July 8, 1924 in Pittsburgh, PA., at the age of 60. In a tribute, Mr. H. P Davis, Westinghouse Vice President, wrote: “Mr. Lamme was endowed by nature with an almost infallible memory, a keenly analytical mind, a great simplicity, a capacity for intense, continuous application and a high degree of engineering foresight. He possessed the ability to analyze a problem into its fundamental principles, and to see through a mass of details to the very heart of a problem. Hence he was little apt to waste time or energy on stray bypaths.”

In his will, Lamme provided for a gold medal to be awarded by the AIEE for meritorious achievement in the development of electrical apparatus or machinery, and a gold medal to be awarded by the American Society for Engineering Education for accomplishment in technical teaching. He also provided for a medal to be awarded by Ohio State University for meritorious achievement in engineering or the mechanical arts by a graduate of of a technical department, and all the awards to be provided annually.
The Benjamin G. Lamme Meritorious Achievement Medal


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