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Quick History of the Direct Current Electric Motor

What do electric vehicles, ceiling fans, and washing machines have in common? They each rely on an electric motor to function. However, only one of these examples runs on a direct current (DC) motor. Today, most household appliances and electrical devices use alternating current (AC) electricity to run. But without the century-long collective and competitive invention of the DC electric motor preceding the appearance of AC electrical systems, many of our modern amenities would not exist.


The First Direct Current Electric Motor Prototypes

Based on the physics principle of electromagnetism, electric motors turn electricity into mechanical energy. Most sources credit American inventor Benjamin Franklin for designing the first rudimentary electrostatic motor in the late 18th century. But Franklin’s original prototypes didn’t generate much voltage, making them all but useless practically and commercially.

It took several more inventors and the turn of a century before Hungarian physicist Anyos Jedlik would invent the first device to contain the three main components of the modern DC motor in 1827. Calling them “electromagnetic self-rotors,” Jedlik went on to use these devices for educational purposes.


Development of the First Commercially Viable DC Motors

British scientist William Sturgeon finally invented the first motor with remarkable improvements in 1832. Sturgeon’s work influenced the Davenports, a husband and wife team who together would patent the first motor design attempted for commercial use.

Capable of running up to 600 revolutions per minute, the Davenports’ motor seemed promising. However, there were problems.

  • Central electrical distribution systems did not exist, so early industrial electrical motors relied on primary batteries to source electricity.
  • The cost of powering the primary battery needed to run the Davenport motor was too high for its use to remain profitable.
  • It was a product design doomed to market failure.

Iterating on what worked and problem-solving for what didn’t in their predecessors’ experiments, Russian scientist Moritz Von Jacobi and his contemporary competitors raced to develop the most powerful motor to date between 1834 to 1840. Jacobi’s second prototype was powerful enough to propel a boat holding 14 people.


The First Commercial DC Motor

Finally, after many more scientists and inventors contributed their ideas, American inventor Frank Julian Sprague created the first DC motor that found commercial success in 1886. It was proven through rigorous testing to be relatively safe and capable of carrying loads of any weight while maintaining a consistent speed. Sprague partnered with the South Side Elevated Railroad in Chicago to create the first electric trolley system in 1887, sparking widespread inspiration for many other industrial applications for the electric motor and the subsequent development of the AC motor.