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Measuring Electric Power: Invention of the Electricity Meter

August 16, 2019

Without fail, August brings some of the hottest, sunniest days we see all year. While this may lead some to spend more time indoors to escape the blazing heat, all that sunshine certainly has its upside. Long, sunny days are ideal for solar power users – while they stay cool inside, their solar panels take advantage of all that solar power, decreasing their dependency on electricity.

If a homeowner’s solar panels produce more energy than they need to use at a given time, they can send the extra amount into the power grid. Later, when the sun is down and they need more electricity, the stored power can be implemented. All this is monitored by the electricity meter.

An electricity meter is a device that measures the amount of electrical energy being used by a home or business, and create a bill that reflects that amount. Here we provide an overview of the history and inner workings of the electricity meter, a key electronic invention. 

The Invention of the Electricity Meter

George Westinghouse was a pioneer in the world of electrical energy. In the late 1880s, he discovered that the electricity produced by an alternating current (AC) generator could power lights that were a mile away. It didn’t take him long to realize that this was a golden, profitable opportunity. People were excited to use electricity to light up their homes, and they would pay him for the power he provided. All he needed to do was figure out how much electricity they were using, so he would know how much to charge.

Then along came Oliver Shallenberger. He was a graduate of the US Naval Academy and was interested in AC generation and where it was headed. He’d recognized the need for an AC meter, and began working on one. He ran some of his ideas by Thomas Edison, but Edison was only interested in direct current electricity, which General Electric was generating.

Undaunted, Shallenberger took his AC meter drawings to Westinghouse. Westinghouse did not understand exactly what Shallenberger was showing him, but he knew enough to offer him a job as a chief electrician with his company. Shallenberger quit the navy and set to work. 

Four years later, he was tinkering with a new AC lamp when a spring dropped inside the lamp. He noticed that the spring was rotating inside the lamp and the electrical fields were causing this motion. He spent three weeks frantically working to harness this motion and came up with a working model of an AC meter. It was a huge success, and even today electricity meters use the same basic technology. 

How a Modern Electricity Meter Works

To keep track of your energy usage, a meter measures the voltage (or potential energy) and amperage (current) in the electrical circuit that is the connection of your house to the utility power source. One volt multiplied by one amp is one watt. An analog meter uses the same electrical field effect that made Shallenberger’s spring rotate to make a disc spin, counting the watts used. A digital meter puts the volt and amp input through a digital signal processor. Either way, the meter precisely measures how many watts are used over time, the utility company gets the information, and you get the bill.   In fact, today’s meters are so smart that many are sending the information via wi-fi so that you no longer have a person going and looking at the actual meter.

The Experts in Electronics & Hardware

When George Westinghouse figured out how to use AC power to turn on a light from a distance, he knew he had a money making opportunity. It took a little time and the genius of Oliver Shallenberger to come up with the missing element—an electricity meter. Today, these meters have just as much electronics in them as mechanical devices to precisely measuring the electricity we use so we can pay exactly enough for it, fulfilling Westinghouse’s vision. 

At Keystone Electronics, we have been producing cutting-edge precision electronics and hardware for over 70 years and many of our products have been in all phases of  electricity meters from mechanical standoffs and spacers or multipurpose hardware to our fuse and battery clips, contacts and holders to support the high tech electronics of today’s meter.

We can also make modifications or custom fabrications, and have many available in-house resources, such as design and engineering, machining, close tolerance stamping, assembly, and precision tool and die capabilities. These enable us to efficiently meet each of our client’s unique needs, and our Global Distribution Network gets the components to you quickly. 

To ensure the highest standards of precision on all our components and hardware, Keystone’s Quality System is ISO 9001:2015-certified by DNVGL Certification, Inc. under the ANAB and RvA accreditations.

To learn more about our capabilities, services, and electronics equipment and hardware, contact us today.


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