Zenobe-Theophile Gramme

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Gramme, Zénobe-Théophile

(b. Jehay-Bodegnée, Belgium, 4 April 1826; d. Bois-Colombes, near Paris, France, 20 January 1901)


Gramme was born into an educated family of modest means; his father was a clerk in the tax department. Gramme showed no ability as a student but did not lack ingenuity and manual dexterity. He left school at an early age and became a joiner, practicing this trade in the small town of Hannut until he was twenty-two years old. He then moved with his family to Liège; where he remained until 1855. After visiting Brussels, Paris, Lyons, and Marseilles, he settled in Paris as a banister maker. He married Hortense Nysten, a dressmaker from Liège; they lived in Neuilly-sur-Seine, a suburb.

Shortly after he came to Paris, Gramme began to work as a model maker in a firm that specialized in the manufacture of electrical apparatus. This served as his apprenticeship in technology; by 1867 he had become interested in building an improved apparatus for producing alternating current. His Success might be said to derive from his characteristic fastidiousness about his person, however. He was appalled by the dirt surrounding the batteries used to produce direct current, and by 1869 he had built a successful—and clean—direct-current dynamo, drawing on the work of Pacinotti (a version of whose machine he had improved) and other earlier physicists who had theorized autoexcitation in revolving machines. Gramme’s dynamno, used in metallurgy as well as in the production of electric light, depended upon a ring winding to hold the conductors in place on the surface of the revolving armature. Gramme was the first to give final form to the collector that derives direct current from the revolving armature, and he rapidly saw the possibility of inverting the function of the dynamo to use it as an electrical engine.

Gramme’s invention was presented to the Académie des Sciences by the physicist Jules Jamin at the meeting of 17 July 1871. It soon aroused the interest of scientific and industrial circles; and with the help of Marcel Deprez and Arsène d’ Arsonval, Gramme was able to accomplish the long-distance transmission of direct-current electricity. Their results were announced to the Academy on 2 December 1872, 25 November 1874, and 11 June 1877. These four notes constitute the whole of Gramme’s work published during his lifetime.

Gramme became associated with Hippolyte Fontaine in the further development of his machines; in 1871 they opened a factory—the Société des Machines Magnéto-Électriques Gramme—which manufactured the Gramme ring, Gramme armature, and Gramme dynamo, among other things. The factory grew to great size and the owners prospered. Gramme had a house in Bois-Colombes, complete with gardens and conservatories, built according to his specifications.

Gramme’s wife died in 1890, and in 1891 he married Antonie Schentur, who was thirty-six years his junior. In 1901, following Gramme’s death, she published a manuscript that he had written in the last two years of his life, containing a number of hypotheses about electricity and magnetism—hypotheses that, unfortunately, most eloquently illustrate Gramme’s ignorance of contemporary science as well as his vivid imagination. Indeed, Gramme died semiliterate, without having advanced his mathematical training much beyond the four basic operations of elementary arithmetic.

Gramme was awarded the Volta Prize by Louis Napoleon in 1852. In 1898 he was made Commander of the Order of Leopold I of Belgium. His discoveries of the principles of the dynamo and the electrical engine were of the utmost importance to modern technology.


I. Original Works. Gramme’s writing are “Sur une machine magnéto-électrique produisant des courants continues,” in Comptes rendus hebdomadaires des séances de I’Acadèmie des sciences, 73 (1871), 175–178; “Sur les machines magnéto-électriques Gramme, appliquées à la production de lumiére,” ibid., 75 (1872), 1497–1500; “Sur les nouveaux perfectionnements apportés aux machines magnéto-électriques,” ibid., 79 (1874), 1178–1182; “Recherches sur l’emploi des machines magnéto-électriques à courants continus, “ibid., 84 (1877), 1386–1389; and Les hypothèses scientifiques émises par Zénobe Gramme en 1900 (Paris, 1902).

II. Secondary Literature. Biographies are the following (listed chronologically): O. Colson, Zé Gramme sa vie et ses d’après des documents inédits (Liége, 1903; 5th ed., 1913): J. Pelsenner, Zènobe Gramme (Brussels, 1941); and L. chauvois, Histore merveilleuse de Zènobe Gramme (Paris, 1963).

Marcel Florkin