An Alexanderson alternator is a rotating machine invented by Ernst Alexanderson in 1904 for the generation of high-frequency alternating current for use as a radio transmitter. It was one of the first devices capable of generating the continuous radio waves needed for transmission of amplitude modulation (sound) by radio. It was used from about 1910 in "superpower" longwave radiotelegraphy stations to transmit transoceanic message traffic by Morse code to similar stations all over the world, until it was replaced in the 1920s by vacuum-tube transmitters. It is on the list of IEEE Milestones as a key achievement in electrical engineering.
In 1891, Frederick Thomas Trouton gave a lecture which stated that, if an electrical alternator were run at a great enough cycle speed (in more-familiar terms, if run fast enough and with enough poles), it would generate high-frequency wireless energy. Nikola Tesla developed alternators with up to 50,000 hertz output. A forerunner to the Alexanderson alternator, his devices, by early 1896, produced continuous frequencies that were in the longwave radio frequency range of the VLF and LF bands.
In 1904, Reginald Fessenden contracted with General Electric for an alternator that generated a frequency of 100,000 hertz for continuous wave radio. The alternator was designed by Ernst Alexanderson. The Alexanderson alternator was extensively used for long-wave radio communications by shore stations, but was too large and heavy to be installed on most ships. In 1906 the first 50-kilowatt alternators were delivered. One was to Reginald Fessenden at Brant Rock, Massachusetts, another to John Hays Hammond, Jr. in Gloucester, Massachusetts and another to the American Marconi Company in New Brunswick, New Jersey.
Alexanderson would receive a patent in 1911 for his device. The Alexanderson alternator followed Fessenden's rotary spark-gap transmitter as the second radio transmitter to be modulated to carry the human voice. Until the invention of vacuum-tube (valve) oscillators in 1913 such as the Armstrong oscillator, the Alexanderson alternator was an important high-power radio transmitter, and allowed amplitude modulation radio transmission of the human voice. The last remaining operable Alexanderson alternator is at the VLF transmitter Grimeton in Sweden and was in regular service until 1996. It continues to be operated for a few minutes on Alexanderson Day, which is either the last Sunday in June or first Sunday in July every year.
|Radio-Station||Callsign||Wavelength (m)||Frequency (kHz)||Power (kW)||Installation||Decommissioning||Scrapping||Remarks|
|New Brunswick, NJ, USA||WII||13,761||21.8||1918||1948||1953||Initially 50 kW alternator|
|Marion, MA, USA||WQR||13,423||22.3||1920||1932|
|WSO||11,623||25.8||1922||1932||Haiku, HI after 1942|
|AFA2||11,623||25.8||1949||1959||Smithsonian after 1960|
|Bolinas, CA, USA||KET||13,100||22.9||1920||1930||1946|
|KET||15,600||19.2||1921||1930||Haiku after 1942|
|Radio Central, Rocky Point, NY, USA||WQK||16,484||18.1||1921||1948||1951|
|WSS||15,957||18.8||1921||1948||Marion 1949-1959 (callsign AFA2), now at Smithsonian|
|Kahuku, HI, USA||KGI||16,120||18.6||1920||1930||1938|
|Tuckerton, NJ, USA||WCI||16,304||18.4||1921||1948||1955||Initially Goldschmidt alternator|
|Caernarvon, Wales, UK||MUU||14,111||21.2||1921||1939|
|Warsaw, Poland||AXO||21,127||14.2||1923||Destroyed in World War II|
|AXL||18,293||16.4||1923||Destroyed in World War II|
|Grimeton, Sweden||SAQ||17,442||17.2||1924||Initially 18.600 m, Operational, Preserved. An UNESCO World Heritage Site.|
|1924||1960||1960||In parallel connection|
|Monte Grande, Buenos Aires, Argentina||LPZ||16,700||18||500||1924||1931||Current status|
|Pernambuco, Recife, Brazil||never||Delivered 1924, returned to Radio Central after 1946|
|never||Delivered 1924, returned to Radio Central after 1946|
Starting in 1942 four stations were operated by US Navy: the station at Haiku, Hawaii until 1958, Bolinas until 1946, Marion, and Tuckerton (both until 1948). Two alternators were shipped to Hawaii in 1942, one each from Marion, MA and Bolinas, CA. Haiku received one. The other went to Guam but returned to Haiku after World War 2. Haiku began operation of the first 200KW alternator in 1943. The second alternator went into operation at Haiku in 1949. Both alternators were sold for salvage in 1969, possibly to Kreger Company of California. The Marion station was transferred in 1949 to the US Air Force and used until 1957 for the transmission of weather forecasts to the arctic as well as for the Basen to Greenland, Labrador, and Iceland. One of the alternators was scrapped in 1961 and another one was handed over to the US office of standard, it now resides in a Smithsonian Institution warehouse. The two machines in Brazil were never used because of organizational problems there. They were returned to Radio Central after 1946.
Theory of operation
The Alexanderson alternator works similarly to an AC electric generator, but generates higher-frequency current, in the radio range. The rotor has no conductive windings or electrical connections; it consists of a solid disc of high tensile strength magnetic steel, with narrow slots cut in its circumference to create a series of narrow "teeth" that function as magnetic poles. The space between the teeth is filled with nonmagnetic material, to give the rotor a smooth surface to decrease aerodynamic drag. The rotor is turned at a high speed by an electric motor.
The machine operates by variable reluctance (similar to an electric guitar pickup), changing the magnetic flux linking two coils. The periphery of the rotor is embraced by a circular iron stator with a C-shaped cross-section, divided into narrow poles, the same number as the rotor has, carrying two sets of coils. One set of coils is energized with direct current and produces a magnetic field in the air gap in the stator, which passes axially (sideways) through the rotor.
As the rotor turns, alternately either an iron section of the disk is in the gap between each pair of stator poles, allowing a high magnetic flux to cross the gap, or else a non-magnetic slot is in the stator gap, allowing less magnetic flux to pass. Thus the magnetic flux through the stator varies sinusoidally at a rapid rate. These changes in flux induce a radio-frequency voltage in a second set of coils on the stator.
The RF collector coils are all interconnected by an output transformer, whose secondary winding is connected to the antenna circuit. Modulation or telegraph keying of the radio frequency energy was done by a magnetic amplifier, which was also used for amplitude modulation and voice transmissions.
The frequency of the current generated by an Alexanderson alternator in hertz is the product of the number of rotor poles and the revolutions per second. Higher radio frequencies thus require more poles, a higher rotational speed, or both. Alexanderson alternators were used to produce radio waves in the very low frequency (VLF) range, for transcontinental wireless communication. A typical alternator with an output frequency of 100 kHz had 300 poles and rotated at 20,000 revolutions per minute (RPM) (330 revolutions per second). To produce high power, the clearance between the rotor and stator had to be kept to only 1 mm. The manufacture of precision machines rotating at such high speeds presented many new problems, and Alexanderson transmitters were bulky and very expensive.
The output frequency of the transmitter is proportional to the speed of the rotor. To keep the frequency constant, the speed of the electric motor turning it was controlled with a feedback loop. In one method, a sample of the output signal is applied to a high-Q tuned circuit, whose resonant frequency is slightly above the output frequency. The generator's frequency falls on the "skirt" of the LC circuit's impedance curve, where the impedance increases rapidly with frequency. The output of the LC circuit is rectified, and the resulting voltage is compared with a constant reference voltage to produce a feedback signal to control the motor speed. If the output frequency gets too high, the impedance presented by the LC circuit increases, and the amplitude of the RF signal getting through the LC circuit drops. The feedback signal to the motor drops, and the motor slows down. Thus the alternator output frequency is "locked" to the tuned circuit resonant frequency.
A large Alexanderson alternator might produce 500 kW of output radio-frequency energy and would be water- or oil-cooled. One such machine had 600 pole pairs in the stator winding, and the rotor was driven at 2170 RPM, for an output frequency near 21.7 kHz. To obtain higher frequencies, higher rotor speeds were required, up to 20,000 RPM.
Along with the arc converter invented in 1903, the Alexanderson alternator was one of the first radio transmitters that generated continuous waves. In contrast, the earlier spark-gap transmitters generated a string of damped waves. These were electrically "noisy"; the energy of the transmitter was spread over a wide frequency range, so they interfered with other transmissions and operated inefficiently. With a continuous-wave transmitter, all of the energy was concentrated within narrow frequency band, so for a given output power they could communicate over longer distances. In addition, continuous waves could be modulated with an audio signal to carry sound. The Alexanderson alternator was one of the first transmitters to be used for AM transmission.
The Alexanderson alternator produced "purer" continuous waves than the arc converter, whose nonsinusoidal output generated significant harmonics, so the alternator was preferred for long-distance telegraphy.
Because of the extremely high rotational speed compared to a conventional alternator, the Alexanderson alternator required continuous maintenance by skilled personnel. Efficient lubrication and oil or water cooling was essential for reliability, difficult to achieve with the lubricants available at the time. In fact, early editions of the British Navy's "Admiralty Handbook of Wireless Telegraphy" cover this in considerable detail, mostly as an explanation as to why "The Navy" did not use that particular technology. However, the US Navy did.
Other major problems were that changing the operating frequency was a lengthy and complicated process, and unlike a spark transmitter, the carrier signal could not be switched on and off at will. The latter problem greatly complicated "listening through" (that is, stopping the transmission to listen for any answer). There was also the risk that it would allow enemy vessels to detect the presence of the ship.
Because of the limits of the number of poles and rotational speed of a machine, the Alexanderson alternator is at most capable of transmission in the lower mediumwave band, with shortwave and upper bands being physically impossible.
- Alexanderson Day
- Tonewheel – same principle, also amplitude modulated (in the Hammond organ) or with permanent-magnet excitation as speed sensor
- Resolver (electrical) – reversed roles: the pole frequency amplitude-modulates the higher excitation frequency
- "Milestones:Alexanderson Radio Alternator, 1904". IEEE Global History Network. IEEE. Retrieved 29 July 2011.
- earlyradiohistory.us 1892alt.htm
- U.S. Patent 447,920, "Method of Operating Arc-Lamps" (March 10, 1891) : described an alternator that produces what at that time was high-frequency current — 10,000 cycles per second .
- Leland Anderson, "Nikola Tesla On His Work With Alternating Currents and Their Application to Wireless Telegraphy, Telephony, and Transmission of Power", Sun Publishing Company, LC 92-60482, ISBN 0-9632652-0-2
- Antique Wireless Association - column edited by Frank Lotito
- David E. Fisher and Marshall J. Fisher, Tube, the Invention of Television Counterpoint, Washington D.C. USA, (1996) ISBN 1-887178-17-1
- Hammond, John Winthrop. Men and Volts, the Story of General Electric, published 1941. Citation: Alexanderson alternator pages 351, 372.
- Notes from the Navy Institute proceedings 1952 from M.G. Abernathy files.
- Letter to M.G. Abernathy from G. Warren Clark Captain USNR (Ret)
- Letter to Mr. Mayes from Lt. Francis J. Kishima Commanding Officer USCG Omega Station Hawaii
- Milestones:Yosami Radio Transmitting Station, 1929
- E. F. W. Alexanderson, U.S. Patent 1,008,577 High Frequency Alternator
- N. Tesla, U.S. Patent 447,921