Updated 05-I-2019

William Hochhausen

This article was written by fellow lamp engineer and collector Edward J. Covington, and originally appeared on his own website of biographical sketches of persons involved in the lamp industry. Following his passing in February 2017, and with kind permission of his family, Ed's words have been preserved here in the hope of maintaining access to his writings for the benefit of subsequent generations.

William Hochhausen

There are at least two biographical sketches of William Hochhausen that were written about 1889-18901,2. The one copied verbatim below is from The Electrical World1.
"Mr. William Hochhausen, whose face we have the pleasure of presenting on this page in our series of Electrical World Portraits, is a German by birth, and thus belongs to one of the strongest and best elements that go to the making of the new American nation. He was born in Jena, Germany, so celebrated for the great battle fought there by Napoleon; and was educated at the well-known University of Jena, with which are associated the famous names of Fichte, Schelling, Hegel, Voss, Schlegel and others. Here the young Hochhausen showed a strong bent for physics and mechanics, and spent some time under the tuition of the University mechanician. At the age of 18 he went to Berlin and entered the employ of Siemens & Halske, a firm still in prosperous existence, and one in whose service many able electricians have learned the electrical arts. In course of time Mr. Hochhausen joined the Vienna branch of the house and also worked for other firms, chiefly in the manufacture of instruments of precision and all kinds of electrical apparatus.

"At the age of 23, however, Mr. Hochhausen felt himself cramped in his opportunities, and like many another Teuton longed to see something of the world beyond the borders of the fatherland, or even of Europe. He set out accordingly on a trip around the globe, leaving Hamburg for Australia. Arrived in the Antipodes, he devoted himself for two and a half years to engineering. Then he made a remove to the Sandwich Islands, and from that remote place he sailed to California, where he spent some eight months. But California in those days offered little inducement to an electrician, and so at last, in 1867, he made his way to New York, via the Central American route.

"Arrived in New York, Mr. Hochhausen was not long in forming a connection with the old and noted house of Charles T. & J. A. Chester, pioneers in the installation of fire alarm systems in this city and makers also of telegraph instruments. In 1871, Mr. Hochhausen went into business on his own account, making a specialty of telegraph apparatus and experimental work, doing a large amount of construction for the Gold and Stock Telegraph Company. When the American District Telegraph system came into vogue he built all the necessary plant for it. Early in 1874, Mr. Hochhausen, who had followed closely the evolution of magneto and dynamo electric machines, built his first dynamo to the order of Mr. Alfred Holcomb, and from this point of departure plunged deeply into the mysteries and difficulties of dynamo construction as then practiced. It was not long before Mr. Hochhausen found himself busy building dynamos for plating and deposition, and then for arc lighting. This was an interesting period of his career, and was marked by various changes in his commercial relationships, until in 1881, the merits of his work in the new field of electric lighting being recognized by capitalists, the Excelsior Electric Company was organized to manufacture under his patents and to place his apparatus for lighting, plating, etc., upon the market. Since that time the system, which was illustrated in our columns as far back as the beginning of 1884, has been steadily improved, and its merit is shown by the fact that it ranks among the leading survivors of a period of intense and perhaps unparalleled industrial and technical competition. Mr. Hochhausen has, moreover, developed an incandescent lighting system, a variety of ingenious apparatus for regulation and measurement, and a series of excellent motors for the constant current and constant potential circuits. He is still constantly engaged in experiment and invention, and may be confidently depended upon to add frequently to the long list of useful appliances that bear his name and are of use in the practical applications of electricity."

A brief write-up about Hochhausen appeared in The Story of Electricity3:
"William Hochhausen, a New Yorker, developed a system which was introduced in 1883 by Henry Edmunds, an enterprising English capitalist who was largely interested in electrical development and who financed and introduced in England the Wallace-Farmer and Brush systems as well as the Swan incandescent lamp. The Hochhausen system was ingeniously designed to combine most of the desirable features in a single mechanism. The generator resembled that of Van Depoele, except that it was vertical instead of horizontal. Among its features was a small section of iron for the field flux, and a small auxiliary motor, which, by rotating the brushes, maintained constancy in the current. There were also minor improvements in the way the lamp carbons were fed together by gravity. The life of a pair of carbons in this system was eight hours, and as double carbon lamps were provided, they had a life of sixteen hours without attention. In those days this was a record of remarkable achievement, although it appears crude enough when it is compared with the life of from 150 to 250 hours of our present enclosed arc lamps. Like most of the others in that period, this Hochhausen system was of the high voltage, low current type, with all the defects of those systems, but later it joined in the general adoption of the low current (ten ampere) and fifty volt arc, which was a very important advance."
Hochhausen made the headlines before the advent of the incandescent lamp by Edison in 1879. An example follows that involves Edward Weston. Citing a passage from Woodbury's biography of Weston4:
"...Weston went to Boston to find out why it was impossible to sell his plating dynamos there. He learned quickly enough that two competing makes had saturated the market: the Wallace-Farmer dynamo and one manufactured by a man named William Hochhausen. The latter was particularly exasperating to Weston because he felt the man was an out-and-out infringer. Mr. Hochhausen was equally annoyed and within a year the two were in court, fighting tooth and nail. It had developed that Hochhausen was installing water-cooled dynamos in plating plants. He was suing Weston for infringement of his patent for the cooling system.

"In his testimony, Weston put his finger on the secret of the whole thing:

'I have been building machines for plating and other purposes since the latter part of 1872 or the early part of 1873, and did build and sell machines in 1874, almost identical with those now sold by Mr. Hochhausen, and since Mr. Hochhausen began building machines for plating purposes in 1876, I have been very much annoyed by finding that as soon as I had a new device on the machine Mr. Hochhausen followed suit; and I think that I have traced channels through which information given by me has been carried to him; particularly in regard to what is known as the automatic switch...'
"—as well as various circuit arrangements and the idea of water-cooling the armature. Weston told the court that he had begun water-cooling armatures in 1874, simply by dousing them with a hose. Naturally, this was only for a test, but it had worked well enough to implant the idea in the inventor's head for future use if necessary. When, in 1877, much larger machines came in demand, notably to gain a fair share of the Boston trade, Weston included water cooling.

"He had found in the latter part of that year, that his large machines could not be sold without some form of cooling. He chose water as a medium, because it was so much more efficient than air circulated by natural draft. He made the application reluctantly, because he knew that the real way to get rid of the heat was through a design that would not permit it to be generated in the first place. However, large machines were in demand, and this was a fairly satisfactory stopgap. He accomplished it by substituting solid end bells for the usual spiders that held the journals of the machine, then pumping water in at one end of the dynamo and out at the other, being careful to keep the outflow pipe well below the journal so that there would be no leakage. It was not a scientifically sound scheme, owing to the danger of impairing the electrical insulation on the armature, and also because of rust. But it saw him through a tough period of competition.

"Weston never patented the idea, but Hochhausen did, having 'borrowed' it, along with other things, from his Newark competitor.

"Hochhausen lost the suit, it being proved that he had placed an accomplice in Weston's shop, who transmitted to him drawings and specifications of anything that looked promising. The case had its slightly amusing side, for the invention which caused his downfall was only a temporary measure and had no future at all."

In 1890 the Thomson-Houston Company purchased the Excelsior Electric Company5.

Two of Hochhausen's incandescent lamps are in the Hammer Collection (1884-494, 1884-500)6. The drawings on page 1 of Hochhausen's U. S. Patent No. 294,044, and 357,385, are shown below.

Hochhausen's Lamp in US Patent 294,044

Hochhausen's Lamp in US Patent 357,385

The writer thanks Charles A. Crider for providing photocopies of The Electrical World biographical sketch of William Hochhausen, Part 1 of the write-up regarding The Excelsior Electric Company, and the Excelsior advertisement. Anne Locker, IEE Archivist, also provided a photocopy of a biographical sketch that appeared in The Electrician.


  1. "William Hochhausen", The Electrical World, Vol.14 No.15, Oct 12 1889, p.244.
  2. "William Hochhausen," The Electrician, 1890, p.36.
  3. "The Story of Electricity", Vol.2, T. Commerford Martin & Stephen Leidy Coles, 1922, p.15.
  4. "A Measure for Greatness - A Short Biography of Edward Weston", David O. Woodbury, McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., New York, 1949, pp.81-82, 85-86.
  5. "The Electric-Lamp Industry: Technological Change and Economic Development from 1800 to 1947", Arthur A. Bright, Jr, The Macmillan Company, New York, 1949, p.83.
  6. "The William J. Hammer Historical Collection of Incandescent Electric Lamps", website of Edward J. Covington.