Many different power frequencies were used in the 19th century. Very early isolated AC generating schemes used arbitrary frequencies based on convenience for steam engine, water turbine and electrical generator design. Frequencies between 16⅔ Hz and 133⅓ Hz were used on different systems. For example, the city of Coventry, England, in 1895 had a unique 87 Hz single-phase distribution system that was in use until 1906. The proliferation of frequencies grew out of the rapid development of electrical machines in the period 1880 through 1900. In the early incandescent lighting period, single-phase AC was common and typical generators were 8-pole machines operated at 2000 RPM, giving a frequency of 133 cycles per second.

Though many theories exist, and quite a few entertaining urban legends, there is little certitude in the details of the history of 60 Hz vs 50 Hz.

The German company AEG (descended from a company founded by Edison in Germany) built the first German generating facility to run at 50 Hz, allegedly because 60 was not a preferred number. AEG’s choice of 50 Hz is thought by some to relate to a more “metric-friendly” number than 60. At the time, AEG had a virtual monopoly and their standard spread to the rest of Europe. After observing flicker of lamps operated by the 40 Hz power transmitted by the Lauffen-Frankfurt link in 1891, AEG raised their standard frequency to 50 Hz in 1891.

Westinghouse Electric decided to standardize on a lower frequency to permit operation of both electric lighting and induction motors on the same generating system. Although 50 Hz was suitable for both, in 1890 Westinghouse considered that existing arc-lighting equipment operated slightly better on 60 Hz, and so that frequency was chosen.[5] Frequencies much below 50 Hz gave noticeable flicker of arc or incandescent lighting. The operation of Tesla’s induction motor required a lower frequency than the 133 Hz common for lighting systems in 1890. In 1893 General Electric Corporation, which was affiliated with AEG in Germany, built a generating project at Mill Creek, California using 50 Hz, but changed to 60 Hz a year later to maintain market share with the Westinghouse standard.

25 Hz origins

The first generators at the Niagara Falls project, built by Westinghouse in 1895, were 25 Hz because the turbine speed had already been set before alternating current power transmission had been definitively selected. Westinghouse would have selected a low frequency of 30 Hz to drive motor loads, but the turbines for the project had already been specified at 250 RPM. The machines could have been made to deliver 16⅔ Hz power suitable for heavy commutator-type motors but the Westinghouse company objected that this would be undesirable for lighting, and suggested 33⅓ Hz. Eventually a compromise of 25 Hz, with 12 pole 250 RPM generators, was chosen. Because the Niagara project was so influential on electric power systems design, 25 Hz prevailed as the North American standard for low-frequency AC.

40 Hz origins

A General Electric study concluded that 40 Hz would have been a good compromise between lighting, motor, and transmission needs, given the materials and equipment available in the first quarter of the 20th Century. Several 40 Hz systems were built. The Lauffen-Frankfurt demonstration used 40 Hz to transmit power 175 km in 1891. A large interconnected 40 Hz network existed in north-east England (the Newcastle-upon-Tyne Electric Supply Company, NESCO) until the advent of the National Grid (UK) in the late 1920s, and projects in Italy used 42 Hz. The oldest continuously-operating commercial hydroelectric power plant in the United States, at Mechanicville, New York, still produces electric power at 40 Hz and supplies power to the local 60 Hz transmission system through frequency changers. Industrial plants and mines in North America and Australia sometimes were built with 40 Hz electrical systems which were maintained until too uneconomic to continue. Although frequencies near 40 Hz found much commercial use, these were bypassed by standardized frequencies of 25, 50 and 60 Hz preferred by higher volume equipment manufacturers.

Standardization

In the early days of electrification, so many frequencies were used that no one value prevailed (London in 1918 had 10 different frequencies). As the 20th century continued, more power was produced at 60 Hz (North America) or 50 Hz (Europe and most of Asia). Standardization allowed international trade in electrical equipment. Much later, the use of standard frequencies allowed interconection of power grids. It wasn’t until after World War II with the advent of affordable electrical consumer goods that more uniform standards were enacted.

In Britain, implementation of the National Grid starting in 1926 compelled the standardization of frequencies among the many interconnected electrical service providers. The 50 Hz standard was completely established only after World War II.

Because of the cost of conversion, some parts of the distribution system may continue to operate on original frequencies even after a new frequency is chosen. 25 Hz power was used in Ontario, Quebec, the northern USA, and for railway electrification. In the 1950s, many 25 Hz systems, from the generators right through to household appliances, were converted and standardized. Some 25 Hz generators still exist at the Beck 1 and Rankine generating stations near Niagara Falls to provide power for large industrial customers who did not want to replace existing equipment; and some 25 Hz motors and a 25 Hz electrical generator power station exist in New Orleans for floodwater pumps. Some of the metre gauge railway lines in Switzerland operate at 16⅔ Hz, which can obtained from the local 50 Hz 3 phase power grid through frequency converters.

In some cases, where most load was to be railway or motor loads, it was considered economic to generate power at 25 Hz and install rotary converters for 60 Hz distribution.Converters for production of DC from alternating current were larger and more efficient at 25 Hz compared with 60 Hz. Remnant fragments of older systems may be tied to the standard frequency system via a rotary converter or static inverter frequency changer. These allow energy to be interchanged between two power networks at different frequencies, but the systems are large, costly, and consume some energy in operation.

Rotating-machine frequency changers used to convert between 25 Hz and 60 Hz systems were awkward to design; a 60 Hz machine with 24 poles would turn at the same speed as a 25 Hz machine with 10 poles, making the machines large, slow-speed and expensive. A ratio of 60/30 would have simplified these designs, but the installed base at 25 Hz was too large to be economically opposed.

In the United States, the Southern California Edison company had standardized on 50 Hz. Much of Southern California operated on 50 Hz and did not completely change frequency of their generators and customer equipment to 60 Hz until around 1948. Some projects by the Au Sable Electric Company used 30 Hz at transmission voltages up to 110,000 volts in 1914.

In Mexico, areas operating on 50 Hz grid were converted during the 1970s, uniting the country under 60 Hz.

In Japan, the western part of the country (Kyoto and west) uses 60 Hz and the eastern part (Tokyo and east) uses 50 Hz. This originates in the first purchases of generators from AEG in 1895, installed for Tokyo, and General Electric in 1896, installed in Osaka.

Utility Frequencies in Use in 1897 in North America
Cycles Description
140 Wood arc-lighting dynamo
133 Stanley-Kelly Company
125 General Electric single-phase
66.7 Stanley-Kelly company
62.5 General Electric “monocyclic”
60 Many manufacturers, becoming “increasing common” in 1897
58.3 General Electric Lachine Rapids
40 General Electric
33 General Electric at Portland Oregon for rotary converters
27 Crocker-Wheeler for calcium carbide furnaces
25 Westinghouse Niagara Falls 2-phase – for operating motors

Even by the middle of the 20th century, utility frequencies were still not entirely standardized at the now-common 50 Hz or 60 Hz. In 1946, a reference manual for designers of radio equipment listed the following now obsolete frequencies as in use. Many of these regions also had 50 cycle, 60 cycle or direct current supplies.

Frequencies in Use in 1946 (As well as 50 Hz and 60 Hz)
Cycles Region
25 Canada (Southern Ontario), Panama Canal Zone(*), France, Germany, Sweden, UK, China, Hawaii,India, Manchuria,
40 Jamaica, Belgium, Switzerland, UK, Federated Malay States, Egypt, West Australia(*)
42 Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Italy, Monaco(*), Portugal, Romania, Yugoslavia, Libya (Tripoli)
43 Argentina
45 Italy, Libya (Tripoli)
76 Gibraltar(*)
100 Malta(*), British East Africa

Where regions are marked (*), this is the only utility frequency shown for that region.