Residual-current Device - History and Nomenclature

History and Nomenclature

The world’s first high-sensitivity earth leakage protection system (i.e. a system capable of protecting people from the hazards of direct contact between a live conductor and earth), was a second-harmonic magnetic amplifier core-balance system, known as the magamp, developed in South Africa by Henri Rubin. Electrical hazards were of great concern in South African gold mines, and Rubin, an engineer at the company F.W.J. Electrical Industries, initially developed a cold-cathode system in 1955 which operated at 525 V and had a tripping sensitivity of 250 mA. Prior to this, core balance earth leakage protection systems operated at sensitivities of about 10 A.

The cold cathode system was installed in a number of gold mines and worked reliably. However, Rubin began working on a completely novel system with greatly improved sensitivity, and by early 1956, he had produced a prototype second-harmonic magnetic amplifier-type core balance system (South African Patent No. 2268/56 and Australian Patent No. 218360). The prototype magamp was rated at 220V 60A and had an internally adjustable tripping sensitivity of 12.5 to 17.5 mA. Very rapid tripping times were achieved through a novel design, and this combined with the high sensitivity was well within the safe current-time envelope for ventricular fibrillation determined by Charles Dalziel of the University of California, Berkeley, USA, who had estimated electrical shock hazards in humans. This system, with its associated circuit breaker, included overcurrent and short-circuit protection. In addition, the original prototype was able to trip at a lower sensitivity in the presence of an interrupted neutral, thus protecting against an important cause of electrical fire.

Following the accidental electrocution of a woman in a domestic accident at the Stilfontein gold mining village near Johannesburg, a few hundred F.W.J. 20 mA magamp earth leakage protection units were installed in the homes of the mining village during 1957 and 1958. F.W.J. Electrical Industries, which later changed its name to FW Electrical Industries, continued to manufacture 20 mA single phase and three phase magamp units.

At the time that he worked on the magamp, Rubin also considered using transistors in this application, but concluded that the early transistors then available were too unreliable. However, with the advent of improved transistors, the company that he worked for and other companies later produced transistorized versions of earth leakage protection.

In 1961, Charles F. Dalziel, working with Rucker Manufacturing Co., developed a transistorized device for earth leakage protection which became known as a Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter (GFCI), sometimes colloquially shortened to Ground Fault Interrupter (GFI). This name for high-sensitivity earth leakage protection is still in common use in the U.S.A.

In the early 1970s most GFCI devices were of the circuit breaker type. However the most commonly used in the USA since the early 1980s are built into outlet receptacles. The problem with those of the circuit breaker type was that of many false trips due to the poor alternating current characteristics of 120 volt insulations, especially in circuits having longer cable lengths. So much current leaked along the length of the conductors' insulation that the breaker might trip with the slightest increase of current imbalance.

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