He was born in a village near Liège in 1826, and moved to France to work as a cabinet-maker in the workshops of Christofle, the silversmith. Overcoming his lack of education and knowledge of mathematics, he invented the “Gramme machine” in 1869, to speed up the silver-plating of cutlery using electrolysis. Unknown to Gramme, this machine was the first electric dynamo. Following the intervention of Hypollite Fontaine, who had noticed that the dynamo spun round when the current was reversed, Gramme patented his machine in 1873 and it became the world’s first successful electric motor on an industrial scale, as well as the first machine capable of generating high-voltage electricity as a challenge to the monopoly of steam power.
Gramme died in 1901, and was buried at the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris. Statues of him were erected in Paris and in Liège, where the Training College for Electrical Engineers was renamed the Gramme Institute in his honour. In the 2005 election of the “Greatest Belgian” for Walloon television, Gramme was placed 23rd.