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An early form of circuit breaker was described by Edison in an 1879 patent application, although his commercial power distribution system used fuses.  Its purpose was to protect lighting circuit wiring from accidental short-circuits and overloads.
All circuit breakers have common features in their operation, although details vary substantially depending on the voltage class, current rating and type of the circuit breaker.
The circuit breaker must detect a fault condition; in low-voltage circuit breakers this is usually done within the breaker enclosure. Circuit breakers for large currents or high voltages are usually arranged with pilot devices to sense a fault current and to operate the trip opening mechanism. The trip solenoid that releases the latch is usually energized by a separate battery, although some high-voltage circuit breakers are self-contained with current transformers, protection relays, and an internal control power source.
Once a fault is detected, contacts within the circuit breaker must open to interrupt the circuit; some mechanically stored energy within the breaker is used to separate the contacts, although some of the energy required may be obtained from the fault current itself. The stored energy may be in the form of springs or compressed air. Small circuit breakers may be manually operated; larger units have solenoids to trip the mechanism, and electric motors to restore energy to the springs.
The circuit breaker contacts must carry the load current without excessive heating, and must also withstand the heat of the arc produced when interrupting the circuit. Contacts are made of copper or copper alloys, silver alloys, and other materials. Service life of the contacts is limited by the erosion due to interrupting the arc. Miniature circuit breakers are usually discarded when the contacts are worn, but power circuit breakers and high-voltage circuit breakers have replaceable contacts.
When a current is interrupted, an arc is generated - this arc must be contained, cooled, and extinguished in a controlled way, so that the gap between the contacts can again withstand the voltage in the circuit. Different circuit breakers use vacuum, air, insulating gas, or oil as the medium in which the arc forms. Different techniques are used to extinguish the arc including:
Lengthening of the arc
Intensive cooling (in jet chambers)
Division into partial arcs
Zero point quenching
Connecting capacitors in parallel with contacts in DC circuits
Finally, once the fault condition has been cleared, the contacts must again be closed to restore power to the interrupted circuit.
Miniature low-voltage circuit breakers use air alone to extinguish the arc. Larger ratings will have metal plates or non-metallic arc chutes to divide and cool the arc. Magnetic blowout coils deflect the arc into the arc chute.
In larger ratings, oil circuit breakers rely upon vaporization of some of the oil to blast a jet of oil through the arc. 
Gas (usually sulfur hexafluoride) circuit breakers sometimes stretch the arc using a magnetic field, and then rely upon the dielectric strength of the sulfur hexafluoride (SF6) to quench the stretched arc.
Vacuum circuit breakers have minimal arcing (as there is nothing to ionize other than the contact material), so the arc quenches when it is stretched a very small amount (<2-3 mm). Vacuum circuit breakers are frequently used in modern medium-voltage switchgear to 35,000 volts.
Air circuit breakers may use compressed air to blow out the arc, or alternatively, the contacts are rapidly swung into a small sealed chamber, the escaping of the displaced air thus blowing out the arc.
Circuit breakers are usually able to terminate all current very quickly: typically the arc is extinguished between 30 ms and 150 ms after the mechanism has been tripped, depending upon age and construction of the device.
Short circuit current
Circuit breakers are rated both by the normal current that are expected to carry, and the maximum short-circuit current that they can safely interrupt.
Under short-circuit conditions, a current many times greater than normal can exist (see maximum prospective short circuit current). When electrical contacts open to interrupt a large current, there is a tendency for an arc to form between the opened contacts, which would allow the current to continue. Therefore, circuit breakers must incorporate various features to divide and extinguish the arc.
The maximum short-circuit current that a breaker can interrupt is determined by testing. Application of a breaker in a circuit with a prospective short-circuit current higher than the breaker's interrupting capacity rating may result in failure of the breaker to safely interrupt a fau