ABB's history goes back to the late 19th century. Allmänna Svenska Elektriska Aktiebolaget (General Swedish Electrical Limited Company, ASEA) was founded in 1883 by Ludvig Fredholm in Västerås as manufacturer of electrical light and generators. Brown, Boveri & Cie (BBC) was formed in 1891 in Baden, Switzerland, by Charles Eugene Lancelot Brown and Walter Boveri as a Swiss group of electrical companies producing AC and DC motors, generators, steam turbines and transformers.
ABB was created as the result of the merger of the Swedish corporation ASEA and the Swiss company Brown, Boveri & Cie (BBC) in 1988. The latter had acquired Maschinenfabrik Oerlikon in 1967. The former CEO of ASEA, Percy Barnevik ran the company until 1996.
In 1990, ABB purchased Westinghouse's metering and control division (the load control division was spun off to Cannon Technologies in the late 1990s and the meter division was spun off to Elster Electricity in the early 2000s). Also, in the early 1990s, ABB purchased Combustion Engineering (C-E), headquartered in Stamford and Norwalk, Connecticut, a leading U.S. firm in the development of conventional fossil fuel power and nuclear power supply systems to break into the North American market. Klaus Agthe was CEO of the US operation at the time. Continuing with its expansion plans, ABB purchased Elsag Bailey, a process automation group, in 1997 which included Bailey Controls, Hartmann & Braun, and Fischer & Porter. This was the largest acquisition to date in ABB's history.
ABB bought International Combustion Ltd from Rolls-Royce in 1997.
Alstom acquired ABB's boiler and fossil fuel operations in 2000 while its nuclear business was purchased by Westinghouse Electric Company in 2000. In 2000, ABB also signed a contract for the delivery of equipment and services for two North Korean nuclear powerplants to be supplied under an agreement with the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO), a consortium formed in 1995 by the governments of the United States, Japan, South Korea and the European Union. ABB formally divested from a joint venture named ABB-Alstom Power in 2000, and sold its interest in conventional power generation systems to Alstom Power. ABB's nuclear business was sold to BNFL and merged into Westinghouse Electric Company.
In 2001, ABB was ranked as number one on the Dow Jones corporate sustainability index for the third year in a row.
In 2002, ABB asked Lindahl, the company's former chief executive, to return some of his $50 million retirement pay, which its board called excessive. ABB also asked its former chairman Percy Barnevik to pay back part of his $87 million pension package. The size of the pensions was disclosed at the same time as ABB's $691 million net loss for 2001 made headlines and drew sharp criticism in Switzerland and Sweden.
ABB's Building Systems business unit was sold off in 2004 to Capvis, a Swiss private equity company, as part of ABB's strategy to focus on power and automation technologies. ABB's building systems businesses in Australia and Hong Kong were sold off the year before, in May 2003, to Downer EDI Limited. Building Systems provided services for building facilities encompassing indoor air quality, building automation as well as power distribution and management.
Financial debt and lingering asbestos liability brought ABB to the brink of bankruptcy in the early 2000s. In 2006, ABB recovered financially by settling asbestos issues brought by its U.S. subsidiaries, Combustion Engineering and Lummus Global. In August 2007 Lummus Global was sold to CB&I.
In December 2008, ABB acquired Ber-Mac Electrical and Instrumentation to expand its presence in western Canada's oil and gas industries.
In 2009, ABB realigned its automation divisions . As of January 1, 2010, the business units in the Automation Products and Robotics divisions were regrouped into two new divisions – Discrete Automation and Motion, and Low Voltage Products. The Process Automation division remained unchanged except for the addition of the instrumentation business from the Automation Products division.
In May 2010, ABB acquired software company Ventyx for more than $1 billion from Vista Equity Partners. In 2011, on May 9 ABB announced acquisition of Australian-based Mincom Limited from private equity firm Francisco Partners for an undisclosed sum. On July 29, 2011, acquisition has been finalised. Mincom and Ventyx were subsequently integrated under the Ventyx name, and have now been integrated into ABB as the Enterprise Software Product Group.
In 2011 ABB acquired Baldor Electric USA for $4.2 billion in an all-cash transaction On January 30, 2012, ABB Group acquired Thomas & Betts in a $3.9 billion cash transaction. On June 15, 2012, it completed acquisition of commercial and industrial wireless technology specialists Tropos. In July 2013, ABB acquired Power-One in a $1 billion all-cash transaction, to become the leading global manufacturer of solar inverters . On June 30, 2018, ABB completed its acquisition of GE Industrial Solutions, GE’s global electrification business. The transaction was announced on September 25, 2017.