Niagara Falls and Electricity
Fig. 1 - The Electric Tower illuminated at the 1901 Pan-American
abound. The theme image of the Pan-American Exposition was light--specifically,
electrical light--referring to Buffalo's proximity to Niagara Falls, and
consequent potential to exploit the almost limitless electrical energy
of the Falls. The first-time-ever large-scale development of this new
energy type had occurred at the Falls five years prior to the Pan-Am.
But the development of electricity at Niagara Falls was about electricity
for industrial power, not light. Electricity for light was already in
wide-scale use at the time. The Edison Company had the corner on market.
Edison supplied most of the electrical lighting in use at the time, and
held the key patents that applied to electrical lighting production and
To justify the huge and extremely costly project of harnessing the natural
wonder of Niagara Falls for electricity required, first of all, identifying
a market for the vast amount of electrical power that would be produced.
The market was to be Buffalo industry. But then there needed to be a method
to transmit the power from the Falls to Buffalo, a distance of 25 miles.
This required development of alternating current (AC). It was impossible
to transmit direct current (DC), the form of electricity then mostly in
use, more than about a mile. Edison's lighting industry used DC, which
was supplied from numerous "central stations," each serving
about a one-square mile area.
Fig. 2 - Nicola Tesla
The development of the AC system was
the work of the genius Nicola Tesla, working for George Westinghouse,
Edison's great rival in the electrical industry. Tesla had previously
worked for Edison, who found him an extremely useful hire. In New York
City, he bailed Edison out of one engineering difficulty after another.
But Edison had no interest in Tesla's life-long real interest--AC--and
provided little encouragement or incentive for Tesla to work on this pet
project. (Nor, for that matter, did the Wizard of Menlo Park see much
potential for the use of electricity for industrial power. Power for industry
was and would always be adequately supplied, Edison must have thought,
by the still fairly new technology of the steam engine.)
Tesla didn't invent AC electricity or the transformer--the theoretically
simple device that could boost the voltage of AC, making it economical
for transmission (by Ohm's law, E = IR, according to which raising the
voltage, E, reduces, relatively, amperage, I, and resistance, R, which
is where losses occur). Tesla's great contribution was the development
of the AC motor, completing the loop, making AC electricity a feasible
Chemical companies and other industries occupying the lands of the
Niagara Falls Power Company. This map shows the area upriver of
the actual falls.
final irony was on the order of the "build it and they will come"
thesis of the baseball movie. They harnessed the falls and immediately
major industries--most notably the fledgling Pittsburgh Reduction Company,
which later became Aluminum Company of America, then a number of chemical
companies--moved to Niagara Falls to buy and use the power. It wasn't
for several years, after expansion of the original generating capacity,
that they began selling substantial amounts of electricity to the Buffalo
© 2001 Text - Jack
(Note: Images and captions added by web site editor--ed.)
Foran is a freelance writer and editor in Buffalo. He was formerly
a technical writer and editor for several area environmental consultant
firms, and a reporter with several newspapers. He is currently working
on a book on Western New York decisive historical moments.
For more information on the development of electrical power systems at
Niagara Falls, please link to Jack Foran's "The Day They Turned The
Falls On : The Invention Of The Universal Electrical Power Systems"
at : http://ublib.buffalo.edu/libraries/projects/cases/niagara.htm