The Electrochemical Industry and Niagara Falls
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 development of electricity at Niagara Falls was about electricity
for industrial power, not light.
Niagara Falls and Electricity."
one considers the 1901 Pan-American Exposition, one of the first images
brought to mind is that of the illuminated buildings and grounds. Because
this striking display of electrical power was generated by the hydroelectric
power plants of Niagara Falls, it is easy to directly relate the development
of the Niagara power industry to the need for electrically generated light
in cities like Buffalo. As Jack Foran emphasizes, this is a common misconception.
It was, in fact, industry that powered the development of Niagara.
In 1927, Edward Dean Adams wrote a comprehensive history of the Niagara
Falls Power Company (NFPC), where he described the way Niagara power development
both influenced and was influenced by the growth of industry.
This was a surprising development to the planners of the central power
station that would become the NFPC. They designed the facility based on
the premise that the municipal and domestic users of electricity (electric
railways, incandescent lighting, etc.) in the cities of Niagara Falls
and Buffalo to be the parties with the greatest demand for Niagara power.
February 15, 1893 [two years before the power station began operation]
it was stated by the company that the inquiries and requests
for power justified the belief that "a quick and urgent demand
for this power, both hydraulic and electrical, will show itself
at Niagara as well as at Buffalo, but undoubtedly it is from this
great city now employing more that 50,000 horse-power that the more
urgent demand will come for immediate use." 1
Dean Adams, 1927
Diagram of Circuits 4
December 1896, fifteen months after the NFPC began commercial operation,
it became apparant that Buffalo was not the "field of quick and urgent
demand" that planners had anticipated it to be. Instead, the largest
consumers of electrical power were "local" and from "unexpected
and novel sources." 2
"[A] glance at the diagram of circuits' showing the use of Niagara
power in 1897, less than two years after the plant started, brings out
a striking fact. Electric power was used for lighting, it was used for
street railways locally and in Buffalo, it was used for motors in mills,
the three uses of power which had been emphasized, but the center of the
diagram shows five uses other than for lighting and power, of a kind to
which scarcely any reference is found in the early prospectuses and plans
of the company. These uses are for the making of carborundum, aluminum
(Pittsburgh Reduction Company),
alkalis and calcium carbide. They are electrochemical and allied processes
and they were using, in the aggregate, many times the total power taken
for lighting and motors." 3
As Foran mentions in his essay,
one of the key technological innovations influencing the development of
the Niagara power industry, was Tesla's invention of the alternating current
motor. This motor, used in both industrial and domestic machinery, catalyzed
the demand for alternating current, which justified the building of a
power generation infrastructure based on the outward transmission of electricity
from centralized production facility. But as Niagara Falls grew to be
a center of hydroelectric power generation, the region saw the parallel
development of a fledgeling industry that utilized electrical current
for more than simply lighting factories and powering motors. The electrochemical
industry required cheap electrical power. And it required a lot of it.
Niagara Fostered the Development of the Electrochemical
Two basic processes are utilized
in the electrochemistry:
Both of these processes
require a constant, round-the-clock supply of power. Since power comprised
a relatively high percentage (nearly 20 to 40 percent) of the total cost
of chemical production, electrochemical companies needed a source of power
that was both constant and inexpensive. Niagara power had both of these
characteristics, thus, the electrochemical industry prospered. In essence,
the electrochemical and power industries in the Niagara Falls region each
benefited from the other's prosperity. Development of Niagara's hydroelectric
power provided an endless supply of cheap electricity, making electrochemical
production cheap and profitable. This, in turn, creating a demand for more
Two or more elements are combined using a high-temperature electric
An electric current is used to break down an element into two or more
new materials. For instance, caustic and chlorine results from the breakdown
is the greatest single source of constant water-power in the United
States. Here is power stupendous in magnitude, easily developed, at
a construction cost so relatively low that electric energy cost to
customers is the very lowest.
Niagara was a magnet to which was attracted the new born of the electrochemical
See Electrochemical Companies
at Niagara for descriptions of some of the major chemical producers
utilizing the Niagara's abundant and inexpensive hydroelectric power in
1. Edward Dean Adams. Niagara Power: History of the
Niagara Falls Power Company 1886-1918. Niagara Falls, N.Y.: Niagara
Falls Power Company, 1927, v.2, p. 257.
2. Ibid., v.2, pp. 258-9.
3. Ibid., v.2 pp. 258-9.
4. The "Diagram of Circuits" from a paper "The
Installation of the Niagara Falls Power Company," presented by Charles
F. Scott at the Engineers' Club of Philadelphia, April 17, 1897. In Adams,
5. Ibid., v.2, p. 308.