Electricity and its Development at Niagara Falls
"One of the boldest engineering and commercial feats of the past century, the successful development of the water-power of Niagara Falls, was the signal for the utilization of water powers all over the world. This masterpiece of nature remains to-day with its beauty and grandeur unmarred, its 8,000,000 horse-power inappreciably affected by the petty thefts of man, and its usefulness enhanced a thousand-fold."
--William Andrews, "How Niagara Has Been Harnessed,"
The American Monthly Review of Reviews, June 1901.
By the time planning began for the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, hydroelectric power generation had already been in place at Niagara Falls for nearly a decade. As William Andrews explains in his article "How Niagara Has been Harnessed," a charter had been obtained from the New York Legislature in 1886 to begin developing the water power of the Falls. But those who realized the commercial value of developing the cataracts were also "opposed to the desecration of the most impressive natural object of the world for utilitarian purposes." Add to this philosophy the establishment of the State Reservation at Niagara in 1885 and the result was the design and construction of hydroelectric power plants that were engineering marvels of their day.
- Water Diversion, Turbines and Tunnels
- The Niagara Falls Hydroelectric Power and Manufacturing Company
- The Niagara Falls Power Company
- The Cataract Power and Conduit Company
- The Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company
- The General Electric Company
Water Diversion, Turbines and Tunnels
Power Company Water Inlets. Photo credit: n/a. Source: Orrin E. Dunlap. "Niagara Falls Power Development and the Pan-American Exposition." Western Electrician, v. 28, no.20, p. 330. This birdseye view shows (1) the inlet of the Niagara Falls Power Company, (2) the inlet of the Niagara Falls Hydraulic Power and Manufacturing Company, and (3) the embankment being constructed on the river above the inlet of the Niagara Falls Power Company to divert ice.
Rather than harness the water power of the Niagara River below the Falls, hydraulic engineer, Thomas Evershed, proposed that the water be diverted via a canal above the Falls through penstocks to vertical shafts housing the turbines. The Evershed Scheme would then channel the water through tunnels running underneath the city of Niagara Falls to be discharged into the lower river.
This canal/tunnel method was the means by which the two major power producers in 1901, the Niagara Falls Hydroelectric Power and Manufacturing Company and the Niagara Falls Power Company, both of which supplied electricity to industry in the vicinity of the Falls and throughout Western New York.
Transverse Section of Power House No. 2. Niagara Falls Power Company Source: The Niagara Falls Electrical Handbook: Being a Guide for Visitors from Abroad Attending the International Electrical Congress, St. Louis, Mo., September, 1904. Niagara Falls, N. Y. : Pub. under the auspices of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, 1904. p. 73.
The diagram at left illustrates the vertical shafts through which water was diverted from the canals to generator turbines. Penstocks conducted water from the canal through 7 ½ foot steel tubes running from the head gates to the turbine "deck" approx. 140 feet below. After passing the water wheels the water flowed to the exit tunnel which carried it under the city of Niagara Falls at a rate of about 20 mph to the lower Niagara River. While this is an illustration of Niagara Falls Power Company's Power House No. 2, completed in 1904, it is nearly identical to Powerhouse No. 1, which was in operation in 1901, supplying electricity to the Pan-American Exposition.
The Niagara Falls Hydroelectric Power and Manufacturing Company
General View of Power Development by the Niagara Falls Hydraulic Power and Manufacturing Company. Photo credit: n/a. Source: The Niagara Falls Electrical Handbook: Being a Guide for Visitors from Abroad Attending the International Electrical Congress, St. Louis, Mo., September, 1904. Niagara Falls, N. Y. : Pub. under the auspices of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, 1904. p. 36.
The Niagara Falls Hydroelectric Power and Manufacturing Company (NFHP) was located on the lower river north of Niagara Falls. Sometimes referred to as the "Schoellkopf Plant," after its founder, Jacob Frederick Schoellkopf, this power plant was situated on the bluff of the Niagara Gorge and produced primarily direct current electricity. This plant is a perfect illustration of the influence of industry in the development of power generation at Niagara Falls. NFHP supplied electricity to manufacturers within a 1 mile radius since that was the effective limitation of the transmission of direct current. The generators installed were of various makes, depending upon the industries to which they were supplying power. Surprisingly, the NFHP underestimated the importance of alternating current (AC) production. As AC-driven machinery became more commonplace in industry, the demand increased. Eventually, the NFHP would add generators to produce alternating current.
The Niagara Falls Power Company
Power Houses and Transformer House - The Niagara Falls Power Company. Photo credit: n/a. Source: The Niagara Falls Electrical Handbook: Being a Guide for Visitors from Abroad Attending the International Electrical Congress, St. Louis, Mo., September, 1904. Niagara Falls, N. Y. : Pub. under the auspices of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, 1904. p. 70.
The Niagara Falls Power Company (NFPC) was located upriver from Niagara Falls and produced the electricity used not only to power industry in the immediate vicinity of the Falls but also to be transmitted to Buffalo, Tonawanda, Lockport and beyond. This plant is often referred to as the "Adams Plant," named so after Edward Dean Adams, president of the Cataract Construction Company, which erected the original power stations at Niagara Falls and gave financial stability to the NFPC. (Adams would also direct the NFPC.)
Unlike the Niagara Falls Hydroelectric Power and Manufacturing Company, which supplied its customers directly, the NFPC was design to be a centralized producer of power only. Other companies would be responsible for transmission and distribution of that power.
The NFPC generated alternating current (AC), which, unlike direct current, can be transformed from one potential to another, to a higher or lower electromotive force, through the means of static transformers. The development of AC and step-up/step-down transformers were key to the transmission of hydroelectric power over long distances. The influence of engineers like Nikola Tesla cannot be understated. As Jack Foran points out in a related essay, Tesla did not invent alternating current or the transformer. Rather, he developed the alternating current motor, "making [AC] electricity a feasible industrial commodity." Increase the demand for any commodity and surely the desire to supply that commodity will follow.
Interior of Power House No. 2 - The Niagara Falls Power Company. Photo credit: n/a. Source: The Niagara Falls Electrical Handbook: Being a Guide for Visitors from Abroad Attending the International Electrical Congress, St. Louis, Mo., September, 1904. Niagara Falls, N. Y. : Pub. under the auspices of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, 1904. p. 88.
The NFPC supplied alternating current through the use of ten Westinghouse AC generators of 5,000 h.p. capacity with 430 cubic feet of water turning the turbines at 250 rpm. This was the capacity of NFPC Power House No. 1. To put this into perspective, the entire Pan-American Exposition was powered by the electricity produced by only one of those ten generators. While a second power station would eventually be constructed across the canal, it was Power House No. 1 that produced most of the AC in the Western New York region at the time of the Exposition. Step-up transformers, allowed for the transmission of that power to Buffalo and other areas via lines owned by the Cataract Power and Conduit Company 22 miles to the city of Buffalo. (See a diagram of the NFPC's "General Scheme of Power Distribution.") From there, the electricity was distributed to consumers, the largest of which were the International Railroad Company and the Buffalo General Electric Company.
The Cataract Power and Conduit Company
George Urban, Jr.
Incorporated in 1896 by William B. Rankine, George Urban, Jr. and Charles R. Huntley, the Cataract Power and Conduit Company won the contract to lay transmission lines from the Niagara Falls Power Company to the city of Buffalo. The objectives of this company were as follow:
Charles R. Huntley
"... the use and distribution of electricity for light, heat or power within the city of Buffalo, the construction of conduits, poles, pipes or other fixtures in, on, over and under the streets, alleys, avenues, public parks, and places within the city of Buffalo for the conduct of wires and pipes and for conducting and distributing electricity ...." 1
George Urban, Jr. headed the George Urban Milling Company and was involved in banking, insurance and numerous business interests. He was an incorporator and vice-president of the Cataract Power and Conduit Company and served as an organizer and president of the Thomson-Houston Electric light company before it was absorbed by the General Electric Company. In 1901 he served on the Board of Managers of the Pan-American Exposition Company and would be a prominent figure in developing the electrical power industry in Western New York.
Charles R. Huntley was also an incorporator of the Cataract Power and Conduit Company. However he most famous for his role as president of the Buffalo General Electric Company which would absorb the Cataract Power and Conduit Company in 1915. Huntley appropriately served on the Executive Committee of the Board of Managers of the Pan-American Exposition. See more on Huntley and the Buffalo General Electric Company.
The Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company
Although famous for his invention of the air brake, George Westinghouse (1846-1914) envisioned alternating current as key to the harnessing of electricity and embarked on electrical matters as early as 1885. It was at this time that he acquired the patents for the Gaulard and Gibbs system of alternating current transmission and began research and development using apparatus imported from England. Eventually, Westinghouse recruited engineer Nikola Tesla, acquiring his patents for the polyphase induction motor, and continued to develop the machinery necessary for alternating current production. Edward Dean Adams made this statement with regard to Westinghouse's AC research relative to development of Niagara Power:
"The issuing of the Tesla polyphase patents in May, 1888,was followed a year later by the organization of the Cataract Construction Company [and its affiliate the Niagara Falls Power Company] which undertook the investigation of methods of developing Niagara Power. Niagara plans and alternating-current machinery developed simultaneously and in less than a decade they mutually contributed to the inauguration of modern hydro-electric power service." 2
The 1893 Chicago World's Fair (Columbian Exposition) was a forum for exhibiting Westinghouse's successful technological innovations with regard to alternating current and electrical apparatus. Referring to the spectacular display of lighting at the Westinghouse exhibit, Col. Henry G. Prout wrote:
"… the best result of the Columbian Exposition of 1893 was that it removed the last serious doubt of the usefulness to mankind of the polyphase alternating current. The conclusive demonstration at Niagara was yet to be made, but the World's Fair clinched the fact that it would be made, and so it marked an epoch in industrial history...." 3
(Westinghouse also had a substantial exhibit at the Pan-American Exposition, although it was the General Electric Company that displayed a working exhibit of the machinery that actually supplied power to the Exposition grounds.)
Armature of a 5000 Horse-power Westinghouse Generator. Photo Credit: n/a. Source: Edward Dean Adams. Niagara Power: History of the Niagara Falls Power Company 1886-1918. Niagara Falls, N.Y.: Niagara Falls Power Company, 1918, p. 200.
In October 1893, Westinghouse was awarded the contract to build the 5,000 horsepower generators for the Niagara Falls Power Company's Power House No. 1 as well as all auxiliary electrical apparatus, including exciters, measuring instruments and switching devices. Transmission of alternating current electricity from Niagara Falls to Buffalo began in 1896, and was well in place by the time plans began for the Pan-American Exposition in 1901. The General Electric Company may have distributed the electricity to illuminate the grounds of the Exposition, but it was a Westinghouse generator that produced that power.
Numerous individuals had contributed to the success Westinghouse's involvement in Niagara power development. The more prominent of these were William Stanley, the pioneering electrical inventor who had done early AC research for Westinghouse, electrical engineers Lewis B. Stillwell, Benjamin G. Lamme, Paul M. Lincoln and mechanical engineer Albert Schmid, among others. More details on the contributions of these and other Westinghouse engineers can be found in Edward Dean Adams, Niagara Power: History of the Niagara Falls Power Company 1886-1918, (1918).
The General Electric Company
The General Electric Company was formed in 1891, with the consolidation of the Thomson-Houston Electric Company and the Edison General Electric Company of Schenectady. Thomas Alva Edison (1847-1931), inventor of the incandescent lightbulb, built the first electric utility system using direct current. While Elihu Thomson was one of the first engineers to research alternating current technology in the United States, Edison was not all that interested in AC. As with many of his contemporaries, Edison was a proponent of direct current, going so far as to say that alternating current was dangerous. Indeed, the first execution by electrocution utilized alternating current, thus supporting his ideas, at least in the mind of the public. The General Electric company supplied direct current dynamos to the Niagara Falls Hydroelectric Power and Manufacturing Company as well as numerous industries around the falls. Machinery was also provided for the original installations of the Pittsburgh Reduction Company, the Carborundum Company and the Union Carbide Company among others. However, consolidation with Thomson-Houston as well as further development of AC technology in Europe led the General Electric Company to begin addressing the problems of AC technology. Competition with Westinghouse, which already had a 5 year jump on researching AC spurred the General Electric Company forward in this area. When plans were being drawn by the Cataract Construction Company for a centralized power station, the General Electric Company was a formidable technological competitor with Westinghouse. The General Electric Company's bid to supply generators for NFPC's Power House No. 1 was unsuccessful. However, they did provide approximately half of the generators for Power Houses 2 and 3 as well as the Canadian plant of the NFPC.
The Buffalo General Electric Company
The following entry from A History of the City of Buffalo, Its Men and Institutions (1908), best describes the Buffalo General Electric Company at the turn of the century:
The history of The Buffalo General Electric Company is largely the history of the electrical development of Buffalo in the past twenty-five years. In 1882, James Adams, A. P. Wright, J. F. Moulton, and H. G. Knowlton formed an organization for the purpose of distributing electric light in the city.
The earliest application was for lights generated through what was then known as a Brush arc dynamo. The first demonstration was across Buffalo Creek, on what is known as the Island. The business spread rapidly and another establishment was started near the freight house of the New York Central Railroad. Later a plant was built in Wilkeson Street and another in Prenatt Street, near Buffalo Creek.
The franchise was granted by the Common Council to The Brush Electric Light Company and to The United States Electric Company, but the progress of the electric companies was exceedingly slow, and they met with all sorts of difficulties in establishing their business, ignorance and prejudice being always potential factors.
The early efforts of the company were confined to what was then known as the First Ward and the outlying districts, for the reason that it was not an easy matter for the existing lighting organization to address themselves to the illumination of streets in other quarters. Much criticism was made by individuals and a hostile press because such streets as Abbott Road and Elk Street were lighted by electricity, alleging that it was farm land and not recognizing that the lighting was essential to these great highways for those who came into the city with their goods in the early hours of the morning. But the criticism was upon so flimsy a basis that it could not stand long in the light of use and appreciation.
In 1886 an organization was formed known as The Thomson-Houston Electric Light Company, which, in the main, purposed to do electric lighting on the west side. The results of the business of both companies was not entirely satisfactory, and a combination of interests, by the purchase of stocks and bonds of the respective companies by a common holder, was entered into in 1892 under the name of The Buffalo General Electric Company. The active elements of all the companies were associated in the new organization, with Mr. Daniel O'Day as president, Mr. George Urban, Junior, vice-president, and Mr. Charles R. Huntley general manager.
From that time on there has been a steady increase in the use and appreciation of electricity. In 1897 the steam plants of the various companies were gradually dismantled and the power was taken from Niagara Falls through The Cataract Power and Conduit Company. Today Niagara Falls power is distributed through The Buffalo General Electric Company and is probably the most potent factor in Buffalo's industrial life. At the present time there are different distributing stations in different parts of the city—in Wilkeson Street, Court and Main streets, Ohio Street, Babcock Street, and Ferry Street.
In Buffalo the use of electricity is becoming general, and the community is living up to its name—the Electric City. Particularly is the application of this force to all domestic requirements becoming popular; such as for house lights, heat for cooking and laundry purposes, for operating sewing machines, mechanical elevators, and so forth. The Buffalo General Electric Company has been the leading educator in this respect.
The offices of this concern are located in the new Fidelity Building, and the present officers are: president and general manager, Charles R. Huntley; vice-presidents, George Urban, Junior, and Andrew Langdon; assistant manager, William R. Huntley; treasurer, D. T. Nash. 4
Charles R. Huntley (see above) was general manager and eventual president of the Buffalo General Electric Company (BGEC). In making the plant a site for demonstrating the advantages and possibilities of alternating current, Huntley set up the BGEC to become a model for the centralized distribution of electrical power. Certainly, his role as a vice-president of the Cataract Power and Conduit Company, which installed and operated the transmission lines leading from Niagara Falls to Buffalo, put the BGEC in a advantageous position as a power distributor. By 1901 the BGEC was offering four levels of electrical service to the city of Buffalo:
|Constant high-tension current||arc lighting|
|60-cycle alternating current||distant incandescent lighting|
|500-v direct current||motor circuits|
|220-v three wire direct current||incandescent lamps|
Since it was the major distributor of electricity to Buffalo, it is not surprising that much of the electrical current used at the Pan-American Exposition was distributed via the BGEC. In fact, the General Electric Company's display in the Electricity Building was the place of the step-down transformation of the power used for illuminating the Exposition grounds and buildings.5 This working exhibit allowed Exposition visitors to see the transformers up close, and to observe engineers at work as the current entering the grounds was reduced to the voltage needed to operate trolleys and incandescent lamps. The BGEC's role cannot be understated since the illumination effects were not only one of the most memorable features of the Pan-American Exposition, but proof to the general public that the water-power from Niagara could successfully be harnessed and that electricity could be utilized for more than just industry.
- Edward Dean Adams. Niagara Power: History of the Niagara Falls Power Company 1886-1918. Niagara Falls, N.Y.: Niagara Falls Power Company, 1927, p. 343.]
- Ibid., p. 189.
- Henry G. Prout. A Life of George Westinghouse. Published by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, 1921. In Niagara Power, p. 193.
- A History of the City of Buffalo. Its Men and Institutions. Buffalo, NY: The Buffalo Evening News, 1908. p.114.
- The electricity that came from Niagara Falls was used primarily for illuminating the incandescent lamps used to decorate the Exposition buildings and grounds. A separate service building housed numerous natural gas-burning boilers and steam engines, which provided much of the electrical power used to drive machinery. A third source of power was the Machinery and Transportation Building, which exhibited steam and gas engines used to power the many fountains and water pumps. See "The Power Court of the Machinery Building" and "The Power Plants of the Pan-American Exposition" for more information.
- Thomas Edison visited the Pan-American Exposition and in an interview with Western Electrician, talked briefly about his impressions of illumination effects, the future use of his storage battery and the continued development of Niagara Falls as a power and industrial center. See "Edison at the Pan-American Exposition."
- An excellent timeline of the development of hydroelectric power at Niagara Falls can be found at Daniel M. Dumych's web site Waterpower at Niagara http://www.niagarafrontier.com/tunnelpix/DanielDumychWaterPower.pdf.
- Additional information on George Westinghouse and the Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company is available at The Westinghouse World: The Companies, the People and the Places on the American Memory site at http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/papr/west/westpres.html
- Nikola Tesla's contributions to the development of Niagara Power are discussed on the PBS-produced Tesla: Master of Lighting at http://www.pbs.org/tesla/