The Electrochemical Industry and Niagara Falls
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. …
But the development of electricity at Niagara Falls was about electricity for industrial power, not light.
—Jack Foran, "Introduction: Niagara Falls and Electricity."
When 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.
On 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
—Edward Dean Adams, 1927
Diagram of Circuits. Source: 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 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.251.
By 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 Industry
Two basic processes are utilized in the electrochemistry:
- Electrothermic process: Two or more elements are combined using a high-temperature electric furnace.
- Electrolytic process: 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 of salt.
Niagara Falls. Photo credit: n/a. Source: Pan-American Exposition, Buffalo May 1 to November 1, 1901. Its purpose and its plan. With Illustrations. Buffalo, N. Y. : The Courier Company, 1901. p. .
Both of these processes require a constant, round-the-clock supply of power. Since power comprised 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 power.
Niagara 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 family. 5
See Electrochemical Companies at Niagara for descriptions of some of the major chemical producers utilizing the Niagara's abundant and inexpensive hydroelectric power in 1901.
- 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.
- Ibid., v.2, pp. 258-9.
- Ibid., v.2 pp. 258-9.
- 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, v.2, p.251.
- Ibid., v.2, p. 308.