The Day They Turned The Falls On:
The Invention Of The Universal Electrical Power System

by Jack Foran ©

The name is synonymous with power. Niagara Falls. The natural phenomenon from time immemorial. The myriad tons of water crashing over the solid limestone cliff, with a force that reduces the limestone to boulders, the boulders to rubble, the rubble to a silt the unabated torrent seizes and carries off down the canyon it has formed and shaped through the eons in this same violent, patient manner. The perpetual thunder. The constant cloud of mist from the plummeting waters.

And in the present time, the man-made complement to the natural marvel. The gargantuan electrical power production facilities--the largest in the world--harnessing the prodigious elemental forces.

But five years before start-up of the first large-scale power project at the falls, the method of production and distribution of the power was still undecided. The huge project was to include transmission to Buffalo. Electricity--a novel technology at the time--was only one suggestion. The other methods under consideration were pneumatic, hydraulic, and good old-fashioned mechanical (compressed-air or water mains or steel cables on posts and pulleys the 22-mile distance from Niagara Falls to Buffalo).

The new technology won out in the end. By 1895 the Niagara Falls Power Company began generating alternating current (AC) from three 5000-horsepower generators. The next year electricity was successfully transmitted to Buffalo. The Niagara Falls project ushered in the second phase of the Industrial Revolution and shaped and determined the way power would be produced and delivered from then on.

But in 1890 George Westinghouse recommended that the best way to transport Niagara Falls power to Buffalo would be by compressed air. Westinghouse was likely to know. As the inventor of the air brake, he was the acknowledged expert on pneumatic systems. And of late he had turned his attention to electricity. In 1886 he had organized the Westinghouse Electric Company. By 1890, the company was operating 300 central generating stations.

The Westinghouse organization predominantly utilized AC, and Westinghouse was the champion of AC in the so-called War of the Currents then raging between proponents of AC and advocates of continuous or direct current (DC). But the problem with AC was that it lacked a practical and efficient motor. The AC systems then in operation were primarily lighting systems. In 1888, Nikola Tesla had patented an idea for an AC motor, and Westinghouse promptly bought up the patents and was working on developing the motor. But the motor wasn't ready yet. Niagara power--on the scale that it would have to be developed for the project to make sense--would be mainly for industry. For power more than light.

The fierce and stubborn champion of DC was Thomas Edison. Edison had been in the electrical business since the late 1870s, and within a decade was operating in the neighborhood of 1500 generating stations, including isolated plants associated with individual factories or other commercial installations, as well as central stations, supplying electricity to the public at large. The DC systems were basically lighting systems, too, but there was a DC motor for street-rail traction, and DC motors were beginning to be used for various manufacturing purposes. (The motors were made by the Sprague Electric Railway and Motor Company. Frank J. Sprague, a U.S. Naval Academy graduate, invented the DC motor. After naval service, he worked for the Edison Company for a while, but because Edison wasn't much interested in motors--or industrial applications of electricity in general--Sprague quit to form his own company in 1884. In the early years, when an Edison installation required a motor, the Sprague company supplied it.)

But the problem with DC was transmission. Edison, when asked by cable--he was in Europe at the time--about the prospect of transmitting large-scale power from Niagara Falls to Buffalo, wired back: "No difficulty transferring unlimited power. Will assist." But indeed there was difficulty, as Edison well knew. And neither he nor anyone else figured out how to resolve it using DC.

The DC transmission problem was fundamental. Based on Ohm's Law, (Click here for footnote.) efficient and economical transmission requires high voltage (raising the voltage causes increased flow of current, while the resistance remains constant, thus lowering the resistance per unit flow of current). Too high a voltage for practical uses, such as the operation of lights or motors.

AC, on the other hand, had the transformer for raising or lowering voltage. The transformer was based on phenomena discovered by Danish physicist and chemist Hans Christian Oersted (1777-1851) and English scientist Michael Faraday (1791-1867). Oersted found that an electrical current produces a magnetic field around it. Faraday found that a conductor (wire) cutting through a magnetic field creates a current in the wire. As a result, an alternating current in a (primary) conductor, because of the constantly changing direction of the current, and thus constantly changing direction of the magnetic field, will induce a similar current in a nearby (secondary) conductor. In the transformer, the conductor wires are formed into coils to enhance the magnetic field and induction effects, and by varying the ratio of turns in the primary and secondary coils, the transformer can be used to change the voltage in the secondary. An effective transformer was developed in 1886 by William Stanley, then working for Westinghouse.

But the transformer phenomenon doesn't work with DC because in DC the direction of the current--and thus the direction of the resultant magnetic field--doesn't change. So that for a second conductor to continuously cut across the magnetic field, the conductor would have to be made to move back and forth across the field. As a result, DC voltage cannot easily be manipulated, and so DC is not readily transmissible. In fact, the service areas of the DC central stations were limited to about a square mile per station.

An additional but related consideration was that the Niagara project--again because of the magnitude of the power that would be produced--would have to be a universal system. That is, from one source it would have to be capable of being used in various ways, at various voltages, as AC and DC, for everything from lights to large and small motors. DC--going back to the problem with raising or lowering the voltage--lacked this flexibility. It couldn't be customized for many different uses.

The Ecology Connection

The impetus to the Niagara project's unprecedented production of industrial power, ironically, was one of the earliest manifestations of the environmental movement. Called the "Free Niagara Movement," its goal was to restore the falls and environs to their natural aesthetic condition. Prime movers included the most famous landscape architect of the day, Frederick Law Olmsted, designer of Central Park in New York City and the extensive parks system in Buffalo, and Hudson River School painter Frederick Church.

The first industrial uses had been made of the waters of Niagara Falls more than a hundred years before. Early settlers dug a short millrace alongside the rapids--a kind of loop canal, its intake near the upstream end of the rapids, its discharge near the falls, but still above the falls--and rigged up a waterwheel on the canal to power a mill. Eventually, waterwheels and mills were placed directly on the river. These proliferated, so that by the 1870s both sides of the river as well as Goat Island, the large island in the middle, were barnacled with small industrial installations.

By the 1880s, the view along the American shoreline was dominated by a conglomeration of mills and factories, with a motley array of hotels and bazaars of every variety shoehorned in among them (see Figure 1). The actual river bank was concealed by a heavy concrete wall randomly punctuated by sewer-like openings that discharged water from the numerous millraces that powered the mills and factories. In one place the concrete wall was surmounted by a huge wooden cribwork bearing the legend in enormous black letters: "Parker's Hair Balsam." The rapids itself was obscured by numerous wing dams whose function was to direct water from the rapids into the millraces. The most prominent feature of the rapids, on Bath Island, a small island between the mainland and Goat Island, was a huge pulp mill, with attendant wing dams and ice dams (to deflect ice floes) just upstream.

Meanwhile, any parcels of land not exploited for industrial uses were snatched up by concessionaires who charged a fee to observe the falls. In an address to the state legislature on the Free Niagara question, New York Governor Lucius Robinson stated that it was "well known, and a matter of universal complaint, that the most favorable points of observation around the Falls are appropriated for the purposes of private profit, while the shores swarm with sharpers, hucksters, and peddlers who perpetually harass all visitors." Eventually, every available observation point was appropriated. It got to the point that visitors to Niagara literally could not obtain a view of the falls except for a fee.

The only industrial use of the Niagara waters remote from the falls was in connection with a major hydraulic canal that was cut across the mainland--that is, across the village of Niagara Falls--to spill water over the cliff downstream of the falls, creating about a dozen or so industrial sites. Built in the 1850s, several companies in succession went broke trying to attract businesses to the sites, until in 1877 Buffalo entrepreneur Jacob Schoellkopf bought the project at public auction. He enlarged the canal, set up his own flour mill on one of the sites, and found tenants for the rest of the sites.

The Free Niagara Movement had widespread popular appeal and in 1883 resulted in the creation of a state reservation around the falls, including Goat Island (see Figure 2). The only objection was from the owners of the water wheels and mills along the shore, whose property was appropriated by eminent domain, and who were compensated for their losses, though not to the extent that they claimed injury.

It was the first acquisition by a state government of property for preservation of the natural environment. And with the emphasis on natural. The term "reservation" was significant. The property was intended as "a Reservation of natural beauty, not a formal park...the sole aim was to restore the landscape to its normal condition and preserve its beauty unadorned." (The first national park had been created at Yellowstone, in adjoining parts of Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana, in 1872, but the conditions of its creation were very different from those at Niagara, in that it did not involve evicting previous industrial tenants. The second national park was created at Yosemite, California, in 1890.)

The creation of the reservation left the power potential of the falls untapped, however, except for the Schoellkopf canal and industrial concerns it served (see Figure 3). Each industry had its own turbine or water wheel, and none made use of anything like the entire 210-foot head available at the cliff, because no turbine or wheel could withstand the force at such a head. The heads used were 25 to 50 feet. The power supplied was mechanical for the most part. By 1881, a small DC generator was set up and supplied lighting for a several factories and stores, a few streets, and the offices of the Gazette, the village newspaper. The total power supplied for all uses, including the electrical installations, was less than 10,000 horsepower.

Tunnel Under the City

When along came Thomas Evershed with a scheme of unparalleled scope for power development at the falls but away from the reservation area. Evershed, a division engineer on the Erie Canal, presented the scheme in a newspaper letter to the editor on February 3, 1886. The idea was for a vast number of hydropower generating sites in a new industrial area to be developed upstream of the reservation, and a huge water discharge tunnel. The reservation extended about a mile upstream of the falls. Upstream of the reservation, over a distance of another mile and a half, a dozen water inlet canals would be constructed along the shoreline (see Figure 4). These would supply water to some 238 wheel pits and turbines that would provide hydropower to the same number of mills or factories. Following power production, the spent water would empty into the discharge tunnel, two and a half miles long, to be constructed under the new industrial area and the village of Niagara Falls (see Figure 5). The tunnel outlet would be at the base of the gorge just downstream of the falls. Power would be developed at heads of from 80 to 100 feet, and would be mechanical power, supplied to the adjacent factories by cables, belts, and pulleys. Each wheel pit would produce an estimated 500 horsepower, for a total for the project of about 120,000 horsepower.

Some influential area businessmen liked the idea, and a bill was introduced in the State Legislature to charter the project and organize the Niagara River Hydraulic Tunnel, Power and Sewer Company. (If you couldn't relate to the power concept, maybe you could relate to the sewage function. With a discharge facility this large, it would be easy enough to include the village's sewage volume as well.)

Capitalization of the project was a problem, however. An initial public stock offering was a complete failure. It was recognized that the project would be both expensive and risky. Evershed estimated a cost of $10 million for the tunnel alone. But there would also be substantial expense for construction of the dozen inlet canals and 238 wheel pits to be excavated into the thick shelf of solid limestone that blankets the Niagara area, and for that number of turbines and the ancillary power production apparatus. In addition, the project would require dealing with and controlling hydraulic forces of a magnitude that had never been dealt with previously. In the eyes of some potential investors, the scheme was wild-eyed and visionary.

And beyond the basic technological problems, the problem was marketing. Where and how to use such an enormous amount of power? The Evershed scheme called for some 300 factories or mills on-site, but those mills could not be constructed--or at least could not be operated--until the tunnel was complete and the project in operation. The village of Niagara Falls, with a population of 5000 at the time, could not utilize such power. The question came up whether Buffalo could be reached with the power. With a population of 250,000 and growing--and with its locational advantage at the eastern end of the navigable Great Lakes, making it the mid-point in the principal East-West trade and transportation route, and now at the dawn of the industrial age a hub among sources of raw materials and markets--Buffalo was shaping into a world center for industry and manufacturing. The key to making the project viable seemed to be transmission of Niagara power to Buffalo. The transmission question, in turn, raised the question of the kind of power to produce.

Electrical experts (in addition to Edison and Westinghouse) were consulted and provided tentative and conflicting advice. Dr. Henry Morton, president of Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey, reported:

In reply to your question respecting the practicability and economy of transmitting power in large amounts through long distances (say units of 1000 horse-power for 10 or 20 miles) by means of electricity...large amounts of power have been transmitted to distances of 1 or 2 miles, and small amounts of power have been transmitted for long distances, such as 30 miles, but the combination of large amounts of power and long distances has not yet been realized in practice, and without doubt something new in the dimensions and proportions of electrical machinery must be developed in order to meet the requirements of such a problem as you propose.

Frank J. Sprague said, "the whole question seems to me to be solved by a comparison, where long distances are used, between the two systems [namely, DC and AC], and in this case the alternating current distribution unquestionably has the advantage." But on the basic question of feasibility, he said, "I do not think the problem to transmit power by electricity from Niagara Falls to several points at varied distances up to 20 miles, a sound one, commercially."

Professor Henry Rowland, a Johns Hopkins physicist, said he did not think any commercial electric company then operating had the expertise to carry out such a project as would ultimately be entailed. His advice was to "engage an electrical engineer at a high salary" to provide continuing consultation.

But by now New York City banking interests were becoming intrigued, and by 1889 an option to purchase the tunnel company was acquired by a group consisting of William B. Stetson, attorney to mogul J.P. Morgan; Edward B. Wickes, identified as "a Vanderbilt man"; and William B. Rankine, a New York City attorney who had recently relocated to Niagara Falls in the prospect of substantial involvement in the Niagara project. Part interest in the project was offered to the New York City banking firm of Winslow, Lanier & Company--Charles Lanier was a good friend of Morgan's--which delegated Edward Dean Adams, a partner in the firm and a director of the Edison Electric Illuminating Company, to conduct an investigation into the merits of the enterprise. Morgan, incidentally, also had substantial interest in the Edison enterprises.

Then in 1889 and 1890, in a complicated series of legal/financial transactions, the Niagara River Tunnel, Power and Sewer Company was renamed the Niagara Falls Power Company, and the Cataract Construction Company was formed as a holding company to own the entire capital stock of the Niagara Falls Power company and act as its financial agent. Adams was named president of the Cataract Construction Company and a director of the power company. Stetson, Wickes, and Rankine were the other officers of the Cataract Company, whose board of directors included John Jacob Astor, another of the eastern tycoons, who had recently gotten interested in the project. (He was the great-grandson of the original John Jacob Astor, the fur merchant, so that he wielded vast inherited wealth. But in addition, he was learned and practiced in technological matters. He had majored in technological studies at Harvard, and had invented and patented several mechanical devices. His invention of a pneumatic road improvement apparatus would win a first prize at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893.)

The State of the Art

In an endeavor to gain more expertise on the power production and transmission matters, in 1890, Adams went to Europe to observe power installations and consult with the engineers who had built and operated them. Prior to his departure, he sold his shares and resigned his directorship in the Edison company, so as to eliminate any vested interest he might have toward one solution or another. He traveled in England, France, Germany, and particularly Switzerland, where hydropower development was reputed to be most advanced, and by early summer had reached two conclusions.

First, if transmission was the key to making the project viable, then all the power could be produced at one location. The multiple power-production sites would be unnecessary. This would eliminate the dozen inlet canals over the mile-and-a-half stretch of upper river shoreline, the 238 wheel pits and individual turbines, and a mile and a half of the discharge tunnel. For a central station just upriver of the reservation, only a mile of tunnel would be necessary. The tunnel would still be a gargantuan project, but shortening it by about two-thirds would reduce construction costs enormously.

Second was an idea for an international competition among power-production companies and experts to determine the best solution to the means of power for the Niagara situation. The other principals in the project thought this was a good idea and an International Niagara Commission was set up to conduct and judge the competition. The five-man commission was to be headed by the pre-eminent British mathematician and physicist of the day, William Thomson, whose numerous theoretical and practical scientific contributions--from establishing the law of conservation of energy to the laying of the first transatlantic telegraph cable--would result in his knighthood as Lord Kelvin (see Figure 6).

The commission issued invitations for proposals in three categories: power development; transmission and distribution; and a combination of the first two categories. Seventeen projects were submitted, of which three were dismissed as not complying with the terms of the invitation or insufficiently complete to warrant judging.

For power generation, all but one proposal used some type of rotary turbine or water wheel. The exception was for a series of underground pistons, driven by the weight of the water column above them, that would function as air compressors.

For transmission and distribution, seven of the 14 proposals were for electricity. Five were DC and two AC. The DC proposals were for transmission to Buffalo at up to 16,000 volts, typically with receiving motors in Buffalo and secondary dynamos for regeneration at lower voltages for distribution. One of the proposals was for 5000-volt transmission to charge storage batteries in Buffalo for redistribution.

One of the AC proposals was for polyphase, that is, two separate currents or waves of electricity (since AC takes the form of a sine wave) out of phase. The polyphase proposal called for step-up and step-down transformers. The electricity would be generated at 2000 volts, stepped up to 10,000 volts for transmission, and then in Buffalo stepped down to 2000 volts or lower, depending on intended use.

Four of the proposals were for compressed-air transmission through underground mains, usually about two feet in diameter. The compressed-air proposals touted the purported advantages of this medium, for example, its applicability to basic industrial uses such as hauling and lifting (one of Buffalo's chief industries was transshipment of grain, and in this regard Buffalo had invented the grain elevator, a mechanism to transfer grain from lake ships to storage prior to retransfer to mills or further modes of transportation). The proposals also noted that steam engines, which were the ordinary form of industrial mechanical power at the time, could readily be utilized--practically without conversion--as compressed air engines. One of the proposals included a trolley line to be constructed over the air main and driven by compressed air.

One hydraulic transmission scheme was proposed. It called for ten 2-foot diameter underground mains and pressure pumps, all of which the commissioners considered rather cumbersome. One proposal was for mechanical transmission via steel cables in a chain of posts and pulleys. Generation was 8000 horsepower, which it was claimed would lose only seven horsepower per 330-foot span. And one proposal mentioned various forms of distribution, including electric, compressed-air, and hydraulic, but gave no particulars.

Eight prizes were awarded, but no top prize for a plan combining power production and distribution. The commission report noted that "There was no project which, in the opinion of the Commission, could be recommended for adoption without considerable modification."

Neither Edison nor Westinghouse submitted a project to the commission. Edison originally had been suggested as a commission member, but then was not asked, possibly because he might be expected to submit a proposal or to be involved in the development of the project.

Lewis B. Stillwell, a Westinghouse engineer who would later become the electrical director of the Niagara Falls Power Company, wanted to submit a proposal, but Westinghouse rejected the idea on the theory that "these people are trying to get $100,000 worth of information for a prize of $3000. When they are ready to do business, we will submit a plan and bid for the work." Which is just what he did.

The Tunnel Project

Construction of the one-mile tunnel, which was a huge engineering project in its own right and didn't depend on the power production and distribution decisions, was commenced and proceeded boldly forward.

Digging was advanced from three vertical shafts and from the outlet, under the Honeymoon Bridge, a few hundred feet downstream of the falls (between the falls and the Schoellkopf property). It was originally thought or hoped that the tunnel could be unlined. But after some experience with the digging, this was found to be impossible. Most of the tunnel passed though a thick stratum of shale underlying the thick limestone overburden. As the boring proceeded into the shale, the consequent draining of the shale medium resulted in the collapse of sections of the tunnel roof, killing several workers and injuring others. From then on, after advancing the tunnel a short distance, the cavity was shored up with a timber framework, and the tunnel was lined with four courses of brickwork. The space between the shale and the brickwork was filled with rubble and concrete. A platform was constructed within the wooden framework, and tracks were laid below it, at the base of the tunnel, to allow digging and removal of excavated material simultaneously with the masonry and related work.

The main tunnel cross section was horseshoe-shaped, with circular tunnels cutting in from the wheel-pit excavations. The tunnel was 21 feet high and 19 feet at its widest point in the horseshoe, and 6700 feet long. The dimensions were sufficient to handle a discharge of 8900 cubic feet per second. The voussoir pieces (wedge-shaped stones of individual geometry and dimensions used to form the intersections of the various tunnels) would have been the admiration of any medieval cathedral stone-carver (see Figure 7). They were cut and carved based solely on engineering drawings at the quarry of the Brandywine Granite Company, Wilmington, Delaware.

The tunnel was completed in December of 1892. The work took two years and three months and employed as many as 2500 men at a time. A total of 600,000 tons of material was removed. The excavated materials were used to the extend the shoreline adjacent to the intake area into the river, to shape the intake area and create new land. A paper mill was constructed on the new land. Construction materials for the tunnel consisted of 16 million bricks, 19 million feet of timber, 60 million cubic yards of stone, 26,000 cubic yards of sand, and 67,000 barrels of cement.

Nikola Tesla--The Father of AC

But instead of resolving the matter of the best means to convey Niagara power to Buffalo, the International Niagara Commission had left it as confused as ever. Most of the plans submitted were for DC, but DC had known drawbacks for transmission. A close second, in terms of numbers, to DC was compressed air. Several plans were for AC, and the most elaborated and intriguing of these was for polyphase AC. The polyphase AC plan had garnered no prizes, however.

The problem of the best means of transmission, though, would be worked out not by the commission but in the natural course of things, which included great strides in the development of AC. In addition, the natural course of things included some special intervention from on high (that is, from Edison himself).

But above all, it involved Tesla, probably the only inventor ever who could be put in a class with Edison's in terms of the number and significance of his innovations. The Croatian-born scientific mystic--he spoke of his insight into the mechanical principles of the motor as a kind of religious vision--had once worked for Edison. He had started out with the Edison Company in Paris, where his remarkable abilities were noticed by Edison's business cohort and close friend Charles Batchelor, who encouraged Tesla to transfer to the Edison office in New York City, which he did in 1884. There Edison, too, became impressed with him after he successfully performed a number of challenging assignments. But when Tesla asked Edison to let him undertake research on AC--in particular on his concept for an AC motor--Edison rejected the idea. Not only wasn't Edison interested in motors, he refused to have anything to do with the rival current.

So for the time being Tesla threw himself into work on DC. He told Edison he thought he could substantially improve the DC dynamo. Edison told him if he could, it would earn him a $50,000 bonus. This would have enabled Tesla to set up a laboratory of his own where he could have pursued his AC interests. By dint of extremely long hours and diligent effort, he came up with a set of some 24 designs for new equipment, which would eventually be used to replace Edison's present equipment.

But he never found the promised $50,000 in his pay envelope. When he asked Edison about this matter, Edison told him he had been joking. "You don't understand American humor," he said. Deeply disappointed, Tesla quit his position with the Edison company, and with financial backers, started his own company, which enabled him to work on his AC ideas, among other obligations.

The motor Tesla patented in 1888 is known as the induction motor. It not only provided a serviceable motor for AC, but the induction motor had a distinct advantage over the DC motor. (About two-thirds of the motors in use today are induction motors.)

The idea of the induction motor is simplicity itself, based on the Faraday principle. And its simplicity is its advantage over the DC motor.

An electrical motor--whether DC or AC--is a generator in reverse. The generator operates by causing a conductor (armature) to move (rotate) in a magnetic field, producing a current in the armature. The motor operates by causing a current to flow in an armature in a magnetic field, producing rotation of the armature. A generator uses motion to produce electricity. A motor uses electricity to produce motion.

The DC motor uses commutators and brushes (a contact switching mechanism that opens and closes circuits) to change the direction of the current in the rotating armature, and thus sustain the direction of rotation and direction of current.

In the AC induction motor, the current supply to the armature is by induction from the magnetic field produced by the field current. (Click here for footnote.) The induction motor thus does away with the troublesome commutators and brushes (or any other contact switching mechanism). However, in the induction motor the armature wouldn't turn except as a result of rotation of the magnetic field, which is achieved through the use of polyphase current. The different current phases function in tandem (analogous to pedals on a bicycle) to create differently oriented magnetic fields to propel the armature. (Click here for footnote.) (See Figure 8)

Westinghouse bought up the patents on the Tesla motors almost immediately and set to work trying to adapt them to the single-phase system then in use. This didn't work. So he started developing a two-phase system. But in December 1890, because of the company's financial straits--the company had incurred large liabilities through the purchase of a number of smaller companies, and had to temporarily cut back on research and development projects--Westinghouse stopped the work on polyphase.

The War of the Currents

The War of the Currents, which had begun as a spirited but more or less conventional exchange of business propaganda claims and counterclaims, heated up in 1888 with the publication of Edison's "A Warning" on the mortal danger of AC. What drove Edison to this extreme measure must have been in part a genuine belief that AC was more dangerous than DC, but also a vague sense that something was catching up on him. Edison still had more installations than Westinghouse, but the Westinghouse and other AC companies were growing faster than Edison's companies. No doubt, a sharp rise in the price of copper in 1887 contributed to Edison's mood. A French syndicate had cornered the copper market and driven the price up. DC systems, because of the low voltages, used thick copper conductors to lessen resistance, whereas AC could be sent on thin wires at high voltages. So the copper problem hurt Edison more than it hurt the AC systems.

Coincidentally, about this time the New York State Legislature was looking for a more humane, or at least more efficient, way to execute criminals. They considered numerous methods, including electricity. When they asked Edison's opinion, he said he thought electricity would do the job "in the shortest space of time, and inflict the least amount of suffering upon its victim." And as apparatus, he recommended "alternating machines, manufactured principally in this country by Geo. Westinghouse." He pointed out that "the passage of current from these machines through the human body, even by the slightest contacts, produces instantaneous death."

To investigate the matter scientifically, Edison hired Harold P. Brown, a kind of electrical privateer, and put him to work in the Edison laboratory in West Orange, New Jersey, with one of Edison's top engineers, Arthur Kennelly, to assist him. Using AC, they set up a number of electrocution devices, which they tested on house pets supplied to them for a quarter apiece by enterprising neighborhood boys. In one instance, they attached one wire to a sheet of tin and the other to a pan of water and, after some prodding and coaxing, persuaded a mongrel to stand on the sheet and attempt to drink from the pan. These experiments were usually carried out in the middle of the night to avoid the attention of the SPCA. When skeptics suggested that the experimental data on cats and dogs could not be applied to humans, since humans were so much larger than these animals, Brown electrocuted several calves and a horse.

Westinghouse did not appreciate the free publicity. He considered suing, but forbore doing so. But in magazine articles, he and Edison--two of the supreme egos of nineteenth-century American business enterprise--went head to head. Edison reiterated the danger of AC current and argued for outlawing high voltages, that is, above several hundred volts, which would have wiped out AC's mechanical and commercial advantage (of high-voltage transmission). Westinghouse's argument was that the only voltages that mattered were in buildings, where people might possibly come into contact with them, and where AC voltages were reduced to 50 volts. (He further pointed out, in a delightful non-sequitur, that because the transformer worked on an induction principle, there was no direct contact between the high tension current in the transmission lines and the building current.) For his part, Westinghouse proposed outlawing building currents above 100 volts (DC building current was 110 volts).

Meanwhile, following further testimony and lobbying by both Edison and Brown in support of electrocution (describing the physiological mechanism of electrocution, Brown wrote in a magazine article that the victim was beaten to death by the violent contractions of his own muscles, and so there was "no physical pain"), New York adopted this method. Hired to assist with implementing the new system, Brown secured a Westinghouse generator for the "electric chair." One William Kemmler, a Buffalo man convicted of the ax murder of a girlfriend, had the distinction of being the first person sentenced to death by the novel means. A series of appeals ensued, basically on the grounds that the method constituted cruel and unusual punishment. It was rumored that George Westinghouse had a hand in financing the appeals for Kemmler, who was indigent, though Westinghouse denied it. The appeals failed, ultimately, and on August 6, 1890, at Auburn prison, in a grisly ceremony, Kemmler was executed. The first application of current, lasting 17 seconds, didn't complete the job. The smell of burned flesh caused spectators to become nauseous, but when the electricity was turned off, they noticed a slight heaving of the victim's chest. "Good God, he is alive," one man said. A press representative fainted. A second current was applied that according to the New York Times account lasted anywhere from one minute to four-and-half minutes, since witnesses with watches had been too horrified to check them. This current had the intended effect. But in the aftermath it was disputed whether Kemmler died of electric shock or was simply "roasted to death." The Times described the event as "an awful spectacle, far worse than hanging." (see Figure 9)

The Triumph of AC

But by and large, Westinghouse--or at least the Westinghouse Company--seemed to focus its energy where it would do the most good, namely, in the development of an efficient and effective AC system.

In 1890, Westinghouse installed a 12-mile, 4000-volt transmission line from Willamette Falls to Portland, Oregon. And in Telluride, Colorado, in 1891, the company installed the first transmission line for electricity for power rather than just for lighting. The transmission distance was just three miles, but at the end of the line, the electricity was used to operate a 100-horsepower synchronous motor, in conjunction with a Tesla induction motor to start the synchronous motor.

Meanwhile, even more impressive AC accomplishments were being achieved in Europe. Principal among these was the long-distance transmission in August 1891 from Lauffen to Frankfurt am Main, a distance of 100 miles, of three-phase power at 25,000 volts. The electricity was used at an International Electrical Exhibition to provide lighting and run a wide array of machinery and even a small artificial waterfall, symbolic of the source of the power.

Adams says that in early fall of that year--just after the Lauffen-to-Frankfurt achievement--it became clear that AC electricity would be appropriate for the transmission aspect of the Niagara project. So that electricity would do for the whole project, with AC for transmission to Buffalo, DC for Niagara Falls. Prior to this time the consensus had developed to go with DC locally and a compressed-air system to Buffalo. Two powerhouses were planned (and eventually built), and the plan had been that Power House No. 1 would be for electricity, and Power House No. 2 for compressed air.

In December 1891, the Cataract Company issued an invitation to six companies for design and construction of the electrical installation for the Niagara project. It didn't mention AC or DC. The six companies included three American companies--Edison General Electric, Westinghouse, and Thomson-Houston--and three European companies. Soon afterward, Edison General Electric and Thomson-Houston merged to become the General Electric Company. (Edison General Electric had been created in 1889 by a consolidation of several of the Edison companies. By this time, Thomas Edison had withdrawn almost completely from direct involvement in the electrical business. This opened the way for the new company to enter the AC field. But because Edison had shunned AC for so long, Edison General Electric was at a disadvantage in terms of AC patent rights. The best strategy seemed to be to buy out another company--in this case, Thomson-Houston--that was already a substantial player in the AC area.) Considering additional costs involved in duties and shipping in the case of the foreign companies, and because it turned out that the foreign companies could not guarantee their patents in the United States, it came down to a competition between Westinghouse and General Electric.

In April 1892, the Cataract Company hired George Forbes as a consultant. His hiring was a sign of the way the company must have been thinking. Forbes had submitted the sole AC polyphase plan to the International Niagara Commission. The purpose for which he was hired was to assist in judging among the competitors for the design and construction of the equipment. However, Forbes soon set to work on a new preliminary design of the generator.

About this time, the Westinghouse Company decided to push development of the two-phase system. Work was resumed on the induction motor and pursued on the rotary converter. The rotary converter, which was used to convert AC to DC, was essentially a combination of an AC motor operating a DC generator.

Also about this time, bids were requested for lighting the Columbian Exposition to be held the next year in Chicago. Westinghouse purposely underbid the project, wanting it for its enormous publicity value. His bid was $399,000 for a polyphase system. Edison's bid was more than $1,000,000. Westinghouse won the job.

Both General Electric and Westinghouse submitted their bids for the Niagara project in two stages. General Electric's first-stage bid was submitted in the fall of 1892. It was for DC locally, AC to Buffalo. The first-stage Westinghouse bid was submitted in December. It was for polyphase AC. In March 1893, both companies submitted final bids. Both now proposed polyphase AC. The two proposed systems were virtually identical, except that the Westinghouse system was two-phase and the GE system three-phase.

The Columbian Exposition opened in May. Westinghouse had taken full advantage of his opportunity. Not only did he light the fair in spectacular fashion, but the electrical system used and displayed was a prototype of the universal system. Using a 1000-horsepower generator, the system included step-up and step-down transformers to demonstrate the principles of transmission, induction and synchronous motors, and rotary converters producing DC for arc lights and streetcars. The Chicago fair installation was said to remove the last objection to AC. About this same time, also, the Westinghouse Company completed a 10,000-volt, 35-mile transmission line using step-up and step-down transformers to supply current to Pomona, California.

In August 1893, following Forbes' preliminary redesign of the generator, the Cataract Company issued an invitation for new electrical proposals from General Electric and Westinghouse. The new design Forbes had come up with called for the field magnets to revolve outside a stationary armature. The purpose of the new design was to provide an improved flywheel effect. In addition, Forbes' generator had a frequency (which is the number of current alterations, or cycles, per second) of 16 2/3, and generation at 20,000 volts. (Click here for footnote.)

The invitation for new proposals stated that the preliminary design of the generators was now sufficiently complete to allow proper bids. The invitation also noted that "any alterations that you may propose in the design will be carefully considered, and if acceptable, will be appreciated in awarding the contract [italics in original]."

The new request for proposals elicited an irate letter from Westinghouse, who may have suspected--just because Forbes had ventured a redesign--that the Niagara company was contemplating designing or even building the apparatus in-house, and merely wanted the benefit of his company's ideas, free of charge. In addition, Westinghouse engineers objected to Forbes' idea to generate at such high voltage (20,000) and such a low frequency (16 2/3). They felt that in both these matters Forbes had failed to recognize key AC advantages, namely, the use of transformation to boost voltage for transmission, and the use of the induction motor. The main problem with generating at 20,000 volts would be with insulation of the generating apparatus. The main problem with the 16 2/3 frequency was that it would be disadvantageous for running high-speed induction motors.

The Westinghouse Company won the contract. Despite the objections. Or perhaps because of them. The Niagara company apparently meant what it said about appreciating proposed alterations. The umbrella-type generator was used, but the generating voltage was set at a more reasonable 2200, and a compromise was reached on frequency at 25 cycles. The initial contract was for the three 5000-horsepower generators. Power was first produced in Niagara Falls on August 26, 1895.

The GE and Westinghouse proposals for the transformers and transmission apparatus were also virtually identical, and GE got the contract (the J.P. Morgan connection may have helped). The first transmission to Buffalo occurred on November 15, 1896, with attendant hoopla, including the firing of a 21-gun salute by the Ninth Ward Polish-American Gun Squad over the Niagara River outside the Buffalo power station. The transmission was at 11,000 volts, three-phase, and the power was purchased by the Buffalo Railway Company, which operated the city trolley system.

The invitation for bids on design and construction of the generators in December 1891 had required a guarantee with regard to the efficiency of the system, with deductions to be made for each percent of efficiency guaranteed but not achieved. The Westinghouse Company had guaranteed 88 percent. Comparison of meter readings at the two ends of the line showed a net transmission efficiency of 88.4 percent.

Future work was pretty much split between the two great manufacturers. The next seven 5000-horsepower generators (making ten in all in Power House No. 1) were by Westinghouse (see figures 10 and 11). In 1900, General Electric got the contract for the eleven 5500-horsepower generators in Power House No. 2. Beginning in 1905, the Niagara Falls Power Company also built and operated a station on the Canadian side. The first five generators, rated at 10,000-horsepower each, were by General Electric, and the next five, rated at 12,500-horsepower each, were by the Canadian Westinghouse Company, Ltd. All the power from the Canadian station was transmitted to Buffalo, on overhead lines on the Canadian side of the river from Niagara Falls to Fort Erie and continuing across the river from Fort Erie to Buffalo.

The Birth of an Industry

The irony is, once the system was in operation, transmission to Buffalo, which in the planning stages was thought to be critical to the viability of the project, turned out to be much less of a factor. Primarily because the availability of abundant cheap power spawned an entirely new industry in Niagara Falls--the electrochemical industry--whose power requirements right from the start accounted for virtually the entire supply. The new industry spurred the production of greater quantities of electrical power, which in turn spurred further industrial development in Niagara Falls and all of Western New York.

The first use of Niagara Falls Power Company electricity was by the Pittsburgh Reduction Company (later to be renamed Aluminum Company of America), which used an electrolytic process invented by James M. Hall. The company was founded in Pittsburgh in 1886 but transferred operations to Niagara Falls during this period because of the prospect of cheap and reliable electrical power.

The second electrochemical industry in Niagara Falls also transferred from the Pittsburgh area. The Carborundum Company produced the extremely hard silicon carbide compound using a process invented by Edward G. Acheson. Founded in Monongahela, Pennsylvania, in 1891, in that year the company used 135 horsepower of electricity to produce 45 tons of product. Its contract of 1894 with the Niagara Falls Power Company was for 1000 horsepower, with which it increased its output twenty-fold. Within a decade, the Carborundum Company was using 5000 horsepower of electricity.

A decade after the startup of the power company, the Union Carbide Company was using 15,000 horsepower, the total production of the original three generators. Union Carbide produced calcium carbide, which was used to produce acetylene gas. Union Carbide eventually came to incorporate several other Niagara Falls industries, including the Electro-Metallurgical Company, National Carbon, and Acheson Graphite. The graphite production process was a serendipitous offshoot of Acheson's carborundum process. The pure graphite was used to make high quality electrodes needed for the electrochemical and electrometallurgical industries.

Other uses of electricity in Niagara Falls were for production of basic chemicals such as chlorine and caustic soda, and ferro-alloys using chemical elements such as titanium, vanadium, tungsten, and molybdenum.

In Buffalo the electrical power was used in grain handling and processing, iron foundries, machine shops. Through the first half of the twentieth century, the biggest industries in Buffalo were grain milling, iron and steel production, and all varieties of manufacturing from hairpins to airplanes.

Subsequent power production facilities would supplement and replace the original facilities. The present plant on the American side, operated by the New York State Power Authority, provides about 2.5 million kilowatts (which in the twentieth century came to replace the system of measurement in horsepower, 2.5 million kilowatts translating to 3.3 million horsepower). The plant on the Canadian side, operated by Ontario Hydropower, produces another 1.8 million kilowatts. The electricity is transmitted at 345,000 volts over a power grid that covers the nation and the world and is the ultimate legacy of the Niagara innovations.


Formulated by German physicist Georg Simon Ohm (1787-1854), it describes the interrelationship of voltage, current, and resistance in an electrical circuit. Ohm's law states that E = IR, where E is voltage (electromotive force), I is current (intensity), and R is resistance. Or alternatively, I = E/R, or R = E/I. (The flow of electricity in a circuit is analogous to the flow of water in a pipe. In the case of water in a pipe, the voltage would be the water pressure, the resistance would be the size of the pipe, and the current would be the amount of water flowing in the system, i.e., the amount of water flowing past a given point in a given duration.) (return to text)

As Charles Proteus Steinmetz described it some years later, with characteristic clarity and incisiveness, "the induction motor is essentially a transformer. That is, it consists of a magnetic circuit interlinked with two electric circuits, the primary or inducing, and the secondary or induced circuit. The difference between transformer and induction motor is that in the former the secondary is fixed regarding the primary, and the electrical energy induced in the secondary is made use of, while in the latter the secondary is movable regarding the primary and the mechanical force acting between primary and secondary is used." (American Institute of Electrical Engineers Transactions, 14 [1897] 185) (return to text)

It was always possible--since a motor is a generator in reverse--to use the AC generator in reverse as a motor. The DC motor was essentially a generator in reverse. Such an AC motor--which uses a slip ring contact mechanism to supply current to the armature--is called a synchronous motor because the armature revolves in synchronism with the cycles in the field current, whereas the armature of the induction motor revolves a little behind synchronism. However, in the early years, the synchronous motor had no initial torque, i.e., it wasn't self-starting. Tesla patented an improved version of the synchronous motor with a revolving AC field, which provided a starting principle, and DC in the armature. These improvements became the basis for the synchronous motor in use today. (return to text)

The determination of appropriate frequency was a complex and difficult matter that depended on numerous factors, such as intended use of the current (obviously problematic in a universal system), generator and motor designs, and motor speed. Various frequencies, from 25 to 133 1/3, were used in various systems. In general, higher frequencies were better suited for lighting (low frequencies resulted in a noticeable flicker in incandescent lamps) and lower frequencies were better suited to power uses. This was basically because of inductive reactance, which is a counter-voltage generated in a conductor by the build-up and collapse of the magnetic field produced by the current in the same conductor (in a motor, in which the windings of the armature constitute a coil, the counter-voltage effect is pronounced). Inductive reactance is thus directly related to frequency. The reason Forbes wanted an extremely low frequency (he originally wanted 8 1/3, but decided against it) was that he thought the motor that would become of commercial importance would be one with brushes and commutator (the so-called universal motor, which runs on AC or DC current), so he wanted an AC current as similar to DC as possible, i.e., with as low a frequency as possible, though still AC to allow transformation. (return to text)