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Pan-American Exposition of 1901

Introduction: Niagara Falls and Electricity

Jack Foran

Fig. 1 - The Electric Tower illuminated at the 1901 Pan-American Exposition.
The Electric Tower Illuminated. Photo credit: n/a. Source: Kerry S. Grant. The Rainbow City: Celebrating Light Color and Architecture at the Pan-American Exposition, Buffalo 1901. Buffalo, N.Y.: Canisius College Press. From the collection of the Buffalo History Museum.

Ironies 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 manufactures.

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
Portrait of Nicola Tesla. Photo Credit: undetermined. Source: T. Commerford Martin and Stephen Leidy Coles, eds. The Story of Electricity. New York: The Story of Electricity Company, 1919?

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 industrial commodity.

The 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 market.

Chemical companies and other industries occupying the lands of the Niagara Falls Power Company. This map shows the area upriver of the actual falls. Chemical companies and other industries occupying the lands of the Niagara Falls Power Company. This map shows the area upriver of the actual falls.

© 2001 Text - Jack Foran
(Note: Images and captions added by web site editor--ed.)

Jack 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"