It’s the endgame of the War of the Currents! After their betrayal by the Cataract Construction Company, Tesla and Westinghouse finally secure the contract to harness Niagara Falls. They won the war and changed the world.
Two items of business before we resolve the cliffhanger that was last episode. I wanted to—not offer a correction, exactly, but to correct a couple of oversights.
First, I had mentioned at the start of the last episode, when I was talking about the statues of Tesla on the Canadian and American sides of the falls, that the statue of Tesla at Bridal Veil Falls has moved in the last few years to a new location on a tourist lookout spot right at the falls and is no longer in the place where you see it located in basically all the photos you can find online—away from the falls, over by the parking lot.
Well, Mrs. The Life and Times pointed out that when we were there last (in the Beforetimes of 2017) I had actually taken a load of pictures of the statue in its new location! As the episode had already gone live, I uploaded these to the show’s Facebook group page where you can still see them. I will also include them in this episode’s show notes at teslapodcast.com. And while I’ve never uploaded anything to Wikipedia or Wikimedia, I think I might post a few of these to the public domain so that a more current batch of photos of the statue exists for people’s reference (not to mention more cheery photos—the ones taken at the old location by the parking lot were taken on a grey Fall day from the look of them. Mine were taken on a sunny summer afternoon with a bright blue sky and everything in bloom. Much nicer way to think of Tesla. Anyway, go check them out at the website!)
And a second oversight to address:
Last episode, I talked about life being cheap at the Falls and about the exotic ways that people tempted death there by, say, doing their laundry whilst suspended hundreds of feet above the Falls on a tightrope.
So, I had finished the episode and posted it but still felt like there was something I was forgetting. It nagged at me and nagged at me for days—what was I forgetting?
And then, one night, just as I was drifting off to sleep I sat bolt upright in bed and shouted: “Barrels!” like that mom from HOME ALONE.
How on earth did I forget going over the falls in a barrel as one of the exotic ways people choose to die at Niagara Falls? I guess in all the zaniness of the exploits of those funambulists I somehow forgot to mention people going over the Falls in barrels as a famously well-known thing that happens there.
Since 1850, more than 5,000 people have gone over Niagara Falls, either intentionally (as stunts or, more tragically, suicides) or by falling in accidentally. On average, between 20 and 30 people die each year by going over the falls—like I said last episode, you can get perilously close to the Falls. Literally just a metal railing between you and oblivion. Most of these deaths take place from the Canadian Horseshoe Falls and are generally not publicized by officials.
The first person known to survive going over the falls was school teacher Annie Edson Taylor, who in 1901 successfully completed a plunge over the falls inside an oak barrel. Before going over the Falls, the airtight barrel was pressurized to 30 p.s.i. with a bicycle pump.
How or why this seemed like a good idea at any point in history is a genuine curiosity.
Though battered and bruised, Annie survived. Her whole plan was for the stunt to bring her fame and fortune…but she later died in poverty.
Over the following 120 years, few have been as lucky as Annie Edson Taylor when they tried their fate at the falls. In all, only sixteen other thrill seekers who have attempted the plunge over Niagara Falls in a barrel have survived to tell the tale.
Following the death of one daredevil in 1951, Ontario Premier Leslie Frost issued an order to the Niagara Parks Commission to arrest anyone found to be performing or attempting stunts at the falls. Both Canadian and American authorities began to issue fines to discourage daredevils at the falls. Current fines are $10,000 CAD (approximately $7,700 USD) on the Canadian side, or $25,000 USD (approximately $32,800 CAD) from the American side.
When we left off last time, Edward Dean Adams and the Cataract Construction Company had managed to infuriate just about everyone in the electrical engineering profession by doing a deep dive into the trade secrets of multiple bidders on the Niagara Falls project…only to announce at the end that, having carefully examined everyone’s technology, they had commissioned Professor George Forbes to build his own AC system using ideas stolen from all of them, thank you very much.
Not a great way to win friends or influence people.
Tesla, for his part, was unfailingly polite but nevertheless firm in his reply to Adams:
He wrote to Adams that he “could not help seeing difficulty ahead” for Professor Forbes in attempting to design an AC system that didn’t infringe on either Tesla’s patents, the Westinghouse Company’s numerous improvements to those original designs, or to the “long continued experience and items on the subject not found in any treatise on engineering” that the Cataract Company had been shown “in good faith” when Westinghouse believed it had a legitimate shot at the Niagara contract.
What amounted to a veiled threat of litigation, this letter from Tesla alarmed Adams enough that he passed it along to Coleman Sellers, who we mentioned last time was one of America’s preeminent mechanical engineers of the day, as well as Adams’ chief engineer on the Niagara project. After looking over the letter, Sellers advised Adams to tell Tesla, essentially, to get stuffed. The Cataract Construction Company intended to proceed with Forbes’ redesign of the generators, patent infringement be damned.
During the summer of 1893, Professor George Forbes led something of a charmed existence, living at Niagara and working on his dynamo design for the Cataract Construction Company, seemingly unconcerned that he was working on essentially pilfered technology.
“I had a lovely house in parklike grounds … on the banks of the placid river above the upper rapids,” he later wrote. “I went to bed early and rose at five or six in the morning, and I shall never forget the delights of those glorious summer mornings at one of the most beautiful sites in the whole neighborhood.”
From time to time that summer, Forbes hosted various electrical engineers who were en route to or from the World’s Fair and who made a side trip to see how progress was being made on the Niagara power project. They would be shown the massive wheel pits being dug at Power House No. 1, where the giant turbines would soon live. And they would get a walk through the completed, but still unflooded mile-and-a-quarter tailrace tunnel that ran below the powerhouse down to the bottom of the Falls and outlet at the frothing Niagara River.
But outside this kind of preening for dignitaries, Professor Forbes, a Scotsman, disliked America and Americans, including most of his Cataract engineering colleagues. He was quick to take sole credit for work that had been the result of collaboration, or that had been others’ work entirely. Perhaps not surprising for a man untroubled by designing dynamos based on stolen technology and infringed patents.
And he seems to have been generally pretty disagreeable.
Forbes preferred to live on the Canadian side of the falls but didn’t like the town of Niagara Falls, ON, describing it as “dirty … [and full of] cheap restaurants, merry-go-rounds, itinerant photographers, and museums of Indians and other curiosities.” Which…okay, that’s fair.
He complained incessantly about the “politics” surround the project, which he described as “intriguing, underhand dealing and jobbery” that slowed down his work on the dynamos.
Forbes also appeared unconcerned by the growing Panic of 1893, which we’ve talked about before, and which was in full meltdown during that summer. News of bank failures, farmers who couldn’t get credit, and railroads falling into receivership, rolled in from across the country. While Forbes was unperturbed, the same couldn’t be said of the larger Cataract Company.
Cataract investors had already ponied up $4 million (north of $113 million today), and the success of their investment all hinged on the success of Forbes’ AC generator. When even the millionaires are feeling the pinch you know things are bad.
William Rankine, the millionaire Manhattan attorney we talked about in Episode 27, who had been the original driving force behind the harnessing of Niagara Falls, would every morning during the summer of 1893 have submitted to him “a statement showing the exact balance in the bank of the Cataract Construction Company, Niagara Falls Power Company, Niagara Falls Water Works Company, Niagara Development Company, and the Niagara Junction Railway Company. When he is here at the Falls,” relayed one associate, “this statement is mailed to him.”
J. P. Morgan was likewise down in the mouth over the expense of the Niagara project and the progress being made. “Everything here continues blue as indigo,” he wrote. “Hope we shall soon have some change for the better, for it is very depressing and very exhausting.”
Pity the 1 percent, eh?
On August 10, 1893, Coleman Sellers wrote to both GE and Westinghouse announcing that Forbes had succeeded in designing a suitable dynamo and transformers and that the Cataract Construction Company would, once again, be looking for bids from firms to manufacture and install its generating equipment.
George Westinghouse waited a full week to reply, but was still too angry by then to respond with anything but fury…or at least what passed for fury in the ultra-mannered late 19th Century.
“We have given several years time to the development of power transmission, and have spent an immense sum of money working out various plans, and we believe we are fully entitled to all the commercial advantages that can accrue to us,” wrote Westinghouse, “[W]e do not feel that your company can ask us to put that knowledge at your disposal so that you may in any manner use it to our disadvantage.”
After another week or so, Westinghouse was finally calmed down and able to look at the situation dispassionately. And the sad fact was, in the middle of a national economic collapse, Westinghouse needed to look at any way he could find to guarantee work for his men at a time when contracts were drying up and orders were shrinking to nothing. Coupled with the prestige that still attached itself to the idea of harassing Niagara Falls for power, Westinghouse grudgingly relented. On August 21, he dispatched two of his top engineers to Niagara Falls to see just what Forbes had come up with.
The results were…not great.
The Westinghouse engineers quickly concluded that Forbes’ design was “so hopelessly flawed” that they wanted no part in trying to build it. “[M]echanically the proposed generators embodied good ideas,” the engineers told Sellers, “[but] electrically it was defective and if built as designed … would not operate.”
The primary flaws they noted?
- Operation at such a low frequency—16 2⁄3 cycles per second—that it would cause noticeable flickering in lights
- That this frequency would be “too low for satisfactory operation of most polyphase power equipment [especially in industrial settings, and notably the all-important rotary converter to change AC to DC].”
- Given the high-generating voltage [an unheard-of 22,000 volts], the insulation problems would be difficult, and perhaps impossible, to solve.
So, it would seem that while he had a lovely summer by the Falls, and even with all the ideas of Westinghouse and GE to steal from, Forbes didn’t really have much to show for it.
A few weeks later, after having made their negative report to Westinghouse, the engineers returned to Niagara Falls for additional meetings. On September 15, they met with Sellers and other members of the Cataract Company to go over the shortcomings of the Forbes dynamo.
Then they met with Forbes in his office, where, as Sellers later recounted, “Professor Forbes discussed some of the questions raised and declined to take up others, stating that he had fully considered the subject and was sure he was right.”
Facing an intransigent Forbes, Sellers and Adams now realized they couldn’t move ahead without Westinghouse and the patents he controlled. (While GE was still in the mix, Adams seemed to view GE’s bid mostly as a means to keep the overall price of an eventual Westinghouse contract down.)
Adams, who as an attorney made his name by bringing angry and competing railroads and railroad investors together to strike deals, knew it was time to attempt the same thing with the aggrieved Westinghouse.
In early October, Adams brought together Westinghouse and the Cataract Company investors for a lavish dinner in a private dining room at the swanky Union League Club, one of Manhattan’s most exclusive men’s clubs and one that dated back to the Civil War.
Dressed in their evening finest, over a dozen courses, cigars, and brandy, the Cataract Company investors went over every contentious aspect of the proposed contract with Westinghouse.
The final sticking point was, as it had once been between the Westinghouse Company and Tesla himself, the issue of the best choice of frequency.
The Cataract Company clung stubbornly to Forbes’s too-low frequency of 16 2⁄3rd cycles, with Westinghouse insisting he couldn’t guarantee any dynamo that operated at less than 30 cycles. As one of Westinghouse’s engineers would write decades later: “[We] did not wish to build such a machine [at 16 2/3rd cycles] due to the great probability of complete failure from the operative standpoint.”
As the dinner broke up, apparently at an impasse, Adams pulled aside the chief Westinghouse engineer and proposed a compromise: could both sides live with 25 cycles? The answer, after some calculating, was yes.
On October 27, 1893, three days before the Chicago World’s Fair—another triumph for Westinghouse—came to its end, George Westinghouse had a signed contract in hand to harness Niagara Falls. Now he and Tesla would show the world the true promise of AC power.
To keep his options open and ensure that he could draw on both major electrical manufacturers in the future, Adams awarded a separate contract to GE for building the twenty-mile transmission line from Niagara to Buffalo.
And with the signed contract in hand, it wasn’t lost on Westinghouse executives how Tesla’s inventions and personal relationship with Adams had helped them close the business. As one Westinghouse manager wrote to Tesla in November 1893, “It must certainly be gratifying to you to think the largest water power in the world is to be utilized by a system which your ingenuity originated. Your successes are gradually pushing to the front. Let the good work go on.”
Little more than a year later, the New York Times concurred, writing: “To Tesla belongs the undisputed honor of being the man whose work made this Niagara enterprise possible…There could be no better evidence of the practical qualities of his inventive genius.”
The first order of business, now that they were formally on the job, was for the Westinghouse people too see just what Forbes had been up to. Once Forbes’s plans arrived at Westinghouse, the in-house dislike and distrust of the man only grew.
Looking over his plans, the Westinghouse engineers found his dynamo design misguided. Forbes’ dynamo design had been widely mocked when he presented it at various engineering forums, and Charles E. L. Brown, who headed a Swiss design firm that had bid on the Niagara job before Adams handed the whole thing over to Forbes, formally accused Forbes of stealing the unique umbrella-style dynamo that Brown had submitted as part of his bid to the Cataract Company in late 1892.
Despite his achievement and notoriety as a leading man of electrical science in America, the Westinghouse people came to doubt Forbes’ electrical competence, and viewed him as an overall impediment to them getting the job done.
Forbes’ plans were substantially revised by Westinghouse’s in-house engineers. For his part, George Westinghouse went so far as to inform Coleman Sellers directly that he and his men simply refused to work with Professor Forbes at all. Westinghouse saw Forbes as “a possible rival in dynamo design” after a lecture Forbes had delivered, and wasn’t about to help the man become a more formidable rival.
Sellers, knowing he was stuck, wrote a private memo to Adams about this “very delicate matter” and to make him understand the “absolute unwillingness” of Westinghouse to work with Forbes.
In the same memo, Sellers also blasted Forbes for being away “when the most important measures are to be decided.” Forbes had popped over to England for a Christmastime holiday, and made something of a habit of being away when all the big decisions were being taken. You’ll recall from last episode that Forbes had likewise been in England and unavailable to the Cataract Company in early January 1893—less than a year earlier—when tours of the Westinghouse and GE plants were being done and their final sales pitches were being made.
After a final effort was made in February 1894 to sway Westinghouse failed, Forbes was effectively cut out by the Cataract Company, and Sellers himself largely avoided dealing with Forbes from then on.
Forbes did not take this well.
Increasingly edged out of anything to do with Niagara, in 1895 Forbes wrote a stinging profile of the Niagara project for English magazine, Blackwood’s. In it, he portrayed himself as the jilted genius behind the great power project and the Americans he worked with as a bunch of annoying knuckle-draggers. “I had at times great difficulty in keeping the president and vice presidents [of the Cataract Construction Company] in hand,” Forbes wrote. “Most of them began to think they knew something about the subject…. All this was generally amusing enough, but became almost tragic at times when I found them endangering the whole work. On such occasions I would write to my millionaires and tell them that if they did not do what I told them they would be personally answerable to the directors and shareholders for any disaster that might occur.”
I’m beginning to see why people found Forbes so insufferable.
Westinghouse engineers spent 1894 fine-tuning the designs and starting to build the first two (of a planned 10) 5,000-horsepower generators for the Niagara power station. Having just moved heaven and earth to complete the biggest-ever dynamos for the World’s Fair (which rated at 1,000 horsepower each), the boys at Westinghouse now just had to scale everything up to get to 5,000-horsepower, right?
Hmm. Not quite.
Westinghouse himself emphasized the novelty of virtually every element of the new 5,000-horsepower generators. “The switching devices, indicating and measuring instruments, bus-bars and other auxiliary apparatus, have been designed and constructed on lines departing radically from our usual practice,” he wrote in a report on the progress of the contract. “The conditions of the problem presented, especially as regards the amount of power to be dealt with, have been so far beyond all precedent that it has been necessary to devise a considerable amount of new apparatus…. Nearly every device used differs from what has hitherto been our standard practice.”
In fact, the original designs that the Westinghouse people came up with had to be changed part way through the process. The size and scale of the generators had to be reduced to a mere eighty-five-ton to ensure that they could be hoisted onto a railroad flatcar and transported safely to Niagara—and as any electrical engineer will tell you, the smaller things have to be, the more challenging they are to build.
From 1893 to 1896 (and despite the on-going economic effects of the Panic of 1893), Adams, Rankine, and the Cataract Company were focused on the construction of Powerhouse No. 1 that sat atop the massive turbines and which would ultimately hold five of those 5,000 horsepower Westinghouse generators.
To design the building for the powerhouse as well as several dozen houses for employees, Adams hired renowned New York architect Stanford White. We’ve mentioned him before, in Episode 26, as someone from New York high society that Tesla was palling around with, and we’ll meet him again in a few episodes when he helps design Tesla’s Wardenclyffe Tower.
Adams and White wanted Power House No. 1 to be a “cathedral of power.” Built from limestone quarried in nearby Queenston, ON, the powerhouse was two hundred feet long, sixty-four feet wide, and forty feet high, topped by a slate-and-iron roof. Tall windows flooded the powerhouse with natural light. As at the World’s Fair, the switchboard was huge, all brass rails and marble.
As the first of the massive dynamos was being installed in Power House No. 1, Edward Dean Adams and the Cataract Company were greeted with a pleasant surprise: it turns out selling all the power they were about to be generating was going to be a lot easier than they originally thought.
At the outset of the Niagara project, everyone—Adams included—assumed that transmission to the relatively near-by industrial centre of Buffalo, NY—go Bills—was going to be the key to making Niagara power a moneymaker.
In the late 19th Century, Buffalo NY was the world’s sixth largest commercial center. Fifty-two grain elevators stored countless tones of grains and cereals from the American mid-west on its way to sale around the world. Almost six thousand vessels docked at Buffalo’s port each year—many of them involved in shipping that grain to hungry mouths overseas. Five million head of livestock passed through Buffalo each year. The city laid claim to the world’s largest coal trestle. Buffalo had twenty-six railroads, with seven hundred miles of track and depots, and 250 passenger trains arriving and departing each day.
Hence the need for long distance transmission to get the power the 20-or-so miles to Buffalo.
What no one—Adams included—guessed was that entire new industries were prepared to uproot themselves and set up shop on the Cataract Company’s industrial acrerage to take advantage of large amounts of cheap Niagara power.
In 1893, before a single watt of power had been generated there, industrialist Chester Martin Hall—founder of the Pittsburgh Reduction Company, later renamed Alcoa—announced that his company would be moving to the falls. A decade earlier, Hall had pioneered a technique to extract aluminum from the clay where it was most abundant using fluorides and plenty of electricity. Once the current was passed through the clay-and-flouride slurry, Hall ended up with pure aluminum. He singlehandedly brought the price of aluminium down from $15 dollars a pound to $1 dollar a pound (in today’s dollars, that would be bringing aluminium down from about $400 dollars a pound to $25 dollars a pound) and made himself rich in the process. Hall thought he could reduce the price of aluminum even further, but to do so he needed cheap, abundant electricity—and Niagara fit the bill perfectly.
Likewise, Edward Goodrich Acheson, a chemical genius who had trained at Edison’s lab in Menlo Park, moved his factory from just outside Pittsburgh to the Cataract Company’s industrial acreage at Niagara Falls.
Acheson had devised an electrochemical process that created what he called Carborundum, a substance hard enough to cut glass, which was meant to replace the prohibitively expensive diamond dust used as an industrial abrasive. A pound of diamond dust went for $1,000 or more (so $29,000+ in today’s dollars) while Acheson’s Carborundum went for $576 a pound (or about $17,000 a pound today).
His factory near Pittsburgh could make twenty pounds a day, and Acheson thought he could sell twice that much if he could bring the price down. Like Hall, Acheson needed massive amounts of cheap electricity to make a go of his plan. He signed a deal with the Cataract Company’s subsidiary Niagara Falls Power Company for 1,000 horsepower a day (with an option for 10,000 more) to power massive arc furnaces capable of reaching unheard-of temperatures and produce the Carborundum more cheaply. When his corporate board learned of this deal—a deal with a power company that had yet to generate any actual power—they resigned en masse.
But the last laugh was Acheson’s. Because along with he and Hall, numerous other electrochemical and electrometallurgical firms producing “acetylene, alkalis, sodium, bleaches, caustic soda, and chlorine” would all move to the Falls to take advantage of the cheap, abundant electricity.
So many firms set up shop and struck deals with the Niagara Falls Power Company that Edward Dean Adams and William Rankine discovered they could sell all of the first 15,000 horsepower of electricity from Power House No. 1 locally, without any need for Buffalo at all.
And, irony of ironies, the firms that moved to the Falls were actually so close to the generating station that they would have sat within the radius of an Edison-style DC central station with limited range, and since the power they needed to work their machines was DC anyway (and had to be converted from AC to DC before it reached the motor) there technically wouldn’t have been a need for an AC system at all.
Despite this, however, AC transmission was still necessary, since Adams and the Cataract Construction Company had bigger ambitions for Niagara power…
Since Power House No. 1 would deliver four times the amount of electricity available from any previous power station, Adams and Rankine began looking further afield that just Buffalo as potential markets for Niagara power…
As Rankine put it: “If it be practicable to transmit power at a commercial profit in these moderate quantities to Albany, the courage of the practical man will not halt there, but inclined to following the daring promise of Nikola Tesla, would be disposed to place 100,000 horsepower on a wire and send it 450 miles to New York in one direction, and 500 miles in the other to Chicago—and supply the wants of these great communities.”
As we will see in an upcoming episode, Adams and Rankine were sufficiently impressed with Tesla’s technical prowess that they later helped him set up a company for the promotion of his wireless-power inventions.
At last came the big day.
On August 26, 1895—almost a year late—the first power from Niagara Falls was harnessed for full-time commercial use. At 7:30 A.M. that morning, the inlet gates at the diversion canal opened, the waters of the Niagara River rushed into the powerhouse. They poured down eight-foot-wide pipes, gathered tremendous speed as they plunged 140 feet straight down, rush around a crooked “elbow” in the pipe and shoot out at 20 miles an hour into the waiting fan blades of gigantic twenty-nine-ton turbines—the largest on Earth. The energy of the turbine powered Dynamo No. 2 far above in the powerhouse, and the first alternating current generated by Niagara Falls flashed off to power the Pittsburgh Reduction Plant.
The water, having done its job, raced its three-minute trip back to the river through the 6,800-foot long sloping tailrace tunnel and complete its journey.
That the dynamos were a success came as a great relief to all involved. For nine months, the Westinghouse engineers had been testing and calibrating and retesting them. Lead engineer B. J. Lamme described a near catastrophe during one early dynamo test in Pittsburgh.
Numerous temporary steel bolts on one of the giant dynamos had “loosened up under vibration, and finally shook into contact with each other, thus forming a short circuit…. In a moment there was one tremendous [electric] arc around the end of the windings of the entire machine…. It looked, at first glance, as though the whole infernal regions had broken loose. Everybody jumped for cover.” One man managed to shut down the machine, and as the huge flaming electrical arc dissipated the engineers started poking their heads out to survey the damage. Suddenly they realized that one mad who had been inside the dynamo making observations during the test was unaccounted for. They rushed over and “someone climbed underneath to see what had become of our man inside … expecting him to be badly scorched…. He said the fire came in all around him but did not touch him.”
One lucky engineer, indeed.
So, after the Pittsburgh Reduction Plant got its power, where was the second place Niagara Power was transmitted?
Well, it wasn’t Buffalo, that’s for sure.
Though it was the original intended market for Niagara power, and though it had already preemptively declared itself the City of Light, the Buffalo city council and its Board of Public Works had dithered for months about what sort of franchise they should grant for power operations coming from Niagara Falls. Should the city itself manage the electrical power? Or should private interests be granted a franchise to run power in the city?
William Rankine had first approached Buffalo in October 1894 about securing a commitment from the city for 10,000 horsepower before the Cataract Company began excavating additional wheel pits, ordering more dynamos, and installing twenty-six miles of transmission lines. More than a year later, and with power up and flowing from Powerhouse No. 1, the city still had not made up its mind. There were serious hurdles to overcome, such as the city’s insistence on a clause on the contract which gave it the right to revoke any franchise on ten days’ notice, or another which stipulated that the city could order all electrical wires to be buried underground at any time.
Luckily, the Niagara Falls Power Company had the Pittsburgh Reduction Plant as a client, because it wouldn’t be until December 16, 1895—after more than 14 months of negotiation—that Rankine and the City of Buffalo finally struck a deal that would send Niagara Falls electricity to Buffalo.
The newly incorporate Cataract Power and Conduit Company—under the leadership of William B. Rankine, George Urban, Jr. and Charles R. Huntley—would have Buffalo’s electrical franchise. The objectives of the company as outlined in their incorporation documents were “… 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.” Cataract Power and Conduit Company built the Buffalo Terminal House, located at 2280 Niagara Street, alongside the Erie Canal, as the central hub in Buffalo from which to flow power out to local customers.
The Niagara Falls Power Company was contracted to deliver 10,000 horsepower of electricity to the Cataract Power and Conduit Company on or before June 1, 1897. The first customer would be the Buffalo Street Railway Company, which contracted for 1,000 horsepower of electricity to power streetcars.
In the meantime, Edward Dean Adams felt that enough success had already been had for the Cataract Construction Company to offer a formal tour of Power House No. 1 and hold a small celebration for investors.
On September 30, 1895, Adams assembled his board of directors at Power House No. 1—they were, to a man, well-known Manhattan millionaires.
John Jacob Astor, heir to a New York real estate fortune, was there. So too was Darius Ogden Mills, who’d made his first millions in the California gold rush, followed by subsequent millions on the stock market. Also in attendance were representatives of the Vanderbilt family, and of J. P. Morgan, amongst others.
While we have no record from any of these Gilded Age 1-percenters about what they thought of Power House No. 1, we do have the recollection of an Englishman who while not a member of the Cataract Construction Company board someone managed to get an invite on the tour—one Mister Herbert George Wells, better remembered today by his initials—H.G. Wells.
One of the earliest science fiction writers and later turned social observer, Wells (unlike the millionaires all around him) was at no loss for word about the mechanical wonders he beheld:
“These dynamos and turbines of the Niagara Falls Power Company impressed me far more profoundly than the Cave of the Winds; are indeed, to my mind, greater and more beautiful than accidental eddying of air beside a downpour. They are will made visible, thought translated into easy and commanding things. They are clean, noiseless, starkly powerful. All the clatter and tumult of the early age of machinery is past and gone here; there is no smoke, no coal grit, no dirt at all. The wheel pit into which one descends has an almost cloistered quiet about its softly humming turbines. These are altogether noble masses of machinery, huge black slumbering monsters, great sleeping tops that engineer irresistible forces in their sleep…. A man goes to and fro quietly in the long, clean hall of the dynamos. There is no clangor, no racket…. All these great things are as silent, as wonderfully made, as the heart in a living body, and stouter and stronger than that…. I fell into a daydream of the coming power of men, and how that power may be used by them.”
Other notables would soon visit.
Two months later, steelmaker tycoon and robber baron par excellence Andrew Carnegie came to see the marvel of Power House No. 1. “No visitor can have been more deeply impressed nor more certain of the triumphant success of this sublime undertaking,” Carnegie wrote in the official guest book.
J. P. Morgan finally showed up in person later that fall, along with his wife. He left no comment in the guest book.
And, eventually, Tesla came to.
For someone who claimed he’d dreamt since he was a boy of harassing Niagara Falls to produce electricity, Tesla took his sweet time actually coming to visit the falls, or to see what his AC system and induction motor had made possible.
For four years, Tesla had turned down repeated invitations to visit the site as it was under construction. It was not until the summer of 1896 that Tesla finally decided to make the pilgrimage.
The trip began in Pittsburgh with George Westinghouse and a tour of his company’s new twenty-acre electrical works out in Turtle Valley, east of Pittsburgh. That evening, Edward Dean Adams and several others joined for an overnight journey to the Falls aboard the Glen Eyre, Westinghouse’s “sumptuous private railcar.”
The next morning, at 9:00 A.M. on Sunday, July 19, 1896—the height of tourist season—Tesla and his party (made up of Westinghouse and his son, thirteen-year-old George Jr., Westinghouse’s attorney Paul Cravath, Edward Dean Adams, and William Rankine) arrived at Niagara Falls, NY.
When they were ready to set out for the power station, the group took an electric trolley along Erie Avenue toward the edge of town, and toward Stanford White’s “many-windowed cathedral of power.” Power House No. 1, fronted by a broad lawn, sat on one side of the inlet canal where diverted river water flowed steadily into the powerhouse.
And lest you feel left out of the grand tour, please check out the show notes for this episode at teslapodcast.com, where I will post images of Power House No. 1, the turbines, and lots more.
Only one dynamo was operating—it being a Sunday, after all—but Tesla was no less enthused. He and his party eagerly inspected the giant dynamo, climbing up and around it via the special walkways built around each machine. He would also have seen there the great bronze plaque that decorated the 5000 horsepower dynamos that his work made possible.
“Manufactured for the Niagara Falls Power Co by Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Co, Pittsburgh, PA, USA,” reads the plaque on the dynamo—followed by the year and a list of 13 patents used in its construction, nine of which bear the name of Tesla next to them. I’m sure the plaque would have been pointed out to Tesla, who must have felt a great swell of pride at seeing his dream having become a concrete reality.
“Stopped in New York,” Tesla inscribed in the power house’s guest book, “but heart is at Niagara.”
The tour group took the ornate elevator down to the wheel pits, where they heard the river water rushing through the penstocks, and heard and saw the great blades of the turbines whirling.
Back above ground, they took a short walk across a limestone bridge over the inlet canal to visit the transformer building, also in limestone and also by Stanford White—a much smaller, but faithful echo of Power House No. 1.
The transformer building at that point still wanted for any actual transformers. The machines, being built by GE as part of their piece of the contract, were still under construction. The limestone bridge they had crossed stood ready to carry electrical conduits from the powerhouse to the transformer building…whenever they were ready, that is.
When their morning was done, Rankine led the party back to his dining spot, the Cataract Hotel overlooking American Falls, where they had lunch.
After lunch, Tesla answered a few questions from some reporters:
“I came to Niagara Falls,” he said, “to inspect the great power plant and because I thought the change would bring me needed rest. I have been for some time in poor health, almost worn out…It is all and more than I anticipated it would be. It is fully all that was promised. It is one of the wonders of the century … a marvel in its completeness and in its superiority of construction…. In its entirety, in connection with the possibilities of the future, the plant and the prospect of future development in electrical science, and the more ordinary uses of electricity, are my ideals. They are what I have long anticipated and have labored, in an insignificant way, to contribute toward bringing about…But and it is a curious thing about me. I cannot stay about big machinery a great while. It affects me very much. The jar of the machinery curiously affects my spine and I cannot stand the strain.”
Asked about the prospects of power finally being transmitted to Buffalo, Tesla gave an assured answer:
“Its success is certain. The transmission of electricity is one of the simplest of propositions. It is but the application of pronounced and accepted rules which are as firmly established as the air itself…The result of this great development of electric power will be that the falls and Buffalo will reach out their arms and will join each other and become one great city. United, they will form the greatest city in the world.”
Reporters also wanted to hear from George Westinghouse. They asked him whether he really believed that the Niagara Falls Power Company could really sell 100,000 horsepower of electricity, as the plans ultimately called for. Would there really ever be that much demand?
“This talk is ridiculous,” replied Westinghouse, characteristically not suffering fools gladly. “When you think that a single ocean steamship like the Campania uses 25,000 horse power, it is easy to be seen that there will be no surplus here. All the power here can and will be used.” He emphasized that there would be 1,500 acres of the Niagara Falls Power Company that would soon be filled with industries hungry for power that would use up a great deal of the 100,000 horsepower.
“But Buffalo’s possibilities are to be made marvellous as well,” he added.
For his part, William Rankine told the reporters that the Niagara Falls Power Company was already contracting with a company to erect all the wooden transmission poles—modeled on those of the telegraph companies—that were needed to support the wires sending power from the Falls to Buffalo. Yup, it would be any day now…
And having been so long in planning to flash Niagara’s power to Buffalo, the Cataract Power and Conduit Company delivered early on its June 1, 1897 contractual deadline.
In early November 1896 the long-awaited GE transformers were finally installed in the transformer house. Curiously, even though GE’s original bid for three-phase AC was rejected in favour of two-phase AC (the better understood, more reliable technology at the time), the GE dynamos’ two-phase AC power was to be stepped up to three-phase AC for transmission, as it was judged more efficient. Now, it had been a couple of years by then from the initial bids to the installation of the GE transformer, so perhaps by then the state-of-the-art had advanced to where three-phase AC was, in fact, more efficient.
On Sunday, November 15, William Rankine and several engineers tested the delivery of 1,000 horsepower to the transformer from the dynamos at Power House No. 1. All seemed ready to send electricity to the Cataract Power and Conduit Company…but Rankine had promised his father, an Episcopal minister, that the actual transmission of power would not begin on the Sabbath.
So, late that Sunday night Rankine returned to the powerhouse, accompanied by one Westinghouse engineer, and one GE engineer who had been with him supervising and testing all day.
Though he was a lawyer, and not an engineer, it was all together fitting that it was Rankine—the man who had first become enamoured of the Falls as a law clerk, and who in 1889 had been the one to start the ball rolling on harnessing the Falls by approaching J. P. Morgan—it was all together fitting that it was he who at precisely 12:01am on Monday morning threw three switches in Power House No. 1 and, in effect, fired the final shot of the War of the Currents.
As the switches closed, the power generated by Niagara’s waters spinning the giant turbines and powering the 5000 hp Westinghouse AC dynamos in Power House No. 1 raced to the GE transformer at a pressure of 2,200 volts, was instantly stepped by the transformer to 10,700 volts, and flashed over twenty-six miles of cable to the Cataract Power and Conduit Company’s transformer at the Buffalo Terminal House, located at 2280 Niagara Street in Buffalo, stepping it down to 440 volts.
At the same moment—precisely 12:01am—the small group who had assembled in the southwest corner of the Buffalo Railway Company powerhouse pulled down three knife-blade switches on their two rotary transformers—delivered and tested just that day. Power from the Buffalo Terminal House surged into the Railway Company’s rotary transformers, where it was converted to DC power and brought up to 550 volts.
“Perhaps two seconds elapsed,” reported the Buffalo Enquirer the next day about the total time it took for the whole operation. The full article was headlined (in all caps) “YOKED TO THE CATARACT!” with the subheads “Niagara’s Energy Ready to Stir the Wheels of Buffalo’s Great Industries—Power Transmitted Successfully at Midnight Last Night” and “Now for Prosperity for Greater Buffalo.”
“Electrical experts say the time was incapable of computation,” the article continued. “It was the journey of God’s own lightning bound over to the employ of man.”
The next morning, Buffalo streetcars ran for the first time on Niagara Falls hydroelectric power.
With power finally flowing to Buffalo, and their mission accomplished, Adams and the men running the new Cataract Power and Conduit Company decided a celebration was in order.
That is how, for the second time in six months, Tesla found himself heading up to Niagara—this time to be the guest of honour at a banquet to celebrate the completion of the Niagara Falls project.
Tesla traveled overnight in a private railcar from New York City with Edward Dean Adams and not a few of New York’s finest 1-percenters and millionaire directors of the Niagara endeavour.
Amongst them were Francis Lynde Stetson, one of the most powerful attorneys in America. From a distinguished New York legal and political family, Stetson was a confidant of President Grover Cleveland (who was also a partner in his law firm). He had represented the railroad interests of the Vanderbilts since 1887, and J. P. Morgan had Stetson’s firm on retainer.
Edward Wickes was also in the party. Likewise a lawyer, and likewise on retainer to the Vanderbilts and their interests in the New York Central railroad, Wickes and Stetson were both vice presidents of the Cataract Construction Company.
One of the non-millionaires who journeyed with them was Lewis B. Stillwell, Westinghouse’s chief engineer who was standing in for the great man, and whom we first met back in Episode 12 when Tesla went to Pittsburgh to work with the Westinghouse people to develop his motor and dynamo for commercial use. As you’ll recall from that episode, Stillwell was one of the many Westinghouse men to give Tesla the cold shoulder during that sojourn, and was one of the major reasons that Tesla headed back to New York disappointed.
Stillwell was one of the engineers that refused to listen to Tesla when he said the system would work best at 60-cycles per second, and who insisted on 133 cycles per second because the Gaulard-Gibbs system that Westinghouse also had patents for operated at that frequency and they wanted to mesh the two. Stillwell was also one of the engineers who would later declare a “breakthrough” when they realized that, hey, this Tesla stuff works better at 60-cycles per second. Who knew?
Professionally jealous of Telsa (Stillwell had invented something called the Stillwell booster, which operated somewhat like the Tesla coil except that Tesla had beat him to it), Stillwell would later do his part in a corporate history of the Westinghouse Company to downplay the role of Tesla’s innovations and try and give credit for Tesla’s accomplishments to himself and others at the company.
Sooo, that must have been fun train ride…
The group arrived in Niagara Falls, NY at 9am on Tuesday, January 12, 1897. Not surprisingly for northern New York State in January, it was bitterly cold and snowing.
Horse-drawn carriages took the group to the elegant Prospect House Hotel where they met William Rankine for breakfast.
After breakfast it was off to Power House No. 1, where Tesla could see all the transformers at work this time, as well as tour several of the new factories powered by Niagara. In the afternoon, they visited the falls.
We don’t 100% where they stood to observe the grandeur of the falls. But I wonder what the odds might be that Tesla himself stood anywhere near where the giant statue of him now rests overlooking Bridal Veil Falls… I hope he did.
That evening, dressed in top hats and tuxedos, Tesla and his party took the short train ride to Buffalo to attend the Cataract Power and Conduit Company’s lavish electrical banquet at the new Ellicott Square Building. Designed by Daniel H. Burnham—who you may recall as the architect and mastermind of the Chicago World’s Fair—the ten-story neo-Renaissance Ellicott Square Building was said to be the world’s largest office building, with six hundred suites.
The banquet was held on the top floor in the Ellicott Club. The 400 guests from amongst Buffalo’s leading citizens were each handed a souvenir menu and seating list bound in engraved aluminum covers made with aluminum from the Pittsburgh Reduction Company that had been rendered with Niagara power.
Beyond Buffalo’s great and good, some fifty eminent scientists and electrical engineers were also in attendance and their names will be familiar to you from past episodes: GE’s chairman Charles Coffin, Elihu Thomson, Charles Brush of arc light fame, and T. Commerford Martin, editor of the Electrical Engineer.
Eight long banquet tables of guests were served a a 10-course meal of oysters, deviled lobster, terrapin (which is a kind fo turtle), and filet of beef, paired with sherry, German riesling, champagne, and a palate cleanser of “sorbet electrique.”
“Such a company never sat down in Buffalo before,” accurately observed the Buffalo Morning Express, before overselling it in that particular late 19th Century way by saying “such an event had never previously been celebrated in the history of the world.”
At 10:00 P.M., the dessert plates of petit fours were cleared and Francis Lynde Stetson rose, the first of six toastmasters that evening, to toast “the Company.”
Unfortunately, Stetson misunderstood the date and apparently believed it to be Festivus, because he began with an airing of grievances.
He complained that since 1889, the New York investors had put up more than $6 million (more than $169 million dollars today) to build the Niagara power plant and transmission infrastructure “without thus far receiving one penny of profit or dividends or interest.” The audience was suddenly shocked (no pun intended) into silence. Stetson said that while the most profitable way to use the Niagara power would be to sell all of it to the firms in their own industrial park, nevertheless, the Niagara Falls Power Company intended to honor its far less profitable arrangement to supply Buffalo with electricity…
But Stetson didn’t agree to honor it on time. The additional 9,000 horsepower of electricity that was contractually owed to the City of Buffalo by June 1897 would not be made available by then, Stetson announced. The city would get it at some unspecified future date.
Needless to say, this sociopathic toast to “the Company” was…poorly received.
The rest of the night’s toastmasters, including the mayor and the state comptroller, had to follow this performance and did so to more or less success.
Finally, as guest of honour, it was Tesla’s turn to toast the crowd. When he stood to make his remarks he was greeted with thunderous applause, the clanging of wineglasses with silverware, and the waving of linen napkins in the air.
Saying with his characteristic modesty that he “scarcely had courage enough to address them,” Tesla began his speech.
“… I wish to congratulate you Buffalonians, I will say friends,” Tesla said, “on the wonderful expectations and possibilities open to you. At some time not distant your city will be a worthy neighbor of the great cataract, which is one of the wonders of the Nation.”
Tesla honoured the “spirit which makes men in all stages and position work, not as much for any material benefit or compensation, although reason may dictate this also, but for the sake of success, for the pleasure there is in achieving it and for the good they might do thereby to their fellow men.” In contract to Stetson, Tesla spoke of a “type of man … inspired with deep love for their study, men whose chief aim and enjoyment is the acquisition and spread of knowledge, men who look far above earthly things, whose banner is Excelsior!”
Stan Lee, eat your heart out.
Unmoved by the applause Tesla was receiving, Stetson stood up and whispered loudly in Tesla’s ear to wrap up his remarks or else he and the other New York millionaires would miss their soon-to-depart train.
And with that, the Buffalo Courier noted the next day in its article about the event, Tesla’s words were received with great applause, and Tesla “fell back relieved and made a rush for the door to catch his train.”
And, with that, the War of the Currents was over. AC and Westinghouse and Tesla had won, DC and General Electric and Edison had lost.
But, as a coda to our discussion of the war, there is an interesting debate amongst historians and within the various Tesla biographies about why it was that GE lost out so spectacularly in the Niagara project.
Recall from last episode that Adams had given GE the contract for transformers, the transmission lines, and the equipment for the electrical substation in Buffalo—but did so mainly to help keep down the cost of the contract Adams knew he would eventually award Westinghouse, as well as to hedge his bets and keep open the possibility of working with GE in the future.
But the question for historians remains: why didn’t JP Morgan and the moneyed interests behind GE exert more pressure on the Cataract Company and flex more muscle to win the dynamo contract?
Historian Harold Passer, in his book The Electrical Manufacturers, 1875-1900, concludes that the stakes were simply too high for GE’s investors, with “the financiers…afraid to go against the judgment of their engineering advisers,” who claimed it couldn’t be done.
Another possibility—which I like to term “the honor amongst thieves” theory—is that because JP Morgan was a close friend of August Belmont, one of Westinghouse’s financial backers, he essentially backed off and let his buddy Belmont have the contract through his investment in Westinghouse.
A similar theory is that Morgan didn’t fight tooth-and-nail because of his respect for the International Niagara Commission, and advice from his lawyer William Rankine and Francis Stetson who told Morgan of Tesla’s “daring promise [as far back as 1890] to place 100,000 hp on a wire and send it 450 miles in one direction to New York City, the metropolis of the East, and 500 miles in the other direction to Chicago, the metropolis of the West, [to] serve the purpose of these great urban communities.” I suppose the thinking here is that Morgan believed Tesla could do it, and since Westinghouse had all the patents Morgan assumed there wasn’t much hope of ultimate victory.
Whatever the reason, the awarding of the contract turned out how it turned out. But that was not the end for Morgan or GE.
Oh no. Because having lost two major contracts to Westinghouse, and in yet another Gilded Age parallel with our own Silicon Valley-driven age of mergers and acquisitions, Morgan and GE did what any mega corporation would do: they decided to acquire Westinghouse. The “if you can’t beat them, launch a hostile takeover” strategy.
A successful acquisition of Westinghouse would mean huge savings for GE—and Westinghouse as well. The two companies were (by 1893) waging three hundred patent lawsuits against each other, many over AC designs. A “merger” would save each company $1 million a year in legal fees—that’s about $28 million today, for each side.
And, if GE was successful it would leave the company in control not just of the Niagara project, but—with Westinghouse’s Tesla patents in hand—GE would vault to a monopoly position in electricity in the United States, dominating as they would 90 percent of the market. A perfect strategy for the age of robber barons.
“General Electric was most anxious to bolster its jerry-built structure with the solid Westinghouse concern,” wrote Thomas Lawson in his muckraking Gilded Age classic, Frenzied Finance, which examined how Wall Street’s robber barons made easy and unscrupulous millions through watered stock, market manipulation, and monopolies. “Suddenly the financial sky became overcast. The stock market grew panicky … Wall and State streets [were] full of talk about General Electric’s probable absorption of Westinghouse…. This was the signal. From all the stock-market sub-cellars and rat-holes of State, Broad, and Wall streets crept those wriggling, slimy snakes of bastard rumors which, seemingly fatherless and motherless, have in reality multi-parents who beget them with a deviltry of intention…. [Rumors] … seeped through the financial haunts of Boston, Philadelphia, and New York, and kept hot the wires into every financial centre in America and Europe, where aid might be sought to relieve the crisis. There came a crash in Westinghouse stocks and their value melted.”
By this point, I think we’ve all gotten to know George Westinghouse well enough to know that this was not the kind of thing he would let slide. If it was dirty tricks he could expect from GE, then Westinghouse was going to give as good as he got.
The Gilded Age predates the Wall Street regulatory bodies we’re familiar with today, such as the Securities and Exchange Commission, so this left Westinghouse a pretty free hand to retaliate as he saw fit and there really wasn’t anything illegal about what he was doing.
To even the score with GE, Westinghouse hired Thomas Lawson—the same guy I mentioned a minute ago who would later literally write the book on how to artificially manipulate stock—to be the mastermind of his realiatory strike against GE.
Thomas W. Lawson was a Boston stock manipulator who had a huge public following that followed his advice on what stocks to buy and sell. His wheelhouse was mainly mining—especially copper—and on brand for the Gilded Age, his suggested stock picks were really just about manipulating the stocks and ended up making him rich and wiping out the people who did what he told them.
Ironically, after a lawsuit from a disgruntled investor and the subsequent falling out Lawson had with John D. Rockefeller and Henry Rogers over at Standard Oil, this master stock manipulator came to be seen somehow as some kind of reformer.
The attack that Lawson launched against GE on Westinghouse’s behalf was so devastating in this unregulated, Wild West environment that GE and JP Morgan retreated from the idea of taking over Westinghouse…at least for now.
As we’ll see in our final episode about the aftermath of the War of the Currents (which will be a few episodes from now) the spectre of some kind of takeover continued to loom over Westinghouse for years until, finally, a solution was reached. But we’ll talk about that some other time…
Within a decade of the harnessing of Niagara Falls, the availability of cheap, abundant electricity spurred industrial development throughout western New York.
Niagara power spawned an entirely new industry, the electrochemical business, which used massive amounts of electricity to produce caustic chemical compounds such as chlorine. The Union Carbide Company—which manufactured everything from calcium carbide, to ethylene glycol, to zinc chloride, to liquid oxygen—was for many years one of the Niagara plant’s biggest customers.
Buoyed by the success of the Niagara project, Rankine launched a second company to build a similar power plant on the Canadian side of the falls.
Before long, as Tesla had predicted, Niagara’s power was being sent to New York City, more than 450 miles away. Electricity from the falls would help transform Detroit, powering the city’s assembly lines and steel furnaces and turning it into the Motor City.
More than this, however, the enduring legacy of the harnessing of Niagara Falls is that it became the model for how electrical power would be generated and consumed in the twentieth century and beyond. Electricity would be produced wherever there was a source of reliable power, transmitted hundreds or even thousands of miles, and consumed where it was most needed. And not just in the United States or Canada. As a result of the success of the Niagara Falls power plant, European utilities, too, shifted to polyphase AC and it was from that moment that polyphase AC truly became a global standard for current distribution, as it remains today.
The war was truly over, and the victory was complete.
Niagara removed the last serious doubt about the efficiency of the AC system and it spawned even more ambitious hydroelectric dreams. The Hoover and Grand Coulee Dams in the American West were only possible thanks to the success of Niagara. And it’s worth noting that both power stations generated their electricity using Westinghouse equipment.
Quite understandably people came to think that Tesla, working with the Westinghouse Company, had designed this new system. This, of course, isn’t accurate.
But though Tesla didn’t design the system used at Niagara, he did play a profound, if subtle, role in making sure that a system based on his original patents did win the day.
Calling the harnessing of Niagara Falls “the unrivalled engineering triumph of the nineteenth century,” the New York Times wrote in July 1895 that:
“[p]erhaps the most romantic part of the story of this great enterprise would be the history of the career of the man above all men who made it possible—a man of humble birth, who has risen almost before he reached the fullness of manhood to a place in the first rank of the world’s great scientists and discoverers—Nikola Tesla.
“Even now the world is more apt to think of him as a producer of weird experimental effects than as a practical and useful inventor. Not so the scientific public or the businessmen. By the latter classes Tesla is properly appreciated, honored, perhaps even envied. For he has given to the world a complete solution of the problem which has taxed the brains and occupied the time of the greatest electro-scientists of the last two decades—namely, the successful adaption of electrical power transmitted over long distances.”
Niagara Falls today has been forever transformed by its role as a power generating station.
If you think back to last episode, and to the Indigenous peoples who lived in the region, and to the missionary Father Louis Hennepin who first wrote of the Falls, the Falls as they would have seen it was far different than the Falls as we have it today, and that’s due to the needs of hydroelectric power.
60 to 75 percent of the river’s flow is siphoned off above the falls to feed the power stations on the American and Canadian sides. So the Falls that Father Hennepin wrote about would have been more than twice as powerful as the Falls we see today.
In 1950, Canada and the United States actually signed a treaty to ensure that Niagara Falls will never run dry due to water being diverted for hydroelectric use.
The treaty states that water flow over Niagara Falls is to take precedence over use for hydroelectric generation. During daylight hours in the peak season, tourists must see one million gallons of water per second cascading over the falls. During the off season, power stations can turn the flow down to half that.
The International Control Dam—which at 2000 feet long is 600 feet longer than the Hover Dam—operated by the International Niagara Control Works, manages the flow of the Niagara river. 18 control gates, each of which is wider than the Titanic, and each of which weighs 85 tons, span the dam. Massive hydraulics allow the gates to be fully raised or lowered within 10 minutes, taming the river and allowing water to flow either to the falls or be diverted to the power stations.
Though the original power plant has long been decommissioned and replaced, and though the size of hydroelectric operation is now much larger and the technology more advanced, much of how power is generated at Niagara today would be familiar to Tesla, or Westinghouse, or Adams were they to see it now.
Power generation is still gravity driven, as it was in their day. Water, diverted from the Niagara River, falls from a great height behind the dam, gaining tremendous speed before hitting the fan blades of a giant turbine, which turns electromagnets to generate electricity.
The drive shafts from the turbines power 26 huge electromagnetic generators, each of which weighs almost 2 million pounds. They spin at over 150 revolutions per minute, generating enough power to light up Toronto thanks to the staggering half a million gallons of water that move through the power plants per second.
At half a million gallons per second, you could fill an Olympic size swimming pool in less time than it takes to jump from the diving board and hit the water.
Something that would have been new to Tesla, or Westinghouse, or Adams if they saw it today, is the 740-acre reservoir (that’s a reservoir 6 km long 3 km wide) that sits behind the power stations, and which holds 260 million gallons of water. This water is for use during times when demand outstrips the amount of water available during daylight hours. It is often tapped into during peak season (ie: the summer), which usually coincides with peak demand (thanks to things like air conditioning). When its needed, water is diverted from this reservoir into the power station to generate hydroelectricity. Operators then refill the reservoir at night when they are able to draw more off of the falls so that they always have enough water on hand when they need it during the day.
And, in a nice little 21st Century bow on our story of Niagara Falls, it was announced in October 2020 that beginning in the 2021 tourist season, the Maid of the Mist—the ferry tour of the Niagara River that will take you right into the mouth of the falls and its plunge basin, and which has been in operation since 1846—the Maid of the Mist will operate for the first time ever with two brand-new, all-electric ferry boats. These catamaran-style electric ferries—the first passenger vessels of their kind in the United States—operate nearly silently with little to no vibration and produce zero emissions, promising a smoother, quieter, and greener ride.
It means the boats’ lithium-ion batteries that take you right up to the Falls will themselves be charged by the power of the Falls. It’s a nice circle of life moment.
But best of all, while one of the boats will be named the James V. Glynn, in honor of the longtime Maid of the Mist Chairman and CEO James V. Glynn, who has been with the company for 70 years, the other boat will be named the Nikola Tesla.
The victory at Niagara, coming as it did on the heels of the World’s Fair triumph, firmly established Tesla’s reputation in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries as one of America’s leading inventors. And now, building on that fame, Tesla intended to introduce an even more remarkable power distribution system to the world—the wireless transmission of electricity.
While we will have one final episode on the aftermath of the War of the Currents, next time we jump around again in time a bit and step back to 1895. With Tesla at the height of his powers, with fame and fortune and business opportunities his for the taking, we will witness perhaps the greatest tragedy of Tesla’s professional life, and all his hopes and dreams go up in smoke…
As I’ve mentioned previously, the War of the Currents all leads ultimately to the battle over Niagara Falls, and to the final titanic struggle to decide whether it would be DC or AC that would win the great prize and harness the falls for power generation.
This battle which, spoiler alert, AC and the Westinghouse-Tesla system ultimately won, was really the decisive battle in the War of the Currents. After the AC system was installed at Niagara Falls—and worked better than anyone imagined it would—there was no longer any argument that DC champions could make about AC being dangerous or inefficient or impractical.
Niagara Falls has been part of my life for almost as long as I can recall. Though I didn’t grow up around it, every summer when we’d come to visit family in Toronto, we would usually take a day and make the hour-and-a-half drive to the Falls and hang out. It was impressive, sure. But in that way that youth is wasted on the young, I don’t think I really appreciated its true awesomeness—in the original, non Bill-and-Ted meaning of the word as ‘extremely impressive and daunting, inspiring admiration, apprehension, and fear’—or the opportunity to see it so frequently until much later in life.
Once I moved to Toronto and was so close all the time, when the weather was nice I would visit the Falls just as something to get me out of the house on a Saturday. I would often bring friends visiting from elsewhere to see them. I remember when I had visitors coming from Australia, a girlfriend and I were trying to decide what to show them. I suggested Niagara Falls. She scoffed. Too touristy, she said. When the Aussies arrived, what did they want to see?
Because of course you do! It is touristy, but it’s touristy for a reason. It’s awesome. It’s a natural wonder of the world, and people long to see it their whole lives. I’m sure people react to seeing Niagara Falls for the first time the way I did when I drove through the Rocky Mountains for the first time, or fulfilled a lifelong dream and set foot in Kakadu National Park in Australia for the first time. I’ve just lived so close to Niagara Falls for so long, and visited so many times, that it’s somehow become mundane to me, as it had to my then-girlfriend.
How is it that humans do that, anyway? Become so blasé about things that are legitimately incredible?
And because of that blaséness, I never appreciated until I started researching Tesla’s life and accomplishments just what an achievement harnessing Niagara Falls was, nor how hard it is to overstate just what an impact the Niagara Falls project had on both sides of the Canada-US border. Electricity lit up Niagara Falls, Ontario and Niagara Falls, NY, but it also lit up Buffalo, NY—20 miles from the Falls, and Hamilton, ON—more than 55 miles away. And power from Niagara Falls didn’t stop there.
In fact, the idea that electricity came from Niagara Falls was so pervasive for so long in the region of the world where I live that we don’t call it the “power company” or the “electric company”—
—We call it the “hydro company,” as in hydroelectric power. We don’t get an “electric bill” we get a “hydro bill.”
The largest electricity transmission and distribution service provider in Ontario—covering about 26% of all the customers in this, Canada’s most populous province—is called Hydro One. The largest electric utility in Toronto—Canada’s largest city—is called Toronto Hydro. There are at least 28 other electric utilities companies in Ontario alone that use the word ‘hydro’ in their name. And that’s despite the fact that these days the largest share of Ontario’s energy (34%) comes from nuclear power and not hydroelectricity (which today makes up just 23% of our energy mix).
All this is the legacy of a time when the bulk of the electrical power in this province came from the harnessing of Niagara Falls and the end of the War of the Currents.
No one had been an anticipating the harnessing of Niagara Falls longer than Nikola Tesla himself. You’ll recall that Tesla claimed in his youth he’d planned to generate electricity using Niagara Falls.
“I was fascinated by a description of Niagara Falls I had perused,” Telsa wrote in 1919 in his autobiography, “and pictured in my imagination a big wheel run by the Falls. I told my uncle that I would go to America and carry out this scheme. Thirty years later I saw my ideas carried out at Niagara and marvelled at the unfathomable mystery of the mind.”
You hear Niagara Falls long before you see it.
It starts as a distant hum, a kind of white noise that just barely registers in your consciousness. As you get closer, the sound grows louder and though you still haven’t seen them, your mind finally registers: “Oh, that’s the Falls that I’m hearing.” You are surprised at just how far away you can hear the Falls—how long you’re actually been hearing them without realizing—and the sense of awe at their immensity begins to come over you.
When you finally reach the Falls—when you’re in sight of them, and especially when you’re right next to them (and you can get perilously close to them)—the sound is all-encompassing. If you take a trip on the Maid of Mist boat and drive right into the mouth of the Horseshoe Falls, there is no other sound. Shouts and yells can find no purchase on the air there, saturated with the sound of Niagara.
The water of the Niagara River is all around you, inescapable. It’s pouring over the Falls above, hanging all around you as mist and spray. The little garbage bag poncho they give you when you get on the boat is basically useless. You’re soaked from head to toe almost right away. The water mats your hair, the spray blurs your vision, the taste of the river (which tastes terrible, by the way) is in your mouth no matter what you do.
It’s a cliche to describe as a “roar” the sound of that unfathomable volume of rushing water plunging 160 feet straight down over the Falls. It’s a cliche and it’s inaccurate. Because it’s more than a simple roar.
Roars end. Niagara is forever.
You marvel at just how much water is coming downriver to the Falls, before it plunges over and then moves on its course down the Niagara River. It seems like all the water in the world. You wait for it to finish rushing past you, draining from wherever its coming from, but it doesn’t. It just keeps going.
It looks like footage you’ve seen of roiling flood waters sweeping across fields and plains, breaching riverbanks and levies, swamping towns and washing out bridges. But then you realize that those floods (even if they’re seasonal) are exceptions. Most of the time, those places aren’t like that. The waters there are calmer, and they hold to their course.
But, you understand, this place isn’t like that. Every day here, every minute, is a hundred-year flood of water throwing itself over the Falls. The churn of the blue-green water, the white froth of the waves, the mist that hangs all around, the permanent rainbow suspended across the Horseshoe Falls—this is what this place is, all the time.
The cascade of its flow never stops, never slackens. The sound of the water never varies in tone or volume. Day or night, rain or shine, no matter the time or season, it does not slow. Niagara simply is.
And there, standing sentinel over the Falls, is Nikola Tesla. Well, a statue of him. Two, actually. One statue is on the Canadian side—in which he’s standing atop a dynamo of his own design. In one hand he holds a top hat, and in the other a walking stick which is meant to evoke that moment in the City Park in Budapest when Tesla first envisioned his AC motors by drawing with his cane in the dirt. We describe that moment in Episode 5.
With the sculpt of his long overcoat flared back as if being blown by a dramatic wind, the hat and the cane make Tesla look like a magician, come to tame the Falls and pull electricity out of his hat. Which, in a way, is what happened.
This statue of Tesla is in a green space across the street from Horseshoe Falls, the most impressive part of the three falls that make up Niagara Falls. Horseshoe Falls is what everybody thinks of when they think of what Niagara Falls looks like (sorry, my American friends, the view from the Canadian side just is the better view). And because this statue of Telsa looks out at the Horseshoe Falls, it’s kind of ignored most of the time. As you drive by it on your way to the parking lot, you are mere feet from the Falls and I’m sure most people are craning their necks to get a first glimpse of the natural wonder they’ve come to see. They’re not looking for a statue.
Once they return to the pedestrian walkway that snakes alongside the Horseshoe, people are facing away from the statue, looking at the grandeur of the Falls with their backs to Tesla. It’s something of an apt metaphor, actually, for Tesla’s impact on and legacy in the modern world. I’d venture that few who do notice the statue have any idea who it’s of, or why he should be commemorated at that place in particular.
The other statue of Tesla is on the American side, on Goat Island, which over looks Bridal Veil Falls (part two of the three part Falls, with the American Falls—also on the US side, obviously—rounding out our trio). While it was once fairly removed from the Falls, in recent years the statue has been given a prominent position on a tourist lookout point above Bridal Veil Falls. Most of the pictures of this statue that you find online are now out of date, still showing the statue in its old location—right near the parking lot…
To get to the statue’s new home, that lookout, you have to approach from behind the statue and pass around it. You definitely see the statue and take notice of it—you can’t miss it.
This statue is a much simpler design—a giant Tesla, seated, look down and reading…something. It’s hard to say what exactly, but it looks like an unrolled scroll or a newspaper. While, as with the other statue, many (if not most) visitors probably couldn’t tell you who the statue depicts or why its placed there, this statue of Tesla definitely attracts more attention. It’s climbable (though I’m sure that wasn’t the original intent) and kids in particular (including my two oldest, in particular) enjoy sitting on the scroll in Tesla’s lap and having their picture taken. The knees and scroll of the bronze statue are worn shiny with use from countless tourists.
I will include photos of both statues in this episode’s show notes at teslapodcast.com.
About eight million tourists a year visit the American side of Niagara Falls. About 20 million tourists a year visit the Canadian side (like I said—better view). But it probably won’t surprise you to learn that Niagara Falls has always drawn crowds.
The falls at Niagara Falls are around 11,000 years old, and were created toward the end of the last ice age, when the massive glaciers blanketing much of North America started to melt.
Glacial melt waters flowed into the Niagara River, increasing the flow of water and steadily eroding the rock there. Eventually, the rock in a portion of the river eroded enough to create waterfalls – which are the three we know today as Niagara Falls.
Connecting Lake Erie with Lake Ontario, the Niagara River carries the full flow of water from the upper Great Lakes as the water makes its journey to the Atlantic Ocean via the St. Lawrence River. The falls occur where the bedrock beneath the river suddenly changes from hard to soft, and the river drops dramatically 160 feet.
It’s interesting to note that the location of the falls is not static. Due to erosion, the falls are constantly in retreat. 11,000 years ago, the falls were further down river from where they are today, positioned between present-day Queenston, Ontario and Lewiston, New York. Over the course of 11 millennia, however, the falls have retreated southward due to erosion, landing them where they are today.
Historically, the rate of erosion has averaged about 1 meter, or just over 3 feet per year, meaning that in 11,000 years the falls has moved just over 11 km, or roughly 7 miles. Over the last 200 years, erosion has been more like 1.5 meters or about 5 feet a year, but recent conservation and remediation efforts have slowed that rate to just a third of a meter, or 1 foot, a year. Ironically, for our discussion this episode, part of why the erosion of the falls has slowed is due to the diversion of water flow along the Niagara River for the purposes of hydroelectric power generation!
And that’s your fun fact for today!
Currently, (no pun intended) the falls are flowing over limestone cap rock, which is more resistant to erosion than other types of rock. We could see erosion at the Falls go as low as 1 foot each decade…until, of course, eventually that limestone is washed away, softer layers of rock are exposed, and erosion rates speed up.
Estimates are that the American Falls could dry up in 2000 years, while the whole falls may run dry in a mere 50,000 years. So, you know, go see it while you still can…
It’s hard to know exactly when people first discovered and started living near the falls. Indigenous peoples in the region were aware of the falls, but its not known for how long given that they left no written records of their interaction. The name Niagara comes from the Oni-au-ga-rah peoples who lived in what we would today call the southern Niagara Peninsula. Their name— Oni-au-ga-rah —meant either “Near the big waters” or “The Strait” or possibly ‘The Neck,’ depending on who you talk to. The Oni-au-ga-rah people were essentially eradicated by the Iroquois in 1651 during the Beaver Wars (also known as the French and Iroquois Wars), so the exact meaning of their name was lost to history with them.
French explorer Samuel de Champlain reported about the Falls in his journal after his arrival in the Niagara region in 1604. Champlain wrote about “a fall about a league wide” that fell into a “sea so large” witnesses “have never seen the end of it” but gave no further details, and it is thought that he never saw the Falls for himself, instead relying on the reports of some of his party who saw them.
Decades later on December 8, 1678—342 years and 7 days from the premiere of this episode, as it happens—a missionary, Father Louis Hennepin, was shown the Falls by his indigenous guides (see what I mean? Always popular with tourists!) It was Father Hennepin who made the first detailed written description of the Falls and circulated it to a wider audience, bringing the Falls global fame.
Father Hennepin described his impression of the Falls in his book, Description de la Louisiane, published in Paris in 1683. It was translated into English in 1698 as A New Discovery of a Vast Country in America:
Betwixt the Lake Ontario and Erie, there is a vast and prodigious Cadence of Water which falls down after a surprising and astonishing manner, insomuch that the Universe does not afford it’s parallel.
Tis true, Italy and Suedland boast some such Things; but we may well say they are but sorry Patterns, when compar’d to this of which we now speak. At the foot of this horrible Precipice, we meet with the River Niagara, which is not above a quarter of a League broad, but is wonderfully deep in some places. It is so rapid above this Descent, that it violently hurries down the wild Beasts while endeavouring to pass it to feed on the other side, they not being able to withstand the force of its Current, which inevitably casts them above Six hundred foot high…
The Waters which fall from this horrible Precipice, do foam and boyl after the most hideous manner imaginable, making an outrageous Noise, more terrible than that of Thunder; for when the Wind blows out of the South, their dismal roaring may be heard more than Fifteen Leagues off. . . .
The River Niagara having thrown itself down this incredible Precipice, continues its impetuous course for two Leagues together … with an inexpressible rapidity: But having past that, its impetuosity relents, gliding along more gently for two other Leagues, till it arrive at Lake Frontenac [what we today would call Lake Ontario].
With the advent of widespread rail travel in the 1800s, it finally became possible for Niagara Falls—celebrated in print as one of the world’s natural wonders—to become a genuine tourist destination.
Charles Dickens arrived on a train from nearby Buffalo, NY in April 1842. Of the experience, he wrote that he was “stunned and unable to comprehend the vastness of the scene…. Great Heaven, on what a Fall of bright-green water! … Then I felt how near to my Creator I was standing…. Peace of Mind, tranquility, calm recollections of the Dead, great thoughts of Eternal Rest and Happiness … Niagara was at once stamped upon my heart, an Image of Beauty.”
He stayed ten days, glorying in the natural splendour.
Fifteen years later, American landscape artist Frederic Church painted the Falls from the perspective of someone perched perilously close to the edge of the falls from the Canadian side. It was a sensation amongst critics and the public alike. When Church’s Niagara went on display in New York City in May of 1857, in just two weeks one hundred thousand people had viewed it.
With the arrival of the railroads, the sense of serene, spiritual beauty of the place was quickly subsumed by “hotels, museums, stables, icehouses, bathhouses, laundries, and curiosity shops catering to the tourist dollar. A tawdry and aggressive commercialism engulfed both sides of the falls—tacky tea gardens, curiosity shops, huge and unlovely hostels, taverns, and viewing towers. The venal Niagara hackmen, vying loutishly for fares, quickly dispelled any pilgrim’s spiritual frame of mind.”
And that’s…a pretty accurate description of the situation as it remains today.
I think I’ve mentioned before that Clifton Hill in Niagara Falls, Ontario is, by square-footage, possibly the tackiest place on Earth. Even though that quote I just read is more than 150 years old, it could have been written today and wouldn’t seem out of place.
Niagara Falls also became a place for feats of derring-do. Tightrope walkers—who are technically known by the Latin name of “funambulists”—made repeated attempts to cross the mouth of Falls. Most impressive of these might have been the Great Blondin, who, in the summer of 1859 before a crowd of 25,000 made multiple crossings of the Falls via tightrope, each time adding levels of difficulty. He carried his manager across on his back. He carried out a small stove on which he cooked two omelets while balanced above the chasm. He brought out a table and feasted on champagne and cake while keeping his balance.
The next summer the Great Blondin got into something of a daredevil war with another funambulists, called Monsieur Farini. Each man tried to outdo the other with increasingly crazy stunts—headstands, hanging by your toes, lowering a bucket down into the plunge pool of the falls, hauling the water back up, and then washing your laundry—all while balancing on a tightrope.
One gets the sense that life was cheap in the 19th Century…
The Great Blondin eventually won this daredevil war, when he tried a stunt that not even Monsieur Farini dared to trump: Blondin walked his tightrope on stilts. His audience of thousands included the Prince of Wales (the future Edward 7th) who was on a goodwill tour of Canada and the United States.
“Thank God it’s over!” exclaimed the prince when the Great Blondin was safely back on dry ground.
Along with tacky tourist traps and people determined to kill themselves in exotic ways, it also wasn’t long before the power of Niagara Falls itself—the power of all that falling water—occurred to a number of enterprising industrialists and businesspeople.
After all, about one-fifth of the U.S. population lived within four hundred miles of Niagara, and Buffalo (a city of 250,000 and an industrial powerhouse of the day) was only twenty miles away. To the north, across the Niagara River, lay much of the population and industry of Ontario, Canada’s most populace province.
The flow of water over the falls was steady and reliable, making it ideal for spinning a turbine smoothly to produce a continuous flow of electricity. Power from the falls could efficiently drive local mills, and even provide some power to the town of Niagara Falls.
If only there was a way to use the Falls properly…
While people had lamented the lack of a way to harness the Falls since at least 1857, it wasn’t until either 1882 or 1885 (sources differ) that enterprising local industrialists on the American side took it upon themselves to dig a canal to divert Niagara water. Using the diverted water to power water wheels, they quickly had customers in seven local industries, including pulp and paper, flour mills, a silver-plating factory in Oneida, NY.
Because this canal and the diversion of water was done entirely without any permission from the state (mainly because there were no laws or regulations saying that you couldn’t dig a canal and divert the Niagara River), the result was that in 1885 the Niagara Reservation was created to protect the natural beauty of the Falls. This was a New York State government preserve that forbade all development on four hundred acres of state land (three-quarters of it submerged) around Niagara Falls.
Denied land immediately around the Falls to build a major industrial district, a more creative solution was needed by those who wished to harness the Falls.
The answer can in 1886, when Erie Canal engineer Thomas Evershed—who had worked as a surveyor at Niagara in his youth in the 1840s—proposed a plan using canals, shafts, and a tunnel to divert water around the reservation. The intakes for the water wheel system he proposed would be more than a mile above the falls, well out of sight of tourists. This canal would bring water to a series of branch canals that would power 238 separate waterwheels. After passing through a waterwheel, the water would then plunge down a 150-foot shaft to a 2 1/2-mile-long tunnel that would run under the town of Niagara Falls, NY and carry the water back to the lower part of the river just below the Falls.
By June 1886, a dozen influential businessmen from upstate New York promised to subscribe to $200,000 in stock in the Niagara River Hydraulic Tunnel, Power, and Sewer Company, and had secured necessary state charters. In early September, the village of Niagara Falls gave permission for discharge tunnel to be dug far below its streets.
But despite this initial enthusiasm, Evershed’s idea foundered. None of the influential businessmen actually ponied up the cash they’d promised and entreaties to other potential investors never went anywhere.
It wasn’t until 1889, when Manhattan attorney William Rankine, who had clerked for a lawyer in Niagara Falls and become fascinated with the possibility of harnessing the cataract, got wind of the idea that things started to happen.
Understanding that Evershed’s plan would cost millions—estimates were around $10 million, or roughly $283 million US dollars today—Rankine used his Manhattan connections to get a meeting with financier J. P. Morgan, and pitched the idea directly to the investment titan. After some hemming and hawing, Morgan agreed to invest on one condition: the program need a better manager, and Morgan had just the man in mind.
Edward Dean Adams was Morgan’s handpicked leader for the project. From a prominent Boston family and a descendant of Presidents John Adams and John Quincy Adams, Edward Dean Adams was Wall Street banker by trade. But Morgan knew that Adams had also studied engineering at Norwich University and MIT, making him the perfect man to lead a project that would deal with both finance and engineering on vast scales.
More than this, Morgan trusted Adams implicitly to get things done. And though we’re still in 1889, the best example of the trust that Morgan had in Adams actually comes from a few years in the future, in 1893.
Remember back in Episode 23 when we talked about the Panic of 1893 and how President Grover Cleveland turned to J.P. Morgan and the Rothschilds of England for loans of somewhere between $65 million and $100 million in gold (between $1.8 and $2.9 billion US dollars today) so that the US Treasury didn’t go broke and the American dollar collapse? Well, when that time comes, it be Adams—in his capacity as the American representative of Deutsche Bank—that convinces his bosses to underwrite a quarter of the millions that Morgan will loan to the U.S. Treasury.
Adams had been a major stockholder in the Edison Electric Light Company since 1878. Eventually, as the company’s second largest stockholder, Adams even sat on the board of directors. But now, as president of what came to be called the Cataract Construction Company, Adams sold his Edison shares so that he could be impartial in his investigations
So while he was interested in Rankine’s proposal for a water wheel system at Niagara, Adams’ familiarity with electricity meant he also wondered whether the new technology might be suited to exploiting the Falls.
Rather than utilize the power generated in new factories in the small town of Niagara Falls, NY, Adams thought the real opportunity lay in transmitting power to factories in Buffalo and other cities. At that time, Buffalo factories were using coal-fired steam engines to generate 50,000 horsepower daily, so there was clearly a ready demand for power.
Plus, shipping power away from Niagara Falls meant Adams would avoid expensive branch canals and numerous vertical shafts needed to connect the individual waterwheels with the tailrace tunnel. The drawback, however, was that Adams needed to find a way to transmit large amounts of power over the twenty miles between Niagara and Buffalo.
Adams consulted with one of America’s most renowned mechanical engineers, Coleman Sellers of Philadelphia. In September 1889, Adams sent Sellers the Evershed prospectus, asking if it indeed warranted “the investment of a large amount of money.” Feeling that the plan for water wheels was financially feasible, but uncertain whether the vast amounts of electricity anticipated—up to 100,000 horsepower’s worth of power—would be feasible given that at the time no effective long distance transmission of power was possible, Sellers set out to examine the Falls for himself.
Meanwhile, in November 1889, while our old friend Harold Brown was conducting his gruesome animal experiments at Edison’s lab, Edison himself submitted a plan to Adams for building a DC power station and distribution system at the falls. Power could, Edison claimed, be transmitted the nearly 20 miles to Buffalo. Nevermind that Edison had never managed to get DC power more than a one or two miles. Nevermind that the power Edison did managed to send was really just enough to power some lightbulbs and not the 100,000 horsepower of energy that would come from the Falls. Nevermind that the record-shattering Lauffen-Frankfurt transmission in Europe was still two years away. Nevermind all that, because Edison was sure he could do it—despite the skepticism of most other engineers, including some senior people on his own payroll.
George Westinghouse was one of these skeptical engineers. Only just recently in possession of the Tesla patents, Westinghouse was skeptical about the possibilities of sending power that far. He had succeeded at Telluride, Colorado, with Stillwell, Shallenberger, and Scott, in transmitting 60,000 volts of AC for a distance of four miles to run a 100 horsepower Tesla motor. But 20 miles would remain just a dream for several more years until the Lauffen-Frankfurt demonstration. As a result, Westinghouse doubted whether electrical power—AC or DC—could be transmitted to Buffalo cheaply enough to compete with the steam power then widely in use. He suggested, instead, a sophisticated system of cables and compressed air tubes to transfer the power to Buffalo, but didn’t put in a formal bid at this point.
Upon his return from sizing up the Falls, on December 17, 1889, Coleman Sellers sent Adams a seventeen-page report concluding that the project was indeed feasible. He noted it had been “one of the most interesting engineering problems ever given me to consider.”
With Adams now sold and the backing of JP Morgan, it wasn’t hard to find New York financiers who wanted a piece of the action. A syndicate of 103 men, “one of the most powerful combinations of New York capitalists … ever … formed,” invested a total of $2,630,000 (the equivalent of $74.3 million today) in the newly formed Cataract Construction Company, which would take Niagara’s rush water and turn it into usable power.
One of the Cataract Construction Company’s first acts was, in early 1890, to found the International Niagara Commission, with headquarters in London, to act as their scientific and engineering advisory arm. The International Niagara Commission was a five-man board made up of a Who’s Who of continental engineering, led by one of the bright lights of physicists of the day, Sir William Thomson, soon to be Lord Kelvin (he of the temperature scale and the ill-considered JJ Abrams alternate timeline in Star Trek).
At this point, Thomas Edison must have been quite pleased about his chances at harassing Niagara Falls, because Lord Kelvin was well-known to be a DC man through and through, believing AC an unproven and unnecessary alternative.
With Edison’s proposal in hand, the International Niagara Commission decided to invite other firms to submit proposals to harness the falls. The commission offered $20,000 in prizes as incentives, with the top award being $3,000—about $85,000 US dollars today. And so, in the fall of 1890, 28 firms in the United States and Europe were invited to submit plans.
But they didn’t all submit. While sources differ, as few as 14 proposals and at most 20 proposals were received.
Of the twenty proposals submitted, most involved compressed air and hydraulic equipment. “Of the six electrical plans, four used direct current…[one] proposed single phase [AC], but ‘details were not fully described.’ The remaining plan by Prof. George Forbes advocated polyphase installation.”
Forbes, who was a professor from Glasgow who wrote to the commission: “It will be somewhat startling to many, as I confess it was at first to myself, to find as the result of a thorough and impartial examination of the problem that the only practical solution lies in the adoption of alternating current generators and motors…The only [workable one] is the Tesla motor manufactured by the Westinghouse Electric Company and which I have myself put through various tests at their works at Pittsburgh.”
We first bumped into George Forbes back in Episode 24, although chronologically that episode covers events in the future from where we are right now.
Forbes was in attendance at Tesla’s St. Louis lecture in February 1893. By that time, Forbes was a consultant for the Niagara Power Commission, and though Tesla couldn’t have known it then, in just a few short months—just as the final preparations for Tesla’s exhibit at the World’s Fair were underway—Forbes and the Niagara Power Commission were going to throw one heck of a curve ball at Tesla and Westinghouse in their quest to harness Niagara Falls.
More on that later.
Because despite Forbes’ laudatory words about Westinghouse and the Tesla motor, the most notable holdout from amongst the proposal invitees was…Westinghouse.
While Westinghouse’s engineers were encouraging the old man to submit to the contest, Westinghouse himself wasn’t having it. His spidey-senses were tingling.
Westinghouse wasn’t willing to reveal the company’s trade secrets for AC transmission with no guarantee of a deal. “These people are trying to get $100,000 worth of information for a prize of $3,000,” Westinghouse declared. “When they are ready to do business, we will show them how to do it.”
As already hinted at, and as you’ll see a couple of times by the end of this episode, Westinghouse was right to be concerned about shenanigans on the part of the International Niagara Commission…
Because, after looking over the submissions that they did receive, and while they did distribute some prize money, the Commission decided that none of the entries offered a complete plan for both power production and distribution at Niagara, and so the top prize of $3000 went unawarded. Instead the commission mined the proposals for technical information and forwarded a series of recommendations to Adams.
In fact, under Lord Kelvin’s guidance, the Commission went so far as to issue a kind of warning or guideline for future such submissions, saying that they “were not convinced of the advisability of departing from the older and better understood methods of continuous currents in favor of the adoption of methods of alternating currents.”
Having struck out at home, Adams hired Sellers as his main engineer and the two men decamped for Europe, to see what they could learn there about advances in hydroelectric power.
Meanwhile, the Cataract Construction Company pressed on with its plans to begin excavating the great tailrace tunnel that marked the true beginning of the Niagara Falls power project.
On October 4, 1890, a groundbreaking ceremony was held at the edge of the New York Central rail yards at Falls Street and Erie Avenue in Niagara Falls, NY. After that, more than 1300 men began round the clock work to excavate the tailrace tunnel, using dynamite, steam shovels, and sledgehammers to remove what ultimately amounted to six hundred thousand tons of rock…one mule cart-load at a time.
But the tunnel these men began digging didn’t finish up with the same design they started with. Midway through excavation, Adams and Sellers (freshly returned from Europe, their heads full of new ideas—including some stolen from the rejected contest entries) boldly cast aside the original plan for a tunnel suited to generating steam-power.
Instead, by the summer of 1891, Adams and Sellers had reworked their plan to generate all the hydroelectric power from the site—all 100,000 horsepower of it—from two massive central stations on each side of a long intake canal right off the river. The water was still drawn off above the falls and still returned to the river via the tailrace tunnel deep under the town. But now it was just a mile long, a third the length of Evershed’s scheme.
Adams chose to go with electricity because of the efficiencies he’d witnessed in AC hydroelectric generation in Europe. In Tivoli, Italy, for example, where the 334-foot high falls of the Aniene river issue from the Sabine hills, Ganz & Company of Budapest (a company linked to Westinghouse) was constructing an AC hydroelectric plant to transmit electricity to Rome, which was eighteen miles away.
Adams and Sellers were also deeply influenced in their redesign by the work of a Swiss-born English engineer, Charles E. L. Brown. On February 9, 1891, Brown delivered a seminal lecture in Frankfurt entitled, “High Tension Currents,” describing a successful experiment in which he transmitted 100 horsepower of electricity several miles using 30,000 volts. “The transmission of electrical energy by means of current tensions of, for example, 30,000 volts is possible,” said Brown in his lecture, “the distribution of energy to great distances by electrical methods is a fact.”
Although Kelvin had sided with Edison and DC power, after his trip to Europe, Adams—remember, once a chief stockholder of Edison’s—now understood that the future belonged to AC, to Westinghouse, and to the Tesla patents.
While it was a massive departure from the original plan, Adams and Sellers’ new design for the Niagara system had the virtue of being far simpler. Instead of a series of 238 waterwheels generating steam-power to turn a system of shafts and pulleys, the new plan was for ten 5,000-horsepower turbines in each of two central stations, with each water-powered turbine running an electrical generator. The staggering 100,000 horsepower generated would equal the output of all the power-generating central stations then operating in the United States. This was electrification on an unprecedented scale.
Initially, only one powerhouse would be built and only the first three turbines and three generators installed. As the demand for electricity rose beyond 15,000 horsepower, the system would be extended, with more turbines and generators added.
The waters of Niagara would be diverted into the powerhouse, funneled into eight-foot-wide pipes, gather tremendous speed as they plunged 140 feet straight down, rush around a crooked “elbow” in the pipe and shoot out at 20 miles an hour into the waiting fan blades of gigantic twenty-nine-ton turbines—the largest on Earth—that would be connected to electrical generators in the powerhouse 150 feet above. Having powered the turbines, the water would then take a three-minute trip back to the river through the 6,800-foot long sloping tailrace tunnel and complete its journey. Relying on little more than gravity and turbine shafts to power the generators, the new plan was a model of simplicity, especially compared with the previous design.
The revised tailrace tunnel itself wouldn’t be completed until December 1892, but it, too was a marvel. It was twenty-one feet high, and eighteen feet across, with a gently curved roof.
Despite initial projections, after water visibly squirting and seeping through the cut rock and two fatal cave-ins (ultimately 28 workers would die in the tunnel’s construction), it was decided that the tunnel walls did, in fact, need to be reinforced. At first shored up with pine and oak, the tunnel would eventually be lined with cement and four layers of brick—sixteen million of them in all. For the last two hundred feet, as the tunnel approached its outlet near the American Falls, the tunnel was lined with cast iron. Like the turbines above it, the Niagara tunnel was (at the time) the largest in the world.
For all the work that went into it, it’s kind of a shame that no one would ever see it. Once the system was started up, the tunnel would be completely filled at all times with the Niagara water as it rated back to the river.
While the tunnel was being tunnelled, above ground the War of the Currents continued raging, and that included battles fought within the Cataract Construction Company.
Lord Kelvin remained opposed to AC throughout 1891, and so too did the majority of the experts on the International Niagara Commission. Remember, the debut of the electric chair (and all the attendant bad press for AC that came with it) was just months earlier, in August 1890. Critics remarked that “a commercial AC motor … is a thing unknown to the practical engineer,” and if the Niagara project was to power factories it would need to power motors, not just electric lights.
Even Adams himself was forced to admit that at that time “the Tesla motor was still a prophecy rather than a completely demonstrated reality.”
Yet, slowly, as they watched the War of the Currents play out (and who besides the combatants themselves would have watched the war closer than Adams, Sellers, and the Niagara Commission who had millions of dollars and ever-mounting expenses riding on the outcome?) even this panel of experts—scientists and engineers all—had to give way to the math.
The February 1891 issue of Electrical World counted 202 Edison DC central stations…but nearly 1000 AC central stations installed by Westinghouse and the Thomson-Houston company. Whatever their personal opinions, these experts could all see that alternating current was winning in the lighting marketplace.
Coleman Sellers, like Adams, retained an open mind about AC. In a July 1891 lecture at the Franklin Institute, Sellers told the audience, “the progress of invention is going on so rapidly that we are at a loss to know what particular line should be pursued.”
And don’t forget what a momentous year 1891 turned out to be for alternating current.
Recall in Episode 21 how we discussed the successful deployment of the Westinghouse system on June 19, 1891 as the first ever long-distance transmission of alternating current was made by the Ames Hydroelectric Generating Plant, sending power 2.6 miles (just over 4 km) to power the Gold King Mine near Telluride, Colorado. And recall that it was just two months later that this record was shattered by the incredibly successful Lauffen-Frankfurt transmission in which AC power was sent 112 miles (just over 180 km)—or more than 40 times the distance of the Telluride transmission. These were powerful demonstrations to AC’s detractors that the system could work and be incredibly affordable.
If Westinghouse could send AC power over a remote section of the Rockies, and do so reliably and on lines that cost 1% of the DC lines, the feat could surely be replicated almost anywhere. And if AC power could travel 112 miles, and if Buffalo was a mere 20 miles from Niagara Falls… Hmm.
So sure was Adams of the way forward, that even as the tailrace tunnel was being redesigned, in December 1891 Adams moved ahead with a request for proposals from six electrical companies—Westinghouse, Thomson-Houston, Edison GE, and three Swiss firms—to provide estimates on the electrical equipment needed at Niagara.
In April 1892, to help assess the proposals that would soon be submitted, Adams and Sellers hired George Forbes as a consultant to the Commission. You’ll recall that—tellingly—his was the only entry in the original International Niagara Commission competition that proposed using alternating current.
Professor Forbes’s first official act was to dismiss the two DC design proposals submitted by Edison GE and Thomson-Houston. As Forbes wrote to Adams, “I do not consider that these designs have sufficient merit to induce you to accept any delay in the hopes of getting something more perfect in this direction.”
More good news for AC came in June of 1892, when Charles Scott, the young Westinghouse engineer who had assisted Tesla when he’d first come to Pittsburgh back in Episode 12, published an article in the Electrical Engineer which outlined the success of the Gold King installation over the course of nearly a full year. The full system, including the Tesla induction motor, had experienced less than 48 hours of total downtime over three-fourths of a year. Another system was about to be installed at a mill a few miles from the Gold King site. Scott also revealed that for two years a forty-foot waterfall on the Willamette River had powered a Tesla AC generator, sending electricity thirteen miles to their electric lighting central station in Portland, Oregon.
With these new victories under his belt, Westinghouse at last got excited about the prospects of electrifying Niagara Falls. He decided late in 1892, while he was (of course) preparing for the World’s Fair, to enter a bid for the power equipment contract to harness Niagara Falls.
In December 1892, Westinghouse submitted its two-phase AC plan for Niagara to the Cataract Construction Company.
What gave George Westinghouse confidence about winning this bid, too, after having just won the World’s Fair contract, were the refinements to the Tesla motor being made by his engineers. As I’ve mentioned before, we get caught up in the lone inventor superhero kind of idea, but its almost never the case. While Tesla was the original visionary and devised the first working model of AC motor, it was the staff at Westinghouse who took the device, refined it, and made it a commercially viable product.
Westinghouse’s engineers had come up with new arrangements for the coils in the stator so that Tesla’s designs now worked as well as Dolivo-Dobrolowsky motors. Further testing suggested a more efficient way of winding the rotor, leading to what came to be the standard rotor design: nicknamed ‘the squirrel cage.’
The Westinghouse team also designed a new rotary converter that could turn polyphase AC into either single-phase AC or DC power. This had hugely positive implications for the utility of polyphase AC, since it meant a power company could now use polyphase AC to transmit power over long distances and then convert the power so that customers could use it with their existing single-phase AC or DC equipment without the need to replace all their existing machinery. The rotary converter meant power companies could find customers for all the power that they could generate and transmit, regardless of what systems the end-user might be operating.
Not to be outdone, within weeks, GE’s revised non-DC power entry was submitted. Their design was substantially similar to the Westinghouse one, except that it proposed using three-phase AC power.
A particularly cold January in 1893 resulted in “the most ample and substantial” ice bridge at Niagara Falls since the winter of 1855. “The steady zero weather of the past week has filled the upper river with ice which is pouring over the falls in vast quantities and adding each hour to the jam which is called the ‘bridge,’” reported The New York Times.
Again, life being for some reason cheap at Niagara Falls, hundreds of tourists took the opportunity to walk out on to the unstable ice bridge and stand in the basin of the falls…as giant icy chunks came falling down just feet from them while they balanced on an ice field that was constant shifting and grinding—and threatening to give way—underfoot.
It was at this point, with the tailrace tunnel now complete, that the Niagara Commission understood for the first time that keeping river ice out of power plant machinery would, some winters, prove a brutal struggle.
Meanwhile, Cataract consultants visited the Westinghouse plant to assess their bid. For five days in early January 1893, Coleman Sellers and Henry Rowland, professor of physics at Johns Hopkins, made tests and observations of the new Westinghouse AC generators and transformers.
Sellers came away impressed. “A careful examination of the work done in this establishment showed excellent workmanship and correct engineering design in all the machinery examined,” he wrote in his report. “The workmanship is beyond criticism in quality.” Rowland concurred in his report, say that Westinghouse had “the greatest experience in the practical use of the alternating system and they seem to control the most important patents.”
In February, the two men made a similar pilgrimage to the General Electric works in Lynn, Massachusetts. Sellers noted that the GE equipment was similar but ultimately inferior to the Westinghouse equipment. “Very considerable change would have to be made to make it mechanically the equal,” he observed in his report. He was also wary of GE’s proposed use of three-phase AC. “I should incline to the biphase on account of its greater simplicity and its adaptability to a broader field of usefulness,” he wrote.
Sellers also knew that Professor Forbes—who was away in England during the visits to Westinghouse and GE—favoured the design from one of the Swiss entrants. Since Sellers had misgivings about how well a foreign firm could or would service their machinery in a timely fashion once it was installed at Niagara, he made a point to end his 25-page report with a “Buy American” appeal: “I do most earnestly protest,” he wrote, “against the purchase of the foreign plant if as good electrical results can be anticipated from the home made machine, even if the first cost is seemingly greater.”
As it turned out, the Swiss proposal was easily rejected since American tariffs of 40% on imported machinery made their equipment prohibitively expensive. In addition, as Tesla pointed out to Westinghouse, foreign firms couldn’t bring polyphase equipment into the United States without infringing on his patents.
Game, set, and match—Telsa.
The Westinghouse company had begun to take a more aggressive stance regarding their ownership of the Tesla patents, issuing in January 1893 a pamphlet that included the twenty-nine Tesla patents it owned, and which warned customers not to buy polyphase equipment from other manufacturers since they could be sued by Westinghouse for infringement.
This issue of AC patent ownership loomed larger and larger for the Cataract Construction Company. Again pressing his case against foreign bids, Sellers wrote to Adams, saying: “Until the contrary is proved by the courts, [Westinghouse] claims control of what is most important for our purpose at the present time in America. I am not aware of any claim to ownership in this country of what can stop the owners of the Tesla patents from commanding the market…. My present opinion is that no foreign company can secure the Cataract Construction Co. against all losses from patent litigation.”
What Sellers didn’t know, however, was that in February 1893, Adams had begun a private correspondence with Nikola Tesla. He sought Tesla’s opinion on various electrical and technical matters. Tesla, as eager that Westinghouse should win the Niagara power contract as George Westinghouse himself, used this correspondence with Adams to not only talk up his motors, but to emphasize that the only way other companies could provide a multiphase AC generator and AC motor for Niagara would be by infringing on the Tesla-Westinghouse patents.
“I have not heard from Germany yet,” Tesla wrote to Adams, “but I have not the slightest doubt that all companies except Helios,—who have acquired the rights from my Company,—will have to stop manufacture of phase motors. Proceedings against the infringers have been taken in the most energetic way by the Helios Co. It is for this reason that our enemies are driven to the single phase system and rapid changes of opinion.”
Frederick H. Betts, the chief patent attorney for the Cataract Company, watched with alarm as GE snapped up AC patents or licensed the right to use them and he warned Adams in March 1893 that if he used the Tesla patents, Adams might find himself embroiled in patent litigation with GE. When Adams inquired of Tesla whether one of the Thomson-Houston patent GE had got hold of might be comparable to Tesla’s, the inventor replied angrily that the patent in question had “absolutely nothing to do with my discovery of the rotating magnetic field and the radically novel features of my system of transmission of power disclosed in my foundation patents of 1888. All the elements shown in the Thomson patent were well known and had been used long before.”
Swayed by the strength of Tesla’s arguments, on May 6, 1893, Adams and the Niagara Falls Power Company declared that two-phase alternating current would be their choice for harnessing the falls.
Perhaps sensing a disturbance in the Force, a few days earlier, Lord Kelvin had cabled from London the message: “Trust you avoid gigantic mistake of adoption of alternate current.”
In Adams’ own two-volume history of the Niagara Falls Power Company, he noted how much the decision was based on the “faith and hope that electrical engineers could produce apparatus much larger in size than ever had been built and that new types which were then hardly beyond the stage of experiment would prove successful.”
And although he had concluded that Westinghouse was better prepared to build the large-scale equipment needed, Adams threw everyone a curve ball and announced that while they were very pleased with the plans, he was rejecting the proposals submitted by both GE and Westinghouse.
Yes, you heard that right. After all that, neither GE nor Westinghouse would win the bid.
And why not, you ask?
Well, a case could be made that it was due to some unseemly skullduggery between GE and Westinghouse.
You see, for some time, George Westinghouse had harboured suspicions that GE was stealing his company’s hard-won, highly valuable mechanical and electrical knowledge. The incredible similarity between the Westinghouse and GE Niagara proposals couldn’t have been simple coincidence.
In early May 1893, just as Adams was getting ready to make his announcement, a Westinghouse engineer learned that the Westinghouse Company’s blueprints and other privileged information were to be found at GE’s Lynn plant. Westinghouse immediately sought a search warrant, and GE was caught red-handed with proprietary information they should not have had access to.
Westinghouse had one of his draftsmen arrested for secretly selling blueprints of the Westinghouse Niagara proposal and their World’s Fair designs for thousands of dollars to two GE men. When caught, GE said “Well, yes—we did have the blue prints…but we only had them so we could check if Westinghouse was infringing on our patents!”
The Pittsburgh district attorney sought grand jury indictments of not just the parties directly involved, but also of Charles Coffin, GE’s president and top executive.
Coffin wrote a letter to his investors, including members of the Vanderbilt family, saying essentially “It’s not my fault.”
“While it is altogether probable that some of their blue prints may have been in our possession,” Coffin wrote, “it was absolutely without my knowledge or sanction…. If there be any similarity between their [Niagara] plans and ours … it is purely accidental. Be that as it may, there is an implied charge against the Niagara Co. of very bad faith [in not keeping each submission confidential] in the statements of the Westinghouse Co…. It is part of the bitter and vituperative work of the Westinghouse people…. [They] will distinctly lose prestige and business as the result of their ridiculous behavior in connection with this matter.”
(When the case went to trial that fall, Coffin was no longer a defendant and the Pittsburgh jury deadlocked.)
So, that’s one reason Adams might have turned down the GE and Westinghouse bids.
But it wouldn’t be the real reason.
Because the real reason they turned down all the bids is that the International Niagara Commission were a bunch of liars and cheats.
And I say that because in his letter of May 11, in which he explains to everyone that their services are no longer required, Adams quietly dropped this little bombshell: that Professor George Forbes, our old friend, had been designing his own generators, and the Cataract Construction Company would follow his plan instead.
In fact, Adams said that Forbes’ designs were “well advanced,” which meant that even as Westinghouse, GE, and the other entrants were giving the Cataract team an all-access under-the-hood look at the nitty gritty technical elements of their proprietary electrical systems, even as they were answering every question about performance and manufacturing, even as Adams had been picking Tesla’s brain about technical specs—it meant that all that time the commission knew that Professor Forbes was at work on a generator that they were going to go with. They’d just been doing research for their own dynamo the whole time.
But the real cherry on this turd sundae was Adams informing the unsuccessful bidders not to worry—because once Forbes’ turbines were designed (likely using technology stolen from some or all of them) that the Cataract Company would once again send out request for proposals to these same companies they’d just mistreated so that Westinghouse, and GE, and the rest could bid on the right to build the very turbines that had been stolen out from under them. Adams wrote to Tesla that he expected the competitors would “find it to their advantage to aid us in the development.”
“Please accept our sincere thanks for the response you have made to our invitations for proposals,” Adams concluded.
Wow. You gotta have some pretty big dynamos on you to have that kind of nerve.
Needless to say, uh, this didn’t go over well.
One of the world’s preeminent electricians, Silvanus Thompson, speaking as if for the whole electrical profession, decried the Cataract Company’s “blatant and “ungenerous picking of the brains of others.” He said it was “contemptible collaring of rival plans … the one discreditable episode the savour of which will ever cling about the undertaking.”
Clearly, George Westinghouse’s spidey sense about the Niagara Commission had been correct.
Ah, yes, next time—the dreaded cliffhanger! Always leave them wanting more!
In truth, I had so much material about the Niagara Falls contract that even though the script for this episode is about 10,000 word long, we’ve still cover only about half the process of harassing Niagara Falls. So I’ve had to break this episode in two, and we’ll cover the rest of the Battle of Niagara Falls next time.
And, at this point, “next time” means “next year”—January 2021. As this episode is being recorded at the end of the plague year that was 2020, and with an end to this global pandemic in sight if still far off, I hope you all stay safe and healthy—and stay away from people—this holiday season. So long, 2020. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out. May next year be a damned sight better than the last one.
For our part, my family and I will be staying home for the first time ever, and not seeing anybody at all over Christmas or New Years. That should be fun with three small kids… At least after the big move this year we have more room now, so we won’t be on top of each other for weeks the way we would have been back in our old two-bedroom bungalow…
Anyway, next time, in the new year, since we know that eventually Westinghouse and the Tesla system prevail, we’ll find out how we get from George Forbes coming up with his own AC system to watching the International Niagara Commission come crawling back to Westinghouse to save the project. We’ll see the installation of the dynamos and the transmissions lines. We’ll see Buffalo, NY lit up with Niagara’s power. And, at last, we’ll see Tesla himself finally make the pilgrimage to the site of where, as a young man, he had already envisioned his greatest triumph.
No one wanted to harness Niagara Falls for hydroelectric power longer than Tesla himself. But he and Westinghouse faced liars, cheats, and thieves as they fought to win the final battle of the War of the Currents. Hail hydro!
Now then: where did we leave off last time in 1894? Ah, yes. Tesla’s friendship and partnership with TC Martin, his publisher and promotor.
And one of the most lasting things that Martin did for Tesla by way of promotion, was introduce him to Robert Underwood Johnson, the associate editor (and later chief editor) of The Century Magazine, and to his wife, Katharine. The couple were to become Tesla’s closest friends.
Telsa and the Johnsons actually first met in late fall of 1893, when Martin—angling to get a profile of Tesla in The Century—arranged an invitation for he and Tesla to one of the many soirees that the Johnsons hosted in their townhouse at 327 Lexington Avenue. (Don’t bother going to have a look today—327 Lexington is now a 27-floor apartment building, with a Japanese restaurant on the ground level).
But what soirees the Johnsons held.
Depending on the night, when attending a dinner party at the Johnsons, guests could expect to dine with the likes of New York mayoral candidate Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, Rudyard Kipling, sculptor August Saint-Gaudens; actress Eleonora Duse; poet and editor in chief of the Century, Richard Watson Gilder; naturalist John Muir; activist for children’s rights Mary Mapes Dodge; composer Ignace Paderewski; or thespian Joseph Jefferson.
The guest list was what it was because Johnson, by virtue of his role in the magazine world, was a fixture in the arts and culture scene in New York in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. He’d started out as a teenaged telegraph operator who would send and receive messages from another young telegraph operator named Thomas Edison. He joined the staff of the popular magazine Scribner’s Monthly in 1873 and would visit his old friend Edison from time to time at Menlo Park to do write-ups about Edison’s inventions.
In 1881, when Scribner’s became The Century Magazine, Johnson was named associate editor, and he would later serve as its chief editor from 1909 to 1913. To boost The Century’s circulation, Johnson convinced Ulysses S. Grant to write a series of articles about his Civil War campaigns. With the help of Mark Twain, Johnson then convinced the general to write his memoirs, which went on to become a massive bestseller, rescuing Grant’s family from the prospect of bankruptcy and poverty after this death from cancer just a few days after the memoir was completed.
Johnson married Katharine McMahon of Washington, D.C., in 1876.
Of Irish ancestry, Katharine was red-haired, beautiful, and described variously in the sources as poised, ebullient, coquettish, wistful, a gracious host, fiery, difficult to live with, dominant, manipulative, selfish, egocentric, and histrionic.
So, quite a range of descriptors but I think I can imagine how that set of adjectives could all apply to a single individual of a certain personality type.
And I don’t think it a stretch to say that from both implicit and explicit reference in the various Tesla biographies, as well as reading extracts from her letters and messages to the man, Katharine Johnson was at least infatuated with (if not outright secretly in love with) Tesla.
She was always trying to get him out to visit her. A sample of her invitations to him:
- Dear Mr. Tesla…we want you to come this evening and brighten us up. As a great favor come to us immediately.
- Dear Mr. Tesla, I shall expect to see you tomorrow evening.
- Come soon?, and,
- Will you come to see me tomorrow evening and will you try to come a little early? I want very much to see you and will be really disappointed if you do not think my request worthy [of] your consideration.
And while Tesla would spend a great deal of time with the Johnsons, I think there’s an undercurrent of tension within some of his correspondence with Katherine. I think he understood perfectly well Katharine’s obsession with him and did his best to gently tamp down her feelings without hurting them or offering offense.
When Tesla arrived for his first time meeting the Johnsons he appeared “pallid, drawn and haggard,” looking as one reporter described it as having “reached the limits of human endurance.” But he proved to be a riveting conversationalist.
Tesla dazzled them with predictions of what his technology would make possible someday.
“The time will come,” he told Katharine, “when crossing the ocean by steamer you will be able to have a daily newspaper on board with the important news of the world, and when by means of a pocket instrument and a wire stuck in the ground, you can communicate from any distance with friends at home through an instrument similarly attuned.”
Sorry—is that your cellphone ringing, or is it mine?
Tesla also wowed the assembled guests by reciting Serbian poetry for them. Some of the sources claim Tesla translated it spontaneously off the top of his head, but I wonder whether this might have been a carefully prepared party trick that Tesla—ever the showman—used to impress people, all the while claiming that he was translating it on the spot.
Tesla loved Goethe, as I’ve mentioned before, and would often recite from the poet’s Faust. But in this case, he recited a poem by Jovan Zmaj, called ‘Luka Filipov.’ This heroic ballad recounts the deeds of Serbian hero Luka Filipov and his death in an 1874 battle against the Turks. Enthralled, Johnson had Tesla prepare English translations of this and other poems by Zmaj for The Century and he included ‘Luka Filipov’ in his anthology, Songs of Liberty. From then on, Tesla always referred to Robert as Luka and Katharine as Madame Filipov.
Johnson described his new friend’s personality as “one of distinguished sweetness, sincerity, modesty, refinement, generosity and force.”
Katherine, on the other hand, began trying to take care of Tesla. She worried for his health. She invited him for Christmas dinner with their family because she thought he needed to eat better and more than he did. Tesla accepted the offer, but would decline more and more often in later years as Katherine’s feelings for him became clear. He likewise demurred when Katherine invited him on extended vacations, such as when she urged Tesla to summer with her and the family in the Hamptons. Tesla always had the convenient excuse of pressing matters at his lab that he couldn’t get away from.
Nevertheless, over the coming years Tesla would spend a great deal of time with the Johnsons socially, taking part in public events like the symphony as well as their private parties attended by the who’s-who of New York’s arts and culture scene.
In December 1893, within weeks of them meeting and hitting it off, Tesla invited the Johnsons to the premiere of Dvoř?k’s New World Symphony. “I immediately secured the best seats I could for Saturday,” wrote Tesla to Robert. “Nothing better than the 15th row! Very sorry, we shall have to use telescopes. But I think the better for Mrs. Johnson’s vivid imagination.”
As a thank-you, Katharine sent Tesla flowers on 6 January 1894, Orthodox Christmas. “I have to thank Mrs. Johnson for the magnificent flowers,” Tesla wrote in his reply. “I have never as yet received flowers, and they produced upon me a curious effect.” Tesla returned the favour by sending Katharine a Crookes radiometer which he felt was “from the scientific viewpoint the most beautiful invention made.”
When word reached New York that the great electrical pioneer Heinrich Hertz had died on New Year’s Day at the all-too-young age of just 36, this little trio of Tesla’s friends became deeply concerned for the inventor’s health.
“For God’s sake,” Martin wrote to Tesla, “let it be a warning to you. All Europe mourns for such an untimely taking off.”
But for all his warnings, Martin remained concerned.
“I do not believe that [Tesla] will give up work at any very early date,” Martin wrote in a letter to Katherine Johnson on January 8, 1894, just two days after she’d sent Tesla flowers. “Talking of California with him in a casual way elicited the fact that he had a couple of invitations to lecture there so that I don’t want to jam his head into that lion’s mouth. I believe he is going to take more care of himself and you may have done us all a great deal of service by your timely words.”
But then Martin adds something rather curious. “Yet in spite of that,” he writes, “I fear he [Tesla] will go on in the delusion that woman is generically a Delilah who would shear him of his locks. If you can manage it, I believe it would be a good scheme to have that Doctor get hold of him. My prescription is a weekly lecture from Mrs. RUJ.”
It’s unknown who this ‘doctor’ he mentioned is, but it seems clear even Martin knows (and so, presumably, her husband Robert knew, too) that after a matter of only a few weeks’ acquaintance, Katherine has not only a keen interest in Tesla but has some noticeable sway over him in getting him to—if not change—then at least moderate his behaviour to take better care of himself.
In February of 1894, Martin’s attempt to forge a connection with Robert Underwood Johnson bore fruit, and his profile of Tesla ran in Century Magazine. “Mr. Tesla has been held a visionary, deceived by the flash of casual shooting stars,” wrote Martin, “but the growing conviction of his professional brethren is that because he saw farther he saw first the low lights flickering on tangible new continents of science.”
I think this phrase of Martin’s “deceived by the flash of casual shooting stars” is important to note.
We’ve talked before about how and why it was that Tesla was largely forgotten for most of the 20th Century, and why he didn’t appear in history textbooks the way Edison did, despite his foundational contributions to our modern, technological society. And, as I’ve mentioned before, it’s because even in his own lifetime Tesla had detractors.
Critics portrayed Tesla as “an impractical visionary enthusiast.”
“His inventions already show how brilliantly capable he is,” one newspaper reported, but his “propositions seem like a madman’s dream of empire.”
“One is naturally disappointed that nothing practical has as yet proceeded from the magnificent experimental investigations with which Tesla has dazzled the world,” wrote one critic in Electrical World.
I think this “shooting stars” phrase from Martin is his way of responding to those critics—as was his article as a whole. Remember: he was trying to build up Tesla’s reputation in the press, in the public imagination, and ultimately in the eyes of investors.
Even in his own time, there were peers and colleagues within the electrical engineering community who wished that Tesla wasn’t so distractible, that he was more committed to doing the work to bring his inventions and innovations to a place of real technical refinement and application, rather than flitting from one thing to the next (the “casual shooting stars” that Martin references) with his ideas only half explored. In this way, Telsa reminds me Leonardo da Vinci: someone who simply had too many ideas to spend too much time on any one of them.
In most cases, Tesla’s contemporaries who offer criticism of the man speak not in tones of professional jealousy or (as some have argued) from a desire to suppress the achievements of Tesla for whatever reason, but rather from a place of disappointment. They thought Tesla capable of true greatness and wished that he would direct his efforts in ways that would let him make further dramatic contributions as he had with his AC system.
But Tesla was to the last his own man, and he trusted his own vision to guide him, as he had with AC. And so his remaining years were primarily directed at wireless energy, rather than more commercial applications.
The Century article was not to be the only press coverage that Tesla was to receive in 1894—again, largely thanks to the promotional efforts of Martin and Johnson, who had connections at various papers.
The New York Herald had already been covering Tesla’s for several years, but they were now joined by Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World (Manhattan’s biggest daily), the New York Times, and the Savannah Morning News.
The New York World profile ran in the summer and was written by popular columnist Arthur Brisbane (who understood nothing about electricity), under the headline and subheads OUR FOREMOST ELECTRICIAN, “Greater Even Than Edison,” “The Electricity of the Future.”
“Every scientist knows his work,” wrote Brisbane of Tesla, “and every foolish person included in the category of New York society knows his face. He dines at Delmonico’s every day. He sits each night at a table near the window … with his head buried in an evening paper.”
Brisbane’s article was illustrated with a full-length drawing of Nikola Tesla resplendent in formal cutaway coat and striped dress pants and radiating a halo of “the Effulgent Glory of Myriad Tongues of Electric Flame After He has Saturated Himself with Electricity.”
“When Mr. Tesla talks about the electrical problems upon which he is really working he becomes a most fascinating person,” Brisbane wrote. “Not a single word that he says can be understood. He divides time up into billionths of seconds and supplies power enough from nothing apparently to do all the work in the United States. He believes that electricity will solve the labor problem… It is certain, according to Mr. Tesla’s theories, that the hard work of the future will be the pressing of electric buttons.”
And I can’t help but feel like Tesla had a bit of fun at Brisbane’s expense during the interview process for the article.
At one point, Brisbane describes Tesla’s eyes as being “set very far back in his head. They are rather light. I asked him how [that] could [be, as he was] a Slav. He told me that his eyes were once much darker, but that using his mind a great deal had made them many shades lighter.” Brisbane said that this tracked with a theory on brain usage and eye color that had heard about and took it as evidence of the man’s genius.
Now, the sources that report this episode either do so without comment (as does Marc Seifer) or concur with this “thinking hard makes your eyes change colour” idea (as John J. O’Neill does in his problematic Tesla biography Prodigal Genius, since for him its further evidence that Tesla was indeed the superman of science that O’Neill was out to portray him as).
None of Tesla’s biographers, however, really seem to interrogate why Tesla would say something like this to a reporter. Generally, I think your answer to that question probably lines up with just who you think Tesla was: if he’s the mystic superman of science, then like O’Neill perhaps you believe in this explanation of heroic or superhuman mental exertion. If you think this is some whacko belief that Tesla actually held, you might chalk it up to his more eccentric personality quirks and possible mental health issues and probably just ignore it, as W. Bernard Carlson does. Seifer takes a middle way, I think.
But I personally suspect that there is another, more reasonable, explanation.
Tesla, as we’ve seen in previous episodes, was something of a trickster and definitely had a sense of humor. And I also get the sense that he didn’t suffer fools gladly.
So, I suspect that claiming his eyes had lightened up due to mental exertion was Tesla’s mocking reply to an insulting and kind of vaguely racist question. All Slavs have dark eyes? Well, take it from this blue-eyed boy of Slavic descent: some of us don’t. Ask a stupid question, get a stupid answer goes the old saying, and in this case I think Brisbane fell for the answer he was given and simply didn’t get that he was being made fun of.
Likewise, in the New York World article, Brisbane describes how the owner of Delmonico’s marvelled at Tesla’s ability to pick up pool and become expert at it in a single night.
“That Mr. Tesla can do anything,” Delmonico is quoted as saying. “We managed to make him play pool one night. He had never played, but he had watched us for a little while. He was very indignant when he found that we meant to give him fifteen points. But it didn’t matter much, for he beat us all and got all the money.”
Delmonico said “it wasn’t the money we cared about, but the way he studies out pool in his head, and then beat us, after we had practiced for years. [It] surprised us.”
But, as you’ll recall from Episode 3, Tesla was a well-known pool shark in his university days. That he withheld this fact from the boys at Delmonico’s in order to hustle them is both hilarious and telling. I told you Tesla was a trickster. And it reinforces, I think, my earlier contention that he didn’t just translate Serbian poetry off the top of his head, but instead led people to believe that he did to seem all the more impressive.
The New York Times also ran a profile of Tesla, this one in September 1894, that tried to explain Tesla’s work in high frequency and the science behind his wireless lights.
“I look forward with absolute confidence to sending messages through the earth without any wires,” Tesla was quoted as saying. “I also have great hopes of transmitting electric force in the same way without waste.”
In addition to these profiles, Tesla also had to deal with some reporters who, hoping to cash in on Tesla’s popularity, decided they didn’t need to be bothered with the pesky time-waster of actual interviews and instead just wrote up bogus stories. Think of it as late 19th Century ‘fake news.’
“For example,” recounted Martin, “one vivid young lady of the press, in her anxiety to be instructive, went so far as to depict herself undergoing a brilliant electrical ordeal that is possible only with the body entirely naked.”
Martin was quick to assure his readers that no such indecent had ever happened, owing to Tesla’s phobias about women.
W. Bernard Carlson in his book Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age likens this press coverage to that of “a modern-day professional athlete who often tries to strike a balance between boasting about his or her ability (which is, after all, the purpose of the interview) and displaying some modesty about his accomplishments. “It is an embarrassment to me,” Tesla told one reporter, “that my work has attracted as much public attention, not only because I believe that an earnest man who loves science more than all should let his work speak for him, but because I am afraid that some of the scientists whose friendship I value very much suspect me of encouraging newspaper notoriety.”
Which is, of course, what he and Martin were actually up to.
Tesla was worried about the possibility of piracy due to all these profiles, however. He wanted to talk about his overall goal, but he also had to keep key details secret lest competitors get on the trail. One reporter who spent a day with “this kindly wizard of Washington Square” revealed that Tesla “confided to me that he was engaged on several secret experiments of most abundant promise, but their nature cannot be hinted at here. However, I have Mr. Tesla’s permission to say that some day he proposes to transmit vibrations through the earth [so] that it will be possible to send a message from an ocean steamer to a city, however distant, without the use of any wire.” Tesla was so concerned with secrecy, that often even his laboratory assistants weren’t let in on the details or purpose of his experiments.
Thanks to these profiles and the hard work of the Johnsons and Martin at promoting him, as well as his triumph at the World’s Fair late the year before, throughout 1894 Tesla became a darling of New York high society set—Mrs Astor’s 400, which we talked about in the Gilded Age episode. As one source puts it, he was “a sought-after guest swirling through Manhattan’s most glittering homes, private salons, and lavish restaurants.”
Among Tesla’s new society friends was Stanford White, the famed architect. White—who designed such notable structures as the Washington Square Arch in Manhattan, the second Madison Square Garden, the New York Herald Building, the Rhode Island State House, and the University of Virginia Rotunda—was designing Power House No. 1 at Niagara Falls, which was to shelter all three of Tesla’s thirteen-foot-tall AC dynamos that would harness the waterfall…But I’m getting ahead of myself. That will have to wait for our next episode on the War of the Currents…
White would also, in a few years’ time, help develop Tesla’s Wardenclyffe Tower, his last design before being shot to death in 1906 by a jealous husband.
At White’s urging Tesla and Robert Underwood Johnson joined the Player’s Club, which we’ve mentioned before, and where luminaries like Mark Twain would hang out. After much cajoling, in November 1894, Tesla finally accepted White’s invitation to go sailing with him and the architect wrote gleefully, “I am so delighted that you have decided to tear yourself away from your laboratory. I would sooner have you on board than the Emperor of Germany or the Queen of England.”
And it was Tesla’s lab where he would often reciprocate all the attention lavished on him by the Gilded Age’s One Percenters.
We’ve already talked about Tesla’s friendship with Mark Twain, for example. Twain was often a guest whenever Tesla would hold his salons. But Twain would also visit by himself and when he did, he would help Tesla with unusual experiments that tended to fall outside the inventor’s normal wheelhouse.
Best known were those times that Tesla and Twain were experimenting with what was in effect a primitive x-ray machine…before Wilhelm Röntigen announced his discovery of “X-radiation.”
As early as 1892, Tesla was producing what he called ‘shadowgraph’ pictures with what he termed in his public demonstrations a “very special radiation.”
Late in 1894, Tesla decided to investigate whether his lamps affected photographic plates in the same way as light coming from the sun or other sources of illumination. To do so, he sought the assistance of Dickenson Alley, a photographer employed by Tonnele & Company. Over a period of several months they tried a variety of phosphorescent lamps, Crookes tubes, and vacuum bulbs with different kinds of electrodes. Since this was not a major project, Tesla and Alley worked on it periodically, and Alley stored spare glass photographic plates in a corner of the laboratory. However, they noticed that the unexposed plates had “unaccountable marks and defects” indicating that they had somehow been spoiled. Tesla wondered, in passing, if the plates might have been affected by cathode rays, which were a stream of charged particles that passed between the electrodes in some of his vacuum tubes when a voltage was applied across the electrodes. Tesla had recently read reports about how a Hungarian student of Heinrich Hertz, Philipp Lenard, was getting interesting results using tubes with an aluminum window that allowed the rays to pass out of the tube. However, before he could follow up on this hunch…well, that would be getting ahead of myself. We’ll talk about just why this research came to a halt on our episode about 1895.
In the meantime, however, once Twain got involved, the pair would aim a Crookes tube (which, unbeknownst to them, turned out to produce x-rays) at glass photographic plates to produce negatives of x-rayed hands, feet in shoes, and—get this—40-minute-long exposures under x-ray of Mark Twain’s skull! Yikes! Think of the precautions that you have to take when you get an x-ray at the dentist—lead vest, the technician stands behind a shielded wall, a 1-second burst of x-rays to make an exposure—and, wow, you would not want to have a 40-minute-long exposure. Of course, they didn’t know that x-rays were dangerous at the time, so I guess it wasn’t bad for them?
Think of all the books Twain never wrote after getting his brain cooked by x-rays…
Seriously, though: I think, again in the age of technological marvels that we live in, it’s probably hard for us to imagine how wonderous (and maybe kind of eerie or terrifying) it would have been to see your own bones in a photograph and you still alive and intact. But no one had ever seen anything like this before.
Tesla claimed that these x-rays of Twain’s skull were made at a distance of forty feet. If this was true (and we have only Tesla’s word on this), he would have to have been using equipment far more advanced than anything commonly believed to have existed at that time. Unfortunately, none of this equipment or research survives to the present day…and we’ll get to why in a couple of episodes when we look at 1895…
So, unable to host suares for the 400 at his room at the Gerlach Hotel, Tesla instead relied on his laboratory on South Fifth Avenue as a social draw.
Tesla would first host the great and the good to elaborate dinner parties in the private dining room of Delmonico’s. When hosting such parties at the restaurant (or later, at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel), Telsa would often pop into the kitchen to supervise the preparation of the dishes personally.
And Tesla was apparently a fan of the keto diet in his younger years. According to O’Neill, Tesla ate a lot of filet mignon, roast saddle of lamb (though, for his own reasons, Tesla only ever ate the central portion of the tenderloin, despite the saddle being large enough to serve a party of diners). He also liked baby lamb chops and roast squab with nut stuffing. This is more than a bit ironic, however, since squab is essentially a young pigeon and one of the things Tesla is known for (especially later in life) was his love for (and some would say obsession with) pigeons. We’ll get to that in future episodes…
Generally, however, Tesla’s preferred fowl was roast duck, and it was often this dish he made the central focus of the dinners he threw for members of The 400. Under Tesla’s direction, the kitchen would prepare the duck under a “smothering of celery stalks”–a method of Tesla’s own devising. Tesla himself would apparently eat only the duck breast and not touch the rest of the bird.
After dinner, Tesla invited his guests to join him at his laboratory for private displays of his various apparatus. Remember: with electricity just becoming widespread in this time period it was unfamiliar to and very poorly understood by most people. Tromping up the stairs to Tesla’s lab would have been a bit like being invited into a magician’s inner sanctum, full of excitement, mystery, and anticipation at the secrets about to be revealed.
His lab at 33-35 South Fifth Avenue was on either the third or fourth floor loft of the building—sources seem to differ. I suspect given Tesla’s preference for things in threes that it was probably on the third floor. On the floors below him were a dry cleaners and a pipe-cutting operation (remember that—it will become important a few episodes from now…)
“Be prepared for a surprise or two,” Tesla was quoted as saying by a reporter who was invited to one of these sessions. The reporter recounted being “ushered…into a room some twenty five feet square, lighted on one side by two broad windows, partially covered by heavy black curtains. The laboratory was literally filled with curious mechanical appliances of every description. Snakelike cables ran along the walls, ceiling, and floor. In the center was [an electric dynamo which sat upon] a large circular table covered with thick strips of black woolen cloth. Two large brownish globes, eighteen inches in diameter, [were sus]pended from [the] ceiling by cords. Composed of brass, coated [and insulated with] wax, [these globes] served the purpose of spreading the electrostatic field.
“Promptly suiting the action to the word, he called in several employees from the workshop and issued a succession of hurried orders which I followed but vaguely. Presently, however, the doors were shut and the curtains drawn until every chink or crevice for the admission of light was concealed, and the laboratory was bathed in absolutely impenetrable gloom…
“The next minute exquisitely beautiful luminous signs and devices of mystic origin began to flash about me with startling frequency. Sometimes they seemed iridescent, while again a dazzling white light prevailed.
“What impressed [us] most of all, perhaps, was the simple but cheerful fact that [we] remained unscathed, while electrical bombardments were taking place on every side.”
“‘Take hold,’ said a voice, and I felt a sort of handle thrust into my hand. Then I was gently led forward and told to wave it. On complying, I spelled the word ‘Welcome’ flaming before my eyes. Unfortunately, I was totally unable at the time to appreciate the kindly sentiment implied.
A hand approached mine ere I had quite recovered, and I felt the tips of my fingers lightly brushed. Fancy my dire dismay when I immediately experienced an acute tingling sensation, accompanied by a brief pyrotechnic display that was surprising to say the least. When the daylight as well as my equanimity was in a measure restored, I learned something of the meaning of these wondrous experiments, which may be said to foreshadow in a way the electric light of the future.”
These “devices of mystic origin” were just a few such lamps that Tesla had devised: some were tubes with gases at a low pressure and some had phosphorescent coatings (like modern fluorescent tubes), but none had filaments.
Tesla also demonstrated the utility of his wireless system for ordinary incandescent lamps by connecting a standard sixteen candlepower Edison-style bulb to his resonating coil in the center of the room, and the Edison bulb, too, flashed to life.
To further impress his visitors and convey just how much energy could be concentrated by the capacitors in his oscillating transformer, Tesla would sometimes pass through his apparatus “energy at a rate of several thousand horsepower, put a piece of thick tinfoil on a stick, and approach it to that coil. The tinfoil would melt, and would not only melt, but while it was still in that form, it would be evaporated and the whole process took place in so small an interval of time that it was like a cannon shot. Instantly, I put it there, there was an explosion. That was a striking experiment. It simply showed the power of the condenser [i.e., capacitor], and at that time I was so reckless that in order to demonstrate to my visitors that my theories were correct, I would stick my head into that coil and I was not hurt; but I would not do it now.”
The Johnsons were often invited to these displays. “We were frequently invited to witness his experiments,” recalled Robert, experiments in which “lightning-like flashes of electrical fire of the length of fifteen feet were an every-day occurrence, and his tubes of electric light were used to make photographs of many of his friends as a souvenir of their visits.”
Robert was so moved that he wrote a poem called “In Tesla’s Laboratory” that he published in Century Magazine.
Here in the dark what ghostly figures press!—
No phantom of the Past, or grim or sad;
No wailing spirit of woe; no spectre, clad
In white and wandering cloud, whose dumb distress
Is that its crime it never may confess;
No shape from the strewn sea; nor they that add
The link of Life and Death,—the tearless mad,
That live nor die in dreary nothingness:
But blessed spirits waiting to be born—
Thoughts to unlock the fettering chains of Things;
The Better Time; the Universal Good.
Their smile is like the joyous break of morn;
How fair, how near, how wistfully they brood!
Listen! that murmur is of angels’ wings.
And as he attended more and more session in Tesla’s lab, Johnson began to wonder why the photographs Tesla made were only used as souvenirs for friends.
Johnson hatched an idea to have special pictures taken using one of Tesla’s new phosphorescent light bulbs—which we would today call a fluorescent light—and published them as a world first in The Century.
To write up an accompanying article, Johnson reached out to Martin, whose biographical essay which appeared in early 1894 had been well received, even by competitors. This second piece, Johnson proposed, would focus on Tesla’s lab itself.
Tesla was, Johnson wrote, “the first person to make use of phosphorescent light for photographic purposes—not a small item of invention in itself. I was one of a group consisting of Mark Twain, Joseph Jefferson, Marion Crawford and others who had the unique experience of being thus photographed.”
Naturally, the pictures of Twain—by then perhaps the most recognizable man on the planet—would would become the centerpiece of the article, and Mark Twain (aka Samuel Clemens) visited Tesla’s laboratory on March 4, 1894, and again on April 26 to have these photos taken.
Martin was only too happy to agree to another commission, but suggested they take precautions to ensure that news of the photographs didn’t leak out before they went to press. By which Martin meant that he didn’t trust Tesla to keep quiet about them until publication time.
“I will lock [them] up or put [them] in a safe deposit vault, if you wish until the hour of publication,” Martin told Johnson. “But I want to get one of the first as a historical souvenir.”
Tesla, with an eye to the impact these photos could have on potential investors, became impatient for the publicity and wanted to put the photos out right away as Martin had foreseen.
“I think that we ought to have a little talk about giving to the daily newspapers a hint that [you have] succeeded in taking photos by phosphorescence,” Martin warned Tesla. “It will leak out some hour and then someone with the customary arrogance [will place it] in the papers. [We need] to get our priorities established. I think R. U. Johnson feels the same way.”
This insistence on waiting to announce and publish these photos became another point of disagreement and tension between Tesla and Martin.
For the poses, Tesla had each guest hold a large loop of wire in their hands. When the resonating coil in the center of the laboratory was activated, enough current was wirelessly transmitted from the coil to the loop to light up bulbs placed between the visitor’s hands. My favourite of this series is of Mark Twain. Dressed in a dark suit, Twain holds two ends of a great hoop of wire (which you can see loops around behind him). He’s looking down at the bulb lighting up in front of him as, over his shoulder, Tesla looks on from the half-darkness. I’ll include the photo in the episode’s show notes at teslapodcast.com.
“Strange as it may seem,” wrote Martin, “these currents, of a voltage one or two hundred times as high as that employed in electrocution, do not inconvenience the experimenter in the slightest. The extremely high tension of the currents which Mr. Clemens is seen receiving prevents them from doing any harm to him.”
As planned (and much to Tesla’s frustration), Johnson and Martin hold on to the photographs until they were ready to publish, which ended up being in the April 1895 issue of The Century. By then, however, the photographs were an artifact of a truly lost past. But, I’m getting ahead of myself. We’ll talk about that more in a few episodes’ time…
As 1894 drew to a close, Tesla invited the Johnsons to once again visit his lab.
“Dear Luka,” Tesla wrote on December 21, “You have not forgotten the visit to my laboratory tomorrow, I hope. Dvořak will be there and a number of other celebrities in America’s elite.”
Christmas and New Year’s Eve with the Filipovs rounded out a truly remarkable year for Tesla, one that certainly lived up to the letter Tesla had written to his uncle Petar a year earlier.
But, as 1895 dawned, no one could know that within mere months Tesla and his work would suffer the most devastating set back imaginable…
But that will have to wait. Because next time we’re going to witness one of the final battles of the War of the Currents, and learn how the ultimate prize—the electrification of Niagara Falls—was finally won.
Tesla’s reputation as a leading man of electrical science grows, and publications and accolades come his way by the handful, thanks in no small part to the help of T.C. Martin, his friend, editor, and hype man.
What happens when a rebooted MacGyver and a John Turturro-lookalike as Tesla meet up deep in MacGyver’s subconscious? Is MacGyver’s mom evil? Was Telsa’s hair ever that slick? It’s the latest episode of our sub-podcast, “Tesla Goes to the Movies”!
What happens when everyone’s favourite electrical pioneer meets up with everyone’s favourite Time Lord? Why, the world gets saved, of course! Join us for this first sub-episode in our new occasional side podcast “Tesla Goes to the Movies”!
Just what was Tesla up to on the side while working with Westinghouse on both the World’s Fair and the bid to win the contract to electrify Niagara Falls?