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.