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Nikola Tesla and Niagara Falls. By Nathaniel Rosenbloom March 13, 2006 Engineer Seminar “Nikola Tesla: The Genius Who Lit the World”. Images from Tesla's Misfortune. The 1890’s do not find Tesla to be in great shape

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Nikola Tesla and Niagara Falls

By Nathaniel Rosenbloom

March 13, 2006

Engineer Seminar

“Nikola Tesla: The Genius Who Lit the World”

Images from


Tesla's Misfortune

  • The 1890’s do not find Tesla to be in great shape
  • In 1895 Tesla’s New York laboratory was burned to the ground
  • His work of half a life time was destroyed.
  • None of the lost equipment was insured
  • Financially ruined and without inventions he had been working on
  • Tesla was reported to be “wandering streets in a daze”

Help in a time of neeed

  • One man came forward to help Tesla in his time of need
    • “clever, handle-bar moustached financier; Edward Dean Adams,
    • President of the cataract construction company of Niagara Falls”
  • Adams helped because Tesla was the “consulting genius of one of the most extraordinary engineering feats in history”

The Niagara Falls Power Project

  • Began in 1890
  • A dream of scientists and citzens alive to press the Falls
  • into an “honest days work”
  • Previous attempts to capture the power of the falls included:
    • Saw mills
    • Primitive waterwheels that provided tiny amounts of energy
  • It was guessed that the latent power contained in the Falls was
  • equal to all the coal mined in the world each day
  • Project proposes a system of canals and tunnels, diverting the
  • Niagara River down 150-foot wheel pits to turn enormous
  • water turbines
  • No one but Tesla had proposed any technical means of distributing
  • the energy once captured

Tesla’s Plan

  • Full Hydro-electric concept never fully attempted
  • One attempt had created 12.5 kilowatts of direct current
    • Direct current: transmission limited to users within a mile or two
  • International commission chaired by celebrated British Physicist
  • Lord Kelvin formed to solve problem
    • Commission received proposals from all over world,
    • seventeen in all
    • All ended up being rejected, only one based on alternating current
  • Turning Point: 1893 Chicago World’s Fair
  • Lord Kelvin changes mind about Alternating Current
  • Tesla wins War of Currents

Implementation of Tesla’s System

  • Despite corporate issues and bad-blood, General Electric and
  • Westinghouse able to work together on construction of
  • Niagara Project
  • October 1893: Westinghouse awarded contract to build the powerhouse
  • at the Falls, to be outfitted with first two of ten generators
  • designed by Tesla
  • Generators of five thousand horsepower, largest built to that day
  • General Electric awarded contract to build 22 mils of transmission lines
    • Tesla’s polyphase system would be used throughout
    • Allowed GE to perform two-phase current from the generators
    • into three-phase distribution lines
  • Time of construction a traumatic time filled with doubt and stress for
    • all parties involved

Doubt from outside, confidence from within

  • Commission skeptical as to whether full hyrdo system using
  • Tesla’s inventions would be successful
  • Tesla supremely confident
  • “if the company will put 400,000 horsepower upon a wire,
  • I will deliver it at a commercial profit to the city of New York
  • After five years of waiting, switch thrown and system worked
  • just as Tesla said it would
  • By 1900, New York City was being electrified
  • Before long, the entire country was being powered by power

stations and transmission lines, bringing electric light, heating,

manufacturing and hundreds of new labor-saving appliances

  • Through all this, Tesla was distraught, laying in his bed and

speaking to no one


Tesla’s Patents

For system of electrical distribution


Aftermath of War of Currents

  • Whole world, including Tesla, in awe of what had been accomplished at Niagara Falls
  • War of Currents had left Westinghouse and General Electric financially morally drained
  • All this happened during era of robber barons,
  • J.P. Morgan, the biggest of the robber barons, wanted to take control of all hydroelectric power in the United States
  • He did this by manipulating stock market forces with the intention of bankrupting Westinghouse and purchasing Tesla’s patents

Tesla’s Gesture

  • George Westinghouse told Tesla that he could not pay the liberal
  • royalties in Tesla’s contract
  • Tesla ripped up the contract in thanks to the one man who had believed
  • in his invention
  • He was convinced that greater inventions lay ahead
  • Tesla’s gesture saved Westinghouse and left Tesla in recurring
    • financial difficulties that the inventor did not comprehend
  • Most Americans did not know of Tesla’s gesture and assumed he lived
  • well off of those royalties

Niagara and Beyond

  • Tesla did not attend the flipping of the switch but returned to Niagara
  • three months later where he was honored at a “power banquet”
    • which consisted of the important bankers, engineers, lawyers, and
    • other mechanics that made the project possible
  • Reports of the banquet where that the highlight was Tesla’s speech
  • He was cut short in his speech by the sponsors of the dinner
  • Having read the speech beforehand, they kept Tesla from announcing a
  • new discovery that would make the power lines of Niagara
  • obsolete: the wireless transmission of energy

Niagara Today

  • The system at Niagara today remains largely unchanged
  • After Tesla’s system, no other system but AC made industrial sense
  • Ironically, Edison historically credited with achievement and Tesla
  • left poor and without a laboratory


  • Cheney, Margaret and Robert Uth. Tesla: Master of Lightning
  • Barnes and Noble Books. 1999
  • Images from: