Nikola Tesla and Niagara Falls
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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

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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”

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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”

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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

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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

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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

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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

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Tesla’s Patents

For system of electrical distribution

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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

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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

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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

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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

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  • Cheney, Margaret and Robert Uth. Tesla: Master of Lightning

  • Barnes and Noble Books. 1999


  • Images from: