The gravitational force of naturally flowing water has been used as a source of power since ancient times. Early clocks were turned by a steady drip and mills with water wheels were sited at streams. The invention of electricity multiplied the energy potential of water exponentially, driving industrial output to unprecedented levels.

The sheer scale of Niagara Falls on the US-Canadian border, had long made it an attractive proposition for harnessing nature’s power. By the 19th century, there were dozens of mills along its river banks. In 1882, Jacob Friedrich Schoellkopf lit up the Falls themselves using a DC generator at his power plant.

Only falls and horsepower

In the late 1880s, the Niagara Falls Commission set up a competition to find a way of generating electricity on an industrial scale and that could be transmitted long distances. When all the entries failed to impress the judges, George Westinghouse, an industrialist and pioneer of alternating current, and Thomas Edison, founder of General Electric, were invited to bid for the contract. Neither had entered the competition, but the commission believed the solution to the various challenges posed by the project lay in AC power.

The sheer volume of water rushing over the Falls at 168,000 cubic metres (6 million cubic ft) every minute, generated extraordinary power. The pitwheels in the tunnel below the powerhouse, which had been built in 1892, delivered a massive 100,000 horsepower. To use it effectively, and in various ways, it was necessary to transmit at several different voltages, making AC current ideal. Westinghouse’s work in AC with Nikola Tesla, inventor of the induction motor, gave him the edge and he was awarded the contract.

The generation game

Following a massive construction project, the Niagara Falls Power Company began generating current at midnight on 16 November 1896, using three 5,000-horsepower generators. The first current was transmitted to the city of Buffalo, New York, 22 miles away. The project was soon expanded to 10 generators and, in 1900, General Electric won the contract for 11 5,500-horsepower generators in Power House No. 2.

By 1905, Niagara Falls produced 10% of the United States’ electricity. Electricity was cheap which attracted new industry to the area. The first major commercial user was the Pittsburgh Reduction Company (later renamed the Aluminum Company of America and still trading as Alcoa), which used an electrolytic process to smelt the metal.

Today, hydroelectric power provides almost one-fifth of the world’s electricity and remains one of the cheaper sources of energy available.

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