Scientist and inventor Nikola Tesla (1856–1943) has come into vogue in recent years as one of the most underappreciated talents of the modern age, despite the popularity he garnered in his lifetime. As the main designer behind the alternating current (AC) electrical system, he is rightly celebrated these days for this achievement.
But Tesla did more than tinker with electronics in an isolated lab. He was also an ambitious engineer, always seeking investors and backers for various installations to advance communication technology and electricity supply. And Niagara Falls was arguably the site of his biggest achievements in this field.
Harnessing Niagara's Power
Finding a practical use for the massive power displayed in Niagara Falls has been a fantasy of the new American nations since colonial settlement, but the available technology was never fit to achieve that ambitious task.
That began to change from the 1880s. AC systems were making huge leaps in progress, mostly thanks to the patronage of Tesla’s work by entrepreneur George Westinghouse. The Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company produced a leading AC motor based on Tesla’s design, and it was with Tesla’s consultation that Westinghouse won the bid to construct a two-phase AC generation and distribution system at Niagara Falls.
Adams Power Plant
All other proposals, including several using Edison’s direct current (DC), were found to be inferior in managing the massive power output from a Niagara hydroelectric system. At the time, hydroelectric plants of this scale were unprecedented, and AC had the regulatory capabilities of making this output both efficient and manageable.
When Adams Power Plant was completed in 1895, it was a historic moment, both as the first hydroelectric plant of the modern age and the first major AC generating facility.
And yet, neither Westinghouse nor Tesla reaped many rewards from this achievement. Westinghouse’s assets were ravaged in corporate warfare with General Electric, which led to him successfully convincing Tesla to relinquish his claim on royalties for the AC patents, in order to secure the company’s survival.
Tesla would go on to further experimentation with electricity and transmission methods, but arguably his greatest achievement lies in what he helped make possible at Adams Power Plant.
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