Part I:
Generating Electricty

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War of the Currents

The commission did not resolve how best to convey Niagara’s power. It agreed that electricity had the most promise. To send electricity over long distances requires high voltage to “push” the current through wires. Yet using high voltages in homes and factories can be dangerous. With a transformer, alternating current (AC) can easily be “stepped up” to high voltages for transmission, or “stepped down” to lower voltages for manufacturing and domestic uses. This cannot be done with direct current (DC). Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse engaged in a long and bitter debate over the relative merits of AC and DC. The Cataract Construction Company ultimately decided on AC.

Thomas Edison

Edison advocated direct current or electric current flowing in one direction. The DC system required factories or dwellings to be located within a few miles of the power source. To transmit power longer distances, Edison endorsed a compressed air system. This meant that factories would continue to line the Niagara River and the Falls interfering with the preservation of the area's natural beauty.

 

George Westinghouse
photograph
BECHS photo file

Westinghouse's firm faith in the AC system led to the founding of the Westinghouse Electric Company in 1886, to oppose the DC system supported by Edison. Westinghouse's company deliberately underbid and won the contract to power the 1893 World's Colombian Exposition in Chicago. The widely publicized implementation of AC converted skeptics, like Lord Kelvin, and forced them to recognize the system's potential. Based on this success, the Cataract Construction Company hired Westinghouse to build ten 5,000 horsepower generators for the Adams Station. This was a tremendous challenge because earlier generators were only 150 horsepower!

 

George Westinghouse was the only man on this globe who could take my alternating-current system under the circumstances then existing and win the battle against prejudice and money power. He was one of the world's true noblemen, of whom America may well be proud and to whom humanity owes an immense debt of gratitude.

Nikola Tesla

 Nikola Tesla
  Photograph
  E.D. Adams Niagara Power Vol. 1, p. 172

In November and December of 1887, Tesla, a Croatian engineer, filed for seven U.S. patents in the field of polyphase AC motors and power transmission. His motor produced alternating current and his transformers stepped up and stepped down the voltage as required. Westinghouse believed in Tesla's inventions, installed them in the Adams Station and brought electricity to Buffalo.

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