Twenty-two million tourists flock to Niagara Falls in New York each year. This majestic natural wonder is likely named from the Iroquois word niakare meaning “great noise.” This is a fitting name, considering two trillion liters of water flow through the falls each hour. The awe-inspiring power of the waterfall led many inventors and scientists to wonder how this tremendous flow of water could be harnessed and used to produce electric currents and energy.
One of these inventors and scientists was Nikola Tesla. As a student in 1875, Tesla considered the possibilities of alternating current. In his autobiography, he wrote of water turbines, and when he heard a description of Niagara Falls, he wrote, “I pictured in my imagination a big wheel run by the Falls.”
He then told an uncle that one day, he would travel to America to “carry out my scheme.”
Nikola Tesla did travel to America in 1884. After a series of unfortunate events, including losing all his possessions on the passage over the Atlantic, taking a job as a ditch digger for $2 a day, and a rocky collaboration with Thomas Edison, Tesla combined his genius with George Westinghouse to build the first hydroelectric power plant using the falls at Niagara.
In November of 1896, the Niagara Falls Power Company began generating power in Buffalo, New York. At the opening ceremony of the company, Nikola Tesla stated:
“We have many a monument of past ages; we have the palaces and pyramids, the temples of the Greek and the cathedrals of Christendom. In them is exemplified the power of men, the greatness of nations, the love of art and religious devotion. But the monument at Niagara has something of its own, more in accord with our present thoughts and tendencies. It is a monument worthy of our scientific age, a true monument of enlightenment and of peace. It signifies the subjugation of natural forces to the service of man, the discontinuance of barbarous methods, the relieving of millions from want and suffering.”
The power plant represented a “modernization” of cities and provided street lights, public transportation options, and more. Tesla and Westinghouse’s willingness to take a risk started a “revolution” that changed the world.