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Heritage Moments: Tesla at Niagara — the weird genius who powered the world

Library of Congress; photograph by Napoleon Sarony
Nikola Tesla, visionary inventor, around 1890.

He was always an odd boy given to strange obsessions, but the fevered vision that came to Nikola Tesla at 15 stuck with him for years. Bedridden with malaria, the young Serb opened a book to an engraving of Niagara Falls and, in his delirium, had a shimmering apparition: the rushing waters were turning a gigantic wheel, powering great factories and entire cities.

It was 1871 – no one had harnessed electricity in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, or anywhere in the world. But there, in his fever dream, Tesla saw it. He told his uncle that one day he would go to America and make it happen.

This was Nikola Tesla – relentless, weird, visionary, and a world-changing genius. He memorized novels and the entire table of logarithms, designed complex machines entirely in his head, spoke eight languages. His senses were so acute that the sound of a fly landing on a nearby table tormented him; he found it difficult to pass beneath bridges because he felt the structure’s oppressive weight pressing down on his skull; the sight of a peach would give him a fever. Tall, handsome and obsessive, he was unable to eat until he had wiped his utensils with 18 linen napkins and mentally calculated the cubic volume of each plateful of food before him.     

He came to the United States to work for Thomas Edison as a trouble-shooting engineer on Edison’s direct-current generators, but quit after Edison reneged on a promised bonus. Tesla eventually joined forces with Edison’s competitor, George Westinghouse, and perfected the more efficient alternating-current system. Together they transmitted small amounts of power over long distances in Oregon, Colorado and Germany and provided the spectacular lighting for the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

Those triumphs convinced Niagara Falls Power Company president Edward Dean Adams to hire them to operate his new, debt-ridden power plant. Direct current could only transmit power a mile or so, but alternating current’s long-distance capability could make the Adams plant profitable for investors J. P. Morgan, John Jacob Astor, Lord Rothschild, and Commodore Vanderbilt.

Accordingly the plant, designed by the famed architect Stanford White, was fitted with massive equipment: enormous spiral pipes three times the height of a man, mammoth induction motors, towering dynamos and, at the bottom of 140-foot-deep shafts, the gigantic turbines Tesla had envisioned in his youth. Yet Tesla visited the plant only once, shortly before its completion.

“The jar of the machinery,” he told reporters, “affects my spine and I cannot stand the strain.”

Credit Library of Congress
The Adams Power Plant, on Buffalo Avenue and the Niagara River above the Falls.

After three years of construction, the project was ready. The first transmission took place on Monday, Nov. 16, 1896, at one minute after midnight, to minimize embarrassment in case of failure. The switch was thrown at the Adams plant, and 11,000 volts of power flashed south down power lines 20 miles to the Buffalo Railway Company, which ran the city’s trolleys. “The power is here,” murmured Edgar B. Jewett, the mayor of Buffalo, as the company’s transformers started to turn. Outside, the Ninth Ward Polish-American Gun Squad fired a cannon and a 21-gun salute to mark the moment for the sleeping city. Tesla’s dream of harnessing the might of Niagara had become real, just as he knew it would.

The Adams power plant was the world’s first modern electrical generating station; within a few short years Niagara Falls plants were lighting up the entire Northeast, and the world’s electrical revolution was underway. Yet Tesla had only just begun to invent –his brilliant mind would conceive the foundations for the transistor, cryogenic engineering, remote control, fluorescent lighting, wireless communications, radio astronomy and much more. Tesla’s theories, like Einstein’s, were often so far ahead of their time it took decades for science to confirm them.

But the thundering cataract, the machines harnessed to it and the benefits they conferred upon humankind held a special place in Tesla’s soul.

“We have many a monument of past ages exemplifying the greatness of nations, the power of men, the love of art and religious devotion,” he said. “But that monument at Niagara has something of its own, worthy of our scientific age -- a true monument of enlightenment and peace.”

Cast (in order of appearance):

Nikola Tesla: John Woodley
Reporter: Karl-Eric Reif
Narrator: Susan Banks

Sound recording: Omar Fetouh (WBFO)
Sound editing: Micheal Peters (WBNY, Buffalo State)
Piano theme: Excerpt from “Buffalo City Guards Parade March,” by Francis Johnson (1839)
Performed by Aaron Dai

Produced by the Niagara Frontier Heritage Project
Written by Jeff Z. Klein
Assistant producer: Karl-Eric Reif
Casting: Darleen Pickering Hummert (Pickering Hummert Casting, 234 Carmel Rd., Buffalo)

Special thanks to:

Brian Meyer, WBFO news director
Nick Lippa, WBNY general manager, 2015-16 academic year

Webpage written by Jeff Z. Klein (Niagara Frontier Heritage Project)

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