This Monday marks the 124th anniversary of the first test transfer of electrical power, which occurred on November 16, 1896 at midnight. The person responsible for this remarkable moment was Nikola Tesla who was hired three years prior to design the first hydroelectric power plant in Niagara Falls, New York. When the switch was flipped, the Adams Power Plant Transformer House worked and soon power began to flow into homes nearby in Buffalo and the world was forever changed.
This year, we will honor the legacy of Nikola Tesla’s groundbreaking “Test Transfer.” To celebrate, we invite readers to stream the movie The Current War which recounts the bitter battle and embroiled feud between arch rivals Tesla and Edison, to land the contract with The Niagara Falls Commission, thus altering the course of history by illuminating the world, street by street, starting with Buffalo.
There are a number of local groups dedicated to honoring Tesla’s contributions to energy, technology, and Buffalo. A small group has asked area leaders to honor this regional achievement by naming November 16, 2021 “Tesla Test Transfer” day.
“I’m so pleased that we will celebrate that our Niagara/Buffalo region is where it all began in 1896 when – with the flick of a switch -Tesla’s invention of alternating current began to illuminate the world with the first long distance transmission of clean renewable energy from Niagara Falls to Buffalo!” says Hon. Joan Bozer, former Erie County Legislator and life-long clean energy advocate.
“Now, over a hundred years later, New York State is striving to use renewable energy including hydro and solar power, to provide all of New York’s electricity in the 21st Century!”
Never before in Buffalo’s history has inventor Nikola Tesla been put on such a pedestal, literally and figuratively, as we are seeing today. The Serbian-American, whose ingenuity helped illuminate the whole City of Buffalo, and then the world, is finally being recognized in ways that are long overdue, including the unveiling of a new statue downtown.
It was Tesla’s Polyphase Alternating Current (AC) invention, embraced by The Niagara Falls Commission, that eventually led to the building of an unprecedented Westinghouse Electric distribution system at Western New York’s very own “Natural Wonder” – Niagara Falls. That is quite an accomplishment, wouldn’t you say?
It’s funny, when we think about revered inventors, Thomas Edison comes top of mind, but not necessarily Nikola Tesla. Why is that? Whereas Edison became a household name in the late 1800s, Tesla was more of an eccentric personality whose lofty ideas were considered too progressive for most people to wrap their heads around. But it was that type of “unconventional” thinking that allowed Tesla to fully understand – and eventually harness – the 681,750 gallons of water that flows over The Falls every second (and that’s just the Horseshoe Falls section).
Today electricity is all around us. We plug our phones in… turn on the lights, or even ask Alexa to do it for us. But back on November 16, 1896, when the “switch” was first thrown, and electricity was transmitted 20 miles from Niagara Falls to Buffalo, no one could have ever predicted the impact that Tesla’s invention would have on the human race.
“Niagara Falls and Buffalo were in the national and international spotlight when alternating current illuminated the Pan American Exposition in Buffalo in 1901 with tiny light bulbs. 9 million people came to the Expo from around the world to witness the lighting extravaganza. Both Tesla and Edison attended the Exposition,” said Bozer.
Because of the Pan-American Exposition, the world was suddenly made aware of the true potential of this unlimited “Green Energy” derived from hydro electric resources, thanks to Tesla’s resoluteness and fortitude. Now, all of these years later, as we are faced with mounting concerns about Global Warming, we humbly recognize that this safe and reliable energy – Tesla’s AC power, fueled by Niagara Falls – is still considered the wave of the future
The War of the Currents
“Buffalonians should know that Tesla’s role in world history was really launched in Buffalo Niagara.” said Dana Saylor, an artist, historian, historic preservation advocate, and nonprofit manager, “So many people both here and everywhere are not aware that his first transmission of long-distance AC power in the world was between Niagara Falls and Buffalo in 1896 and that Tesla as a teenager in Serbia imagined the turbine that he would create at Niagara Falls. I believe he read about Niagara Falls in a book and thought to himself – ‘I know how to capture the energy of that waterfall and he imagined it” that’s that was a kind of inventor that he was, the kind that just pictured the engineering in his mind so fully functional.”
It was Tesla’s dream to travel to the United States. “As a teenager, Nikola Tesla dreamed about creating alternating current turbines that would be powered by Niagara Falls,” said Bozer.
“At that time he imagined working for Edison and that he and Edison together would somehow bring these turbines to Niagara Falls,” added Saylor. Unfortunately, his relationship with Edison “fizzled famously.”
Eventually, the Niagara Falls Commission was looking for a company to build a hydroelectric plant that would harness the mighty power of the falls.
In 1893, Edward Dean Adams, head of the Niagara Falls Cataract Construction Company, sought Tesla’s opinion on what system would be best to transmit power generated at Niagara Falls. Over the span of several years, there had been a series of proposals and open competitions on how best to use the hydro power generated by Niagara Falls. Several U.S. and European companies proposed versions of two-phase and three-phase AC, high-voltage DC, and compressed air.
Alternating current (AC) was favored by Tesla. Direct current (DC), favored by Edison. The basis for the entire nation’s electrical system was at stake.
In the “War of the Currents”, Edison launched a campaign against AC, claiming it was dangerous and would be irresponsible to manufacture. Tesla countered that argument by “publicly subjecting himself to 250,000-volt shocks to demonstrate AC’s safety.” Alternating current won the fight.
Adams sought out Tesla for information about the current state of all the competing systems. Tesla advised that a two-phased system would be the most reliable, and that there was a “Westinghouse system to light incandescent bulbs using two-phase alternating current.”
The company awarded a contract to Westinghouse Electric for building a two-phase AC generating system at the Niagara Falls, based on Tesla’s advice and Westinghouse’s demonstration at the Columbian Exposition that they could build a complete AC system. At the same time, a further contract was awarded to General Electric to build the AC distribution system.
That year, Tesla was hired to design the first hydroelectric power plant in Niagara Falls, New York. Construction took three years.
“The evening before, everyone gathered, including Mayor Andrew B. Jewett, in the tiny station on the little street that doesn’t even exist anymore, Brace Street” says Saylor. It was just south of the Mentholatum building on Niagara Street in Buffalo. Where in the month prior they had laid out all the poles between Niagara Falls to Buffalo and all the copper wires. “These white painted poles with their copper wires were just gleaming. People were expectantly waiting for everything since they did an initial test in June. The local newspapers reported that the initial short distance test worked and everything functioned. Tesla said the power transmission would be in place by November and sure enough, the evening of November 15th and the mayor was there, there were a number of officials from the Niagara Power Company there in the Brace Street Terminal house.”
At midnight, Mayor Jewett threw the switch. Everyone waited expectantly – a small incandescent bulb was set inside the station – suddenly it glowed. The power was flowing seamlessly. The system worked perfectly and the era of Niagara power was born. “I think that the men in that room knew the importance of this from an economic standpoint, but they had of course no idea how it was going to change daily life for every person on this planet.”
Tesla came back to Buffalo in January 1897 for the Power Banquet which was held at the newly built Ellicott Square building, which at the time was the largest office building in the world. On the tenth floor was the Ellicott Club. Tesla was invited to attend this meeting of incredibly influential American Business leaders. At the dinner, they celebrated Tesla’s achievements. The plant was considered revolutionary and set the standard for modern hydro-electric power plants. Tesla’s Polyphase Alternating Current (AC) Electricity still lights the entire globe. Tesla is also known for his other inventions like aspects of radio, x-ray, remote control, and more.
Buffalonians can continue to illuminate Tesla’s legacy by celebrating the innovations of inventors like him that dare to dream about world changing technologies. Learn more about Tesla, alternating current, and hydro power by visiting the Power Authority’s Power Vista and learn how we are making electricity from the sun by visiting the Solar Powered Carousel at Canalside and its solar roof donated by the modern company named for this famous inventor, Tesla Inc.
Join us in celebrating our shared legacy by streaming The Current War, and share with us your personal stories of invention and innovation by using the tag #TeslaTestTransferDay and tagging Buffalo Rising on social media.
Where to view The Current War