Segment from In Plain Sight

Turning on the Grid

Historian Bernie Carlson and host Brian Balogh discuss how harnessing the power of Niagara Falls went from pipe dream to reality in less than two decades.

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BRIAN: For the rest of the hour today, we’re going to take a closer look at how America’s infrastructure developed in the first place, and see what light history can shed on the challenges we’re facing today. We’ll hear why coastal infrastructure was such a priority for the nation’s founders, and about the 19th-century origins of today’s struggles over new oil pipelines.

But first, let’s return to this question of powering American cities. It’s a question with deep roots stretching all the way back to the early days of industry in 19th-century New England.

BERNIE CARLSON: They had systems which were truly bizarre, and I’ve only seen a couple paintings like this, where you actually had a giant shafts that were like hundreds of feet long.

BRIAN: This is Benny Carlson, a historian of technology at the University of Virginia.

BERNIE CARLSON: And you would basically have the wooden shaft connected to a water wheel, and it would go up the hill. And at a certain point, maybe it would have to turn right or it would have to turn left. And you’d have a gearing system there, and then another shaft. And that’s how you transmitted power from one point to another.

PETER: In the 1880s, Thomas Edison spearheaded a revolution when he proved energy could be converted to electricity, housed in a generating station, and fed over short distances via direct current. 59 customers in Manhattan signed up for Edison’s services.

BRIAN: But others had bigger dreams. A businessman named Edward Dean Adams look at the roaring waters of Niagara Falls and figured, if he could bottle that energy and convert it into electricity, he could power entire cities, like Buffalo, or even New York City. The only question was how to transport it. In 1891, Adams set out to explore his various options.

BERNIE CARLSON: Adams went to in fact set up an entire special technical commission of leading scientists from the US, from Canada, from England. And eventually Adams finds himself talking to Nikola Tesla, the father of alternating current. Before Tesla, there was only electric lighting, and that was invented by Edison, and it used direct current.

After Tesla, we can say that there’s electric light in power. And we can say that because Tesla invented the alternating current motor. And if you don’t have a motor, you can’t use electricity for all sorts of power applications.

BRIAN: Wait. Before we get to the motors, Bernie– what’s alternating current? I’m sorry.


BRIAN: I didn’t pay attention in that class.

BERNIE CARLSON: OK. So while you were asleep in physics class that day, when they talk about electricity, we use electricity in two ways. The first is the electricity that comes out of a battery, which is a direct current. It’s always going to have the electricity flowing through the radio circuits at 9 volts, at a steady voltage.

Alternating current means that the voltage goes up and it goes down. In the United States, when it comes out of the wall, at one moment, it is at 120 volts positive, and then at the next moment, it’s at 120 volts negative.

So all of us now drag around with our computer a power cord. And on that power cord is a box, and in that box is a transformer. And what that transformer does is it takes the 120 volts that comes out of the wall, and it steps it down, I believe, to 12 volts, and the 12 volts is what goes into your computer and runs your computer. Alternating current allows you to have a simple, efficient device that allows you to switch the voltage up or switch the voltage down.

BRIAN: Interesting.

BERNIE CARLSON: So when Tesla was corresponding with Edward Dean Adams, and Adams was looking for free advice about electricity, Tesla kept coming back and sort of saying, look, you don’t want to do this with direct current. Direct current is inefficient. You’re going to be disappointed. You want to use alternating current, Mr. Adams– this is Tesla writing him– because it will allow you to transmit the energy over long distances using high voltages, but you can then step it down safely so the electricity can be at a safe voltage level, and you can introduce it into people’s businesses.

BRIAN: What were the practical outcomes of using this great source of power, sending it at a distance, and deciding on the alternating current approach?

BERNIE CARLSON: So when Adams decided after some debate to use alternating current to basically transmit the power from Niagara– first to Buffalo, which he did in 1895, and then ultimately by the end of the 19th century to New York City– it had an incredible set of economic and social transformations.

First, all of a sudden, companies could save money, because they could hook up to the grid and buy their energy from the electric company, and they could get rid of having to have big piles of coal in the backyard, in the yard of the factory, and a steam engine that the coal would feed and provide that. So all of the sudden–

BRIAN: Bernie, was this analogous to the cloud in computing, where companies that really have very little to do with computing can now just rely on a source of memory? They don’t have to go invest in huge banks of computers in order to store their data?

BERNIE CARLSON: Absolutely. That’s a perfect analogy. Companies didn’t have to have their own steam engines. They didn’t have to have their own generators. They didn’t have to have all the people that were working around those.

BRIAN: What if Adams had chosen differently? What if he had gone with some of the competing ways of transmitting electricity, like direct current?

BERNIE CARLSON: You wouldn’t use the direct current at very high voltages, and that would have meant that you probably would have only put it into select operations. On the other end, what you would have had to do at the consumption end– say the factory or the department store or your home– is you would have had not just a transformer, but you would have had a much more complicated device, which was called a rotary converter.

And the rotary converter consisted of two parts. It was a motor and a generator. So the electricity would come in at a high voltage. It would run a specially designed motor. On the same shaft as the motor would be another generator, and the generator would then turn to make 100 point–

BRIAN: So you are in essence recreating the production of energy at your own factory. Not terribly practical for home.

BERNIE CARLSON: Yeah. And so a, the rotary converters would only be in factories. You wouldn’t necessarily have them at home, so that would limit it. The cost of energy would have been significantly higher, because the rotary converters are far more inefficient from a technical standpoint, so your energy standpoint.

And so as a result, the cost of electricity would have been higher. It would have been probably more of a specialty service for industries, and it would have been more of a luxury good for individual homeowners. So electricity would not have spread as widely as it did.

We wouldn’t have as much street lighting. We wouldn’t have lights in individual homes. We wouldn’t have the whole sort of revolution in appliances that you see in the 1920s, washing machines in the 1950s, a washer and dryer and a freezer. But you wouldn’t have had that whole proliferation of appliances that we take for granted.

BRIAN: Bernie, did Adams envision this world in which the electrical grid would allow individuals to have all of these appliances?

BERNIE CARLSON: Adams comes from a 19th-century producer culture. In other words, you make your money by selling things from one businessman to another. You build up the industry. And so I think when Adams creates the Niagara plan, he’s fully anticipating that the electricity is going to be used for business and industrial purposes. It’s going to be used–

BRIAN: You go to where the money is, and it’s in business.

BERNIE CARLSON: That’s right. Yeah. It’s another set of individuals in the 1910s and 1920s who begin to realize that, no, you know, actually the money is in consumption.

BRIAN: Individual households.

BERNIE CARLSON: Exactly. And Adams didn’t see that part coming. That’s beyond his initial vision. But it’s the difference as to where we are today. And in fact, we don’t worry about whether industry is going to suck up too much electricity. We know when the brownouts are going to come. The brownouts are going to come when all of us turn on our individual air conditioners when it gets to be 90 degrees outside.

BRIAN: Bernie Carlson is a historian at the University of Virginia. His latest book is Tesla: Inventor of the Electric Age.

ED: It’s time for us to take a short break, but stay with us. When we get back, we remember a time long, long, long ago, when politicians were able to agree on infrastructure funding.

PETER: You’re listening to BackStory. We’ll be right back.