Without a doubt, the invention of the electricity distribution system is the most important innovation in history. Right up there with the wheel. All of our smart technology, from cellular telephones, to artificial intelligence, to robotic surgery, to automated factories, are all empowered by electricity.
Yet, most people never give it even a passing thought or have an inking of where their electricity comes from today. However it is the single most important commodity that underpins our universe. It has energized our world and powered our lives to such a great extent that we would likely all die without it. So, it is astonishing that most have no clue about how electricity is delivered to their homes. And, even those who do have an idea of it all, still treat it with a caviler, mundane attitude.
That is until the electrical grid fails due to natural disasters or some catastrophic events, like the Ontario ice storm of December 2013.
Historians look back at the inventors of electricity with great reverence. There were many geniuses of their day that had an impact on this life changing innovation. Most consumers possess little in the way of meaningful knowledge of how these inventors achieved their creations. While many inventors get, or took credit for, the modern power grid, it is truly one man who did most of the heavy lifting when it comes to this innovative technology.
So, I ponder aloud, where would we all be without Nikola Tesla?
If you ask some young people about Tesla, they think it is a car. They will talk about Elon Musk. However, while there is a small connection there; it is mostly a brand and marketing link; it is far from the actual story.
By the end of his brilliant and tortured life, the Serbian physicist, engineer, and inventor Nikola Tesla was penniless and living in a small New York City hotel room. He spent days in a park surrounded by the creatures that mattered most to him – pigeons – and his sleepless nights working over mathematical equations and scientific problems in his head. That habit would confound scientists and scholars for decades after he died, in 1943. His inventions were designed and perfected in his imagination.
Today, inventors make use of massive teams, agile methodology, computerized digital twins, CAD/CAM, Artificial Intelligence, analytics, and many other technologies supporting the invention process. No modern engineers can ‘imagine’ just using their own imagination to invent. But, this is what Tesla did.
The advent of electricity distribution allowed the world to leave steam power behind, instantly becoming far more efficient at generating mechanical energy.
Mechanical energy powered by electrical generation was a gigantic leap forward in labour saving while it permitted new speed and accuracy for what were previously labour-intensive, menial tasks. For example, instead of teams of burly lumberjacks sawing logs in half with long hand saws, they used massive rotating circular saws that sliced huge trees down to smooth timber like a razor sharp knife smoothly moves through tomato slices. The logs were conveyed along the production line effortlessly aided by electrical motors to quickly feed the spinning saw blade. Orders of magnitude of workflow improvement was realized almost instantly, all because of alternating current (AC). All because of Nikola Tesla.
The Ames Hydroelectric Generating Plant, constructed in 1890 near Ophir, Colorado, was the world’s first commercial system to produce and transmit alternating current (AC) electricity for industrial use and one of the first AC hydro-electric plants ever constructed.
It became operational in 1891 and was built by Westinghouse Electric around two of their large alternators. One was set up in the valley as a generator and driven by water. It was connected by a 2.6-mile (4.2 km) transmission line to the second alternator used as a motor up at the Gold King Mine to drive the mining operation.
The facility has been changed and upgraded over the years and is still in full operation.
I was privileged to tour this original power plant a few years ago. And, I saw actual equipment that Tesla himself oversaw the creation of, and may have touched, before it was shipped to the site. Imagine, me, a mere mortal, being in the presence of a bonafide technological god. As a science guy, this was heady stuff. It does not get much better than this for me. I took these photos during my visit.
The Ames plant became part of the Nunn’s Telluride Power Company which would later become part of Western Colorado Power Company, formed as a wholly owned subsidiary of Utah Power and Light. Public Service Company acquired the plant with other Colorado Ute properties in 1992.
The 1905 vintage power house is still in service today for Public Service Company, a subsidiary of Xcel Energy, with two 8′ Pelton wheels powering a single 1904 General Electric generator, with output of 2,400 volts, and 1,082 amperes at a speed of 225 R.P.M.
The amazing paradox of it all, that amuses me to the point of out loud laughter, is the knowledge that the technically elite Gen X crowd who are carving up the famed ski slopes on their snowboards at nearby Telluride Ski Resort in Colorado all have their smartphones and tablets recharged with electricity from this ancient 130 year old technology.
They have no idea.
After the Ames Generating Station was finished, the same Westinghouse team focused on building the Rankine Generating Station, which is a former hydro-electric generating station along the Canadian side of the Niagara River in Niagara Falls, Ontario.
The facility, also known as The Canadian Niagara Power Generating Station, contained eleven vertical axle, 25 Hertz generators rated at 8320 kVA each for a total generating capacity of 100 MVA. When opening in 1905, the plant was equipped with only five turbines and generators. The generators were based on a design by Nikola Tesla. Peak capacity was achieved in 1924 when additional 25-cycle generator units were installed. The mechanism consisted of “11 vertical steel shafts, each running from a turbine in the deep pit to a generator 130 feet above”. Power was transmitted to a transformer station in another Niagara Falls, Ontario location via underground cables.
The 25 hertz generators have all been replaced with the 60 hertz systems common in North America and other parts of the world.
As we fast forward to today, Niagara Falls is still a major location for generating AC power to run our technology based world. It is the source for only about 25% of the daily consumption of electricity in Ontario. The balance of Ontario’s electricity comes from nuclear (50%) and the other 25% comes from a variety of renewable (wind, solar, bio) and fossil fuel powered stations (oil, gas).
It is hard to imagine what life would be like today without AC power. We would have no television, radio, internet, social media, nor toaster ovens and refrigerators.
As our cars transform to be electricity powered, our life-giving dependence on electricity grows every stronger. Just this week, the Governor of California wrote a new order to ban gas / diesel powered vehicles in that state by 2035. California accounts for about 11% of all new vehicle sales in the US, so even though the 2035 ICE ban is a long way off – and might not be politically feasible, long term, as it was formulated as an executive order, not legislation – it has the attention of the auto industry.
It is impossible to concieve an invention as impactful as the electricity distribution system. It is good to see people become aware of Nikola Tesla’s name, even if it is due to cars from Elon Musk. But, his incredible scientific legacy is much broader and far deeper reaching and his inventory of inventions make Musk look like an amateur.
What Musk has that Tesla never had, is business sense. Tesla was a true genius, but he was never able to monetize his technological visions the way that Musk’s dreams are being achieved today.
DeBord, M. (2020). California’s ban of gas-powered cars by 2035 looks great for Tesla, but could distract the young automaker from its best chance to grow. Yahoo! News / Business Insider. Retrieved on September 27, 2020 from, https://news.yahoo.com/californias-ban-gas-powered-cars-120300751.html
King, G. (2013). The Rise and Fall of Nikola Tesla and his Tower. Smithsonian Magazine. Retrieved on September 26, 2020 from, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-rise-and-fall-of-nikola-tesla-and-his-tower-11074324/
Unknown. (2020). Ames Hydroelectric Generating Plant. Wikipedia Foundation, Inc. Retrieved on September 26, 2020 from, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ames_Hydroelectric_Generating_Plant
Unknown. (2020). Rankine Generating Station. Wikipedia Foundation, Inc. Retrieved on September 26, 2020 from, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rankine_Generating_Station
About the Author:
Michael Martin has more than 35 years of experience in systems design for applications that use broadband networks, optical fibre, wireless, and digital communications technologies. He is a business and technology consultant. He offers his services on a contracting basis. Over the past 15 years with IBM, he has worked in the GBS Global Center of Competency for Energy and Utilities and the GTS Global Center of Excellence for Energy and Utilities. He is a founding partner and President of MICAN Communications and before that was President of Comlink Systems Limited and Ensat Broadcast Services, Inc., both divisions of Cygnal Technologies Corporation (CYN: TSX). Martin currently serves on the Board of Directors for TeraGo Inc (TGO: TSX) and previously served on the Board of Directors for Avante Logixx Inc. (XX: TSX.V). He has served as a Member, SCC ISO-IEC JTC 1/SC-41 – Internet of Things and related technologies, ISO – International Organization for Standardization, and as a member of the NIST SP 500-325 Fog Computing Conceptual Model, National Institute of Standards and Technology. He served on the Board of Governors of the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT) [now OntarioTech University] and on the Board of Advisers of five different Colleges in Ontario. For 16 years he served on the Board of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE), Toronto Section. He holds three master’s degrees, in business (MBA), communication (MA), and education (MEd). As well, he has three undergraduate diplomas and five certifications in business, computer programming, internetworking, project management, media, photography, and communication technology. He has earned 20 badges in next generation MOOC continuous education in IoT, Cloud, AI and Cognitive systems, Blockchain, Agile, Big Data, Design Thinking, Security, and more.