The Invention of Hydroelectricity

Hydroelectricity is arguably up there with the great inventions of the 19th century.

This article takes a look at the invention of hydroelectric power and how this form of clean and renewable electricity has evolved over the years.

Who Invented Hydroelectricity?

Lester Allan Pelton, prior to his death in 1908.

Figure 1 – Lester Allan Pelton, prior to his death in 1908.

Lester Allan Pelton was an American inventor who is recognised as one of the founding fathers of hydroelectric power due to his invention of the Pelton Wheel, which is also often referred to as the Pelton Turbine or Pelton Impulse Turbine.

Born in Vermilion, Ohio on September 5, 1829, Pelton grew up in a rural setting working on the family farm and attending the local school. He would relocate to California in 1850 during the time of the gold rush where he would become both a carpenter and millwright.

Pelton would make his “accidental” discovery sometime in the 1870’s before going on to invent the Pelton Wheel.

Lester Allan Pelton later died on March 14, 1908 in Oakland, California and was buried at his family site in Vermilion, Ohio.

Why Was Hydroelectricity Invented?

During the time of the gold rush there was a high demand for new power sources to run the machinery and mills that were required for the expansion of gold mines. Lots of the mines in operation at that time used steam as their primary power source, a power source that was derived from the burning of wood and coal. With more mines beginning production and others expanding their operations, these resources would eventually become depleted and expensive.

With wood and coal becoming depleted, people began to look at alternate power sources and one of those was water which was in abundance in the regions that bore the brunt of the gold rush. Water wheels had long been in existence but they were not suitable for fast flowing creeks and waterfalls which meant they could only be used to their maximum potential in a select few areas.

After an accidental observation he made sometime in the 1870’s, Lester Allan Pelton would set out to develop the “Pelton Wheel” which was capable of harnessing the kinetic energy from fast flowing water in a much more efficient manner.

Inventing The Pelton Wheel

During Pelton’s time working as a carpenter and millwright he was able to study the equipment and operations used in the gold mining industry. It is believed that sometime in the 1870’s, Pelton made an accidental observation that would change his life forever.

Pelton is said to have been watching a spinning water turbine when the key holding its wheel onto its shaft slipped. This caused the wheel to become misaligned and instead of the jet of water hitting the cups of the wheel in the middle, it instead hit close to their edges. The water would enter the cup at one side, perform a semi-circle motion and then exit the cup at the other side. Pelton noticed that this alteration had made the wheel move faster.

An illustration from Pelton's original patent filed in 1880.

Figure 2 – An illustration from Pelton’s original patent filed in 1880.

Once Pelton had made his accidental discovery he set about experimenting with different water wheel designs that would mimic what he had observed. He would eventually settle on a design that utilised a “double cup” with a simple wedge in the middle separating the two. Pelton’s wheel was designed so that a jet of water would hit this middle wedge, splitting the jet in two, sending it in either direction. This design would enhance on what he had observed, capturing the kinetic energy of a stream in a highly efficient manner.

In 1878, Pelton installed his first operation wheel in the Mayflower Mine in Nevada City where it was noted that his wheel had a much higher efficiency than the other water wheels available on the market at that time. Pelton would go on to patent his creation in 1880 under US Patent #233692 (original drawings shown in figure 2) and would form the Pelton Water Wheel Company in 1888 in San Francisco when he would begin the mass-production of his water wheel for clients both in the US and further afield.

Although hydroelectricity had been generated many years prior to Pelton’s invention, the first hydroelectric power derived from the Pelton wheel is believed to have been generated in 1887 when a miner attached a dynamo to one of Pelton’s wheels.

The Evolution of Hydroelectricity

Since the invention of the Pelton wheel, hydroelectricity has come on leaps and bounds. Today, the Pelton wheel is still in use in various hydroelectric facilities across the US and further afield. Pelton’s design has also been credited with providing the inspiration for more modern hydroelectric turbines such as the Turgo and Banki turbine designs.

Further Information

For further information on the invention of hydroelectricity, the below resources may be of use to you:

  • Pelton Wheel (Wikipedia) – A more comprehensive look behind the design and function of the Pelton Wheel with modern-day usage examples.