When Was Hydropower Invented?

Humans have been harnessing water to perform work for thousands of years. The Greeks used water wheels for grinding wheat into flour more than 2,000 years ago, while the Egyptians used Archimedes water screws for irrigation during the third century B.C. The evolution of the modern hydropower turbine began in the mid-1700s when a French hydraulic and military engineer, Bernard Forest de Bélidor, wrote the groundbreaking Architecture Hydraulique.

In 1880, a dynamo driven by a water turbine was used to provide arc lighting —a technique where an electric spark in the air between two conductors produces a light—to a theatre and storefront in Grand Rapids, Michigan. In 1881, a dynamo connected to a turbine in a flour mill provided street lighting at Niagara Falls, New York. Both of these used direct current technology.

The breakthrough in alternating current, the method used today, allowed power to be transmitted longer distances and ushered in the first U.S. commercial installation: an alternating current hydropower plant at the Redlands Power Plant in California in 1893. The Redlands Power Plant utilized Pelton water wheels powered by water from the nearby Mill Creek and a three-phase generator that ensured consistent power delivery.

In the past century, a number of innovations have enabled hydropower to become an integral part of the renewable energy mix in the United States. Find out more about the last 100 years of hydropower with this timeline.

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