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Lester Allan Pelton - Water Turbines and the Beginnings of Hydroelectricity
Lester Allan Pelton (1829-1908)
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Lester Allan Pelton
Lester Allan Pelton: father of hydroelectric power
Lester Pelton and the Pelton Turbine
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The waterwheel is an ancient device that uses flowing or falling water to create power.
How are Turbines Used to Generate Electricity?
Electricity - Electronics
Water Turbines

Water Wheel Engineering

By Mary Bellis

Lester Pelton invented a type of free-jet water turbine called the Pelton Wheel or Pelton turbine. Lester Pelton was born in 1829 in Vermillion, Ohio. In 1850, he immigrated to California during the time of the gold rush. Pelton made his living as a carpenter and a millwright. At that time there was a great demand for new power sources to run the machinery and mills necessary for the expanding gold mines. Many mines depended on steam engines, however those required exhaustible supplies of wood or coal. What was abundant was water power from the fast running mountain creeks and waterfalls. Waterwheels that had been used to power flour mills, worked best on larger rivers and did not work well in the faster moving and less voluminous mountain creeks and waterfalls. What did work was the newer water turbines that used wheels with cups rather than flat panels. A landmark design in water turbines was the highly efficient Pelton Wheel.

David P. Stern writes in his NASA article "From Stargazers to Starships":

According to a 1939 article by W. F. Durand of Stanford University in Mechanical Engineering, Pelton´s invention started from an accidental observation, some time in the 1870s. Pelton was watching a spinning water turbine when the key holding its wheel onto its shaft slipped, causing it to become misaligned. Instead of the jet hitting the cups in their middle, the slippage made it hit near the edge (drawing); rather than the water flow being stopped, it was now deflected into a half-circle, coming out again with reversed direction. Surprisingly, the turbine now moved faster. That was Pelton´s great discovery. In other turbines the jet hit the middle of the cup and the splash of the impacting water wasted energy.

Lester Pelton developed his design, settling in the end on a double cup with a wedge-shaped divider in the middle, splitting the jet--half to the left, half to the right. In the winters of 1877 and 1878 he tested turbines of different sizes, including a small one for running his landlady's sewing machine (it worked, but he was not happy with the design). In 1880, he also obtained his first patent for a water turbine. 

 Pelton water turbineTo the left, you can view the patent drawing for a 1889 patent issued to Lester Pelton for an improved water wheel.

In 1883, the Pelton turbine won a competition for the most efficient water wheel turbine held by the Idaho Mining Company of Grass Valley, California. Pelton´s turbine proved to be 90.2% efficient, and the turbine of his closest competitor was only 76.5% efficient. In 1888, Lester Pelton formed the Pelton Water Wheel Company in San Francisco, and began to mass manufacture his new water turbine.

The Pelton water wheel turbine set the standard, until the Turgo impulse wheel was invented by Eric Crewdson in 1920. However, the Turgo impulse wheel was an improved design based on the Pelton turbine. The Turgo was smaller than the Pelton and cheaper to manufacture. Two other important hydropower systems include the Tyson turbine, and the Banki turbine (also called the Michell turbine).


Hydropower converts the energy of flowing water into electricity or hydroelectricity. The amount of electricity generated is determined by the volume of water and the amount of "head" (the height from the turbines in the powerplant to the water surface) created by the dam. The greater the flow and head, the more electricity is produced.

The mechanical power of falling water is an age-old tool. Of all the renewable energy sources that generate electricity, hydropower is the most often used. It is one of the oldest sources of energy and was used thousands of years ago to turn a paddle wheel for purposes such as grinding grain. In the 1700's, mechanical hydropower was used extensively for milling and pumping. 

The first industrial use of hydropower to generate electricity occurred in 1880, when 16 brush-arc lamps were powered using a water turbine at the Wolverine Chair Factory in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The first U.S. hydroelectric power plant opened on the Fox River near Appleton, Wisconsin, on September 30, 1882. Until that time, coal was the only fuel used to produce electricity. The early hydroelectric plants were direct current stations built to power arc and incandescent lighting during the period from about 1880 to 1895. Because the source of hydropower is water, hydroelectric power plants must be located on a water source. Therefore, it wasn’t until the technology to transmit electricity over long distances was developed that hydropower became widely used. By the early 1900's, hydroelectric power accounted for more than 40 percent of the United States' supply of electricity. The years 1895 through 1915 saw rapid changes occur in hydroelectric design and a wide variety of plant styles built. Hydroelectric plant design became fairly well standardized after World War I with most development in the 1920's and 1930's being related to thermal plants and transmission and distribution.

Next page > How are Turbines Used to Generate Electricity?

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