Lester Allan Pelton and the Invention of Hydroelectric Power

The Pelton water wheel turbine turned water into electricity

Pelton Water Turbine renewable energy

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Lester Pelton invented a type of free-jet water turbine called the Pelton Wheel or Pelton turbine. This turbine is used for hydroelectric power generation. It is one of the original green technologies, replacing coal or wood with the power of falling water.

Lester Pelton and the Pelton Water Wheel 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, but 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 worked were 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.

W. F. Durand of Stanford University wrote in 1939 that Pelton made his discovery when he observed a misaligned water turbine where the jet of water hit the cups near the edge rather than the middle of the cup. The turbine moved faster. Pelton incorporated this into his design, with a wedge-shaped divider in the middle of a double cup, splitting the jet. Now the water being ejected from both halves of the split cups act to propel the wheel faster. He tested his designs in 1877 and 1878, getting a patent in 1880.

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).

Pelton wheels were used to provide electrical power at hydroelectric facilities around the world. One in Nevada City had an output of 18000 horsepowers of electricity for 60 years. The largest units can produce over 400 megawatts.


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 1700s, 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 1900s, 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 1920s and 1930s being related to thermal plants and transmission and distribution.

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Bellis, Mary. "Lester Allan Pelton and the Invention of Hydroelectric Power." ThoughtCo, Sep. 23, 2021, thoughtco.com/lester-allan-pelton-hydroelectric-power-4074158. Bellis, Mary. (2021, September 23). Lester Allan Pelton and the Invention of Hydroelectric Power. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/lester-allan-pelton-hydroelectric-power-4074158 Bellis, Mary. "Lester Allan Pelton and the Invention of Hydroelectric Power." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/lester-allan-pelton-hydroelectric-power-4074158 (accessed March 22, 2023).