Better waterwheel designs improved the efficiency of waterpower.
Waterpower was needed to operate steam engines.
Waterpower was used to generate electricity.
Waterwheels became more efficient than coal-powered engines.
[#paragraph1]Moving water was one of the earliest energy sources to be [#highlight1]harnessed[/highlight1] to reduce the workload of people and animals. No one knows exactly when the waterwheel was invented, but irrigation systems existed at least 5,000 years ago, and it seems probable that the earliest waterpower device was the noria, a waterwheel that raised water for irrigation in attached jars. This device appears to have evolved no later than the fifth century B.C., perhaps independently in different regions of the Middle and Far East.
[#paragraph2]The earliest waterpower mills were probably vertical-axis mills for grinding corn, known as Norse or Greek mills, which seem to have appeared during the first or second century B.C. in the Middle East and a few centuries later in Scandinavia. In the following centuries, increasingly sophisticated waterpower mills were built throughout the Roman Empire and beyond its boundaries in the Middle East and northern Europe. In England, the Saxons are thought to have used both horizontal- and vertical-axis wheels. The first documented English mill was in the eighth century, but three centuries later about 5,000 were recorded, suggesting that every settlement of any size had its mill.
[#paragraph3]Raising water and grinding corn were by no means the only uses of the waterpower mill, and during the following centuries, [#highlight4]the applications of waterpower[/highlight4] kept pace with the developing technologies of mining, iron working, paper making, and the wool and cotton industries. Water was the main source of mechanical power, and by the end of the seventeenth century, England alone is thought to have had some 20,000 working mills.
[#paragraph4]There was much debate on the relative efficiencies of different types of waterwheels. [#insert1] The period from about 1650 until 1800 saw some excellent scientific and technical investigations of different designs. [#insert2] They revealed output powers ranging from about 1 horsepower to perhaps 60 for the largest wheels and confirmed that for maximum efficiency, the water should pass across the blades as smoothly as possible and fall away with minimum speed, having given up almost all of its kinetic energy. [#insert3] (They also proved that, in principle, the overshot wheel, a type of wheel in which an overhead stream of water powers the wheel, should win the efficiency competition.) [#insert4]
[#paragraph5]But then steam power entered the scene, putting the whole future of waterpower in doubt. An energy analyst writing in the year 1800 would have painted a very [#highlight6]pessimistic[/highlight6] picture of the future for waterpower. The coal-fired steam engine was taking over, and the waterwheel was fast becoming obsolete. However, like many later experts, this one would have suffered from an inability to see into the future. A century later the picture was completely different: [#highlight8]by then[/highlight8], the world had an electric industry, and a quarter of its generating capacity was water powered.
[#paragraph6][#highlight10]The growth of the electric-power industry was the result of a remarkable series of scientific discoveries and developments in electrotechnology during the nineteenth century, but significant changes in what we might now call hydro (water) technology also played their part.[/highlight10] In 1832, the year of Michael Faraday’s discovery that a changing magnetic field produces an electric field, a young French engineer patented a new and more efficient waterwheel. His name was Benoît Fourneyron, and his device was the first successful water turbine. (The word turbine comes from the Latin turbo: something that spins). The waterwheel, [#highlight11]unaltered[/highlight11] for nearly 2,000 years, had finally been superseded.
[#paragraph7]Half a century of development was needed before Faraday’s discoveries in electricity were translated into full-scale power stations. In 1881 the Godalming power station in Surrey, England, on the banks of the Wey River, created the world’s first public electricity supply. The power source of this most modern technology was a traditional waterwheel. Unfortunately this early plant experienced the problem common to many forms of renewable energy: the flow in the Wey River was unreliable, and the waterwheel was soon replaced by a steam engine.
[#paragraph8]From this primitive start, the electric industry grew during the final 20 years of the nineteenth century at a rate seldom if ever exceeded by any technology. The capacity of individual power stations, many of them hydro plants, rose from a few kilowatts to over a megawatt in less than a decade.