Edward Dean Adams is one of the 40 honorees on Norwich’s iconic Centennial Stairs. As a student in the class of 1864, he served as drill sergeant, adjutant of the Corps, and president of the cricket club. After graduating, he became one of the nation’s most influential electrical engineers.
Adams worked in a wide variety of industries before becoming president of the Cataract Construction Company in 1890. The company’s mission was to harness hydroelectric power from the immense volume of water that cascaded over Niagara Falls. The scope of the project was gargantuan, and Adams personally supervised the engineering work.
Thomas Edison and other leading experts insisted that the facility should produce direct electrical current (DC), but Adams determined that alternating current (AC) was preferable, a decision that would have enormous influence upon the evolution of the electric power industry in the United States. The Niagara Falls plant, which was later named after Adams, was completed in 1895, the same year electric lights were installed on the Norwich campus. That station was capable of generating 37.5 megawatts of electricity, an astonishing amount of power by the standards of the time.
The Niagara Falls hydroelectric project was one of the greatest engineering feats of the 19th century and was pivotal in the development of modern industry, from petroleum to consumer appliances. In recognition of his engineering achievements, Edward Adams received the John Fritz Medal in 1926, a prestigious award that had previously been presented to such notables as George Westinghouse, Thomas Edison, and Alexander Graham Bell.
Adams served on Norwich’s Board of Trustees for over ten years and provided key financial support for construction projects like Alumni Hall and Plumley Armory. We now remember him as an alumnus who truly used his Norwich education to transform the world.
Adapted from “Edward Dean Adams, Class of 1864: Financier, Engineer, Industrialist” by Professor Gary Lord, originally appearing in the Summer/Fall 2000 edition of the Norwich Record.