The History of Hydroelectric Power

The technology to take advantage of falling water and get useful mechanic energy is old. The history of hydropower started over 2000 years ago, when water wheels were being used by the ancient Greeks to grind grain. It was not until the Middle Ages that the technology was spread to Europe.

You might want to learn more about how hydroelectricity works before you read on: How Does Hydroelectric Power Work?
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Hydroelectric power was also important during the industrial revolution at the beginning of the 1800’s and provided mechanical power for textile and machine industries.

Probably the most important year in hydropower history was in 1831 when the first electric generator was invented by Michael Faraday. This layed the foundation for us to learn how to generate electricity with hydropower almost half a centurey later, in 1878.

The first hydroelectric power plant, located in Appleton, Wisconsin, began to generate electricity already in 1882. The power output was at about 12.5 kW. 7 years later, in 1889, the total number of hydroelectric power plant solely in the US had reached 200.

In the 19th century these power plants got an increased amount of commercial attention and was built rapidly in suitable areas all over the world. 1936 marks an important year – the largest hydroelectric power plant, the Hoover Dam, was opened and generated 1345 MW (installed capacity later increased 2080MW) from the flowing water in the Colorado River.  Below is a picture of the Hoover Dam Hydroelectric Power Plant.

Hoover Dam

During the first half of the 1900’s hydropower became the world’s most important source of electricity.

In 2008, Three Gorges Dam in China was built. This is the largest power plant at current date, generating 22.500 MW, adding to China’s installed hydroelectric capacity of 196.79 GW (2009).

Hydropower is considered a mature technology contributes about 16% of global electricity generation today and will contribute even more in the future. There’s almost 30 major hydroelectricity projects with atleast 2.000 MW capacity under development, most of which are located in China.

If you want to learn about the advantages and disadvantages of hydroelectricity I suggest you read Hydroelectric Energy Pros and Cons.
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  1. says

    Hi Mathias, I like your website and thanks for the information. I referred to your history of hydropower for a course I am developing here in the USA. It will be taught in agriculture program across the country to introduce farmers to ways of generating renewable energy and increase efficiency on farms. It will be free and open-source. It is still under development but you can see a preview at:
    If you have any ideas, feel free to let me know. Keep up your good work.
    Peace, Tim

    • Abdiel Gutierrez says

      Hi Tim,

      I am a agricultural engineer in Panama, central america. I have taken a look at your website and it looks very good. I think that introducing green energy into farms is extremely important.

      Thank you for the modules and i know that they will be greatly used.



      • says

        Hi Abdiel, Thanks for your posting (I just saw it). The full curriculum has just been completed and posted to
        It is open-source so if any of the modules can apply to Panama (or elsewhere) you are free to change information in the slides and use it as you like.
        All the best, Tim Benedict

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