Tourist Spot

Harness the power of the Monterey Bay waves

It was the American dream in the age of Edison, where the unknown tinkerer felt no limits to making an invention that met timely needs. At the height of the Industrial Revolution, mechanical devices ruled. Coal, oil and gas were the main fuels, blackening skies, buildings, water and lungs, to power the furnaces of industry. Yet clean energy was as valued then as today, harnessing nature’s most consistent features: the power of windmills, to grind grain or pump water, industrial water wheels, hydroelectric generators, tap water heated by the desert sun or mountain chimneys.

The view of Hall’s Cove shows the frame of the Santa Cruz Wave Engine, next to its saltwater tower. (Ross Eric Gibson Collection)

The movement of waves and tides seemed much more predictable, yet elusive. If the ocean could lift heavy ships and guide a rudder along a current to steer a course, why couldn’t that power be harnessed? In 1877, Oakland resident Henry Newhouse filed one of the first wave motor patents, for “a reservoir to catch water at high tide and a discharge basin to let the water flow out at low tide and turn it off while the tide is rising.”


In 1886, inventor ET Steen sought out a place where wild waves roared on the shore. He approached Adolph Sutro about renting a section of Sutro’s property north of Cliff House to build a wave engine. Sutro was intrigued, having made his fortune in 1878 building the 3-mile “Sutro Tunnel” in Nevada, an engineering achievement that could drain 4 million gallons of water a day from the silver mines of Comstock. He rented the tunnel from mine owners for $10,000 a day. In 1883 Sutro purchased the Cliff House and adjoining land comprising one of the most dangerous and spectacular seafronts on the coast. Steen’s wave motor was designed to send water up to a water tank and then down to a Pelton water wheel spinning a dynamo, generating electricity. It could also fill a salt water tank and be piped to run water wheels and industrial cable cars, fill swimming pools, water streets and flush sewer lines.

With Sutro’s encouragement, Steen built his wave engine through the mouth of a sea cave north of Cliff House in San Francisco. But even with explosives, the sea was too wild and the seabed too hard to dig a pit in the seabed for the pendulum to work properly. Through experimentation, this has apparently been replaced by a fan-shaped paddle. During the construction of the water tower, the pipes leading to it were destroyed 14 times. After five months of construction, they declared a success in December 1886. Yet they had not taken into account the weather damaging the engine. Then, on January 16, 1887, a schooner was wrecked and its cargo of 80,000 pounds of dynamite exploded, destroying the ship and destroying the wave engine. Sutro encouraged Steen to rebuild, but Steen had paid no rent. On September 3, 1887, Sutro opened his tank on a shelf of land south of the wave engine and called it his saltwater aquarium.

Seeing the possibility of a heated swimming pool, Sutro laid the groundwork in 1891 to build the largest indoor diving pools in the world. Its million-gallon tanks could be filled in one hour using tidal power, or in five hours at low tide. That year, Sutro replaced Steen with inventor Henry P. Holland. His new wave engine sat just offshore from the first, with the frame high on a rock, connected to shore by a rickety swing bridge. Its design was very different from the previous one, using a 3,000 pound iron buoy, with the water cistern intended to power several electricity-generating water wheels. But the steep summit machinery was so vulnerable to high winds and crashing waves that it was unable to stay ahead of its constant damage, and it came to a halt. Sutro opened its baths in 1896.


In 1895, San Francisco inventor Emil Gerlach arrived after a failed fundraiser in Santa Monica, to build his wave engine in Capitola. He lined up local backers attracted by his contagious enthusiasm, promising cheap electricity from the constant untapped energy of the tide, which could power an electric train between Santa Cruz and Capitola.

Gerlach praised the Capitola Wharf and explained that previous wave-powered machines had failed, having been built before electricity was fully developed. “Cumulative batteries” had become necessary to store electricity. His $23,000+ wave engine included a device weighing 30 tons, with the largest outrigger in the state. In 1896, Gerlach gave his engine a final test, declaring it a success, and “the closest thing to perpetual motion the world will ever know…”. Unfortunately, his discovery turned out to be perpetual immobility, as the Sentinel noted: “The Gerlach wave engine is not disturbed by waves.” Gerlach said he failed due to his location.

The Armstrongs, Will, and his half-brother Ned, Chief of Police, were watching this project carefully. In 1897, local and San Francisco investors were relieved when Capitola Wharf was leased by wave engine inventor Henry Schomberg of Los Gatos. At a local bakery, Schomberg demonstrated a working model of his design, for turning wave action into compressed air.

Schomberg felt that previous wave engines mistakenly exploited the forward motion of waves, while his focused on up-and-down motion, compressing the pistons with shallow or deep strokes. He believed that this accumulation of compressed air could then be vented like gas, operating on the basis of a steam engine, only without fuel or water. But it did not succeed; and Francis M. Graham’s wave engine experiments on Lighthouse Point in 1897 resulted in a patent, but little else.

santa cruz

The Armstrong brothers felt that Gerlach’s project could have been done more simply, so they invented their own version of a wave engine. Yet the large sums of money lost and the shady wave engine schemes of others discouraged investment. The Armstrongs went ahead, building several scaled-down prototypes, testing each on a barge off Black Point and Twin Lakes. Success came when a wave engine launched a waterspout into the air. City councilors came out to watch these experiments, becoming impressed. The city was in a drought and the dirt streets of the city had to be sprinkled, to reduce the clouds of dust kicked up by horses and wagons, with salt water to kill weeds. The council promised that if the Armstrongs could build a working wave engine on the shore, the city council would provide $100 to build a 60-foot water tower.

At the western end of West Cliff Drive, RH Hall (father-in-law of Fred Swanton) provided a cliffside site on his dairy ranch not far from natural bridges. This site was sometimes called the Ventarron (gales in Spanish) due to the frequent force of winds and waves. At the top of the 50-foot cliffs, the Armstrongs dug two wells into the cliff, one 8 feet in diameter and the other 5 feet, connected at the bottom to a tunnel for the rising tides. A four-post derrick above these shafts suspended a float in one shaft, the raising and lowering of which drove a pump into the other shaft.

When the wave engine was completed, a demonstration for the city council was attended by many other Santa Cruzans. They cheered as a geyser of seawater shot 60 feet into the sky. Thus, the tower was built with a water tank on top. Because the 6,000 gallon tank capacity could be filled in an hour, the engine had a barrel that could be filled with water to plug the intake and shut down the wave engine, reducing wear and tear.

The Santa Cruz Wave Motor rose to fame, often hailed in newspapers and magazines as the only working wave motor in the world. An article appeared in Scientific American (January 4, 1902) detailing its mechanical operation, and in New York’s Marine Journal (January 1, 1910), hoping that it promised a future without relying too heavily on coal, gas, and oil. The tower has become a tourist attraction, visible from afar, and some have been able to climb to the top for spectacular views. It has appeared on souvenir china and silverware. The following wave engines would compare to Santa Cruz, although few others were successful.

Fred Starr began promoting an electricity-generating wave engine in San Francisco around September 1905, showing a working prototype on the Mission Street pier, powered by a steam engine, but keeping the details secret. Santa Cruz was baffled when the Patent Office appeared to declare the Starr patent to be the first working wave engine. Starr was ready to build it near Cliff House, but the 1906 earthquake sent him to Los Angeles, where he built a wave engine and pier at Redondo Beach in 1907. After spending $65,000, the project failed in 1908, and Starr had a nervous breakdown. collapse, dissolving his business.

Santa Cruz seemed to be the first successful wave engine, and the Armstrongs intended to eventually add water wheels to generate electricity. But as the city streets became cobbled, the need for salt water sprinkling disappeared and the wave motor was demolished. For years after, his blowhole delighted passers-by as Old Faithful. Yet despite the viability of various wave engines, their inventors pioneered one of the first green technologies.