Bob Edgren for Capitola City Council


Capitola International Ocean Energy Expo

We are running out of energy. The advance and proliferation of hi tech and electric devices including electric vehicles are absorbing a diminishing resource as traditional sources such as nuclear power are being closed. It is predicted that within five years, California will have reached its energy supply resulting in an energy crisis with frequent blackouts.  Unlike many communities in California and across the country, we have an ocean generating 24/7 untapped energy. In 1895, Capitola was selected to be the demonstration location of a wave power wheel the Gerlach Wave Motor. I propose Capitola to hosts an annual CAPITOLA INTERNATIONAL OCEAN ENERGY EXPO to bring demonstrations of existing ocean power companies to display their advances and also for lessor known inventors to display and demonstrate their concepts. This would be an international forum where ideas could be exchanged, viewed shared and demonstrated.

The Gerlach Wave Motor of Capitola: 1895
Gerlach Wave Motor

In 1894, the Los Angeles Times ran an article about a wave motor in Long Beach that was being tested by Emil Gerlach of Santa Monica. The machine was, thus far, a success but it remained to be seen if it could pump water with sufficient force to pipe it up a hill to a basin where the water would then be run back down through electric dynamos.

Mr. Gerlach wanted to build a larger version of his invention in Santa Monica but in July of 1895 it was announced that the small resort town of Capitola near Santa Cruz had been selected as the site of the Gerlach wave motor, the first large scale wave motor project for generating electricity for commercial purposes.

A positive outcome for the Gerlach wave motor was important to the community. Santa Cruz county needed not only a unique attraction to make tourists visit their city but they needed power. The project was followed with anticipation by locals and their newspaper, theSanta Cruz Daily Sentinel.

In January of 1896 the Sentinel published an article about the lack of manufacturing in the area that shows the importance that was attached to the success of this wave motor and the hydroelectric plant was also being constructed at the falls of Big Creek 18 miles away.

    "Before Santa Cruz can hope to do much in the line of manufacturing she must have cheap power because she does labor under the disadvantage of being 80 miles from San Francisco, the center of business gravity. To obtain this necessary power should be the effort of every well-wisher of this community, and as we sit in our office we are thinking of the waves of the sea as they are being harnessed at Capitola and Big Creek, with its thousand feet of water fall and which power F.W. Swanton and associates are laboring to bring to our doors on wires of copper." 7

In January and in March newspapers reported successful tests of the Gerlach wave motor but on June 3rd the project was announced to be a failure in a brief, sad paragraph in the Sentinel.

    "The Gerlach Wave Motor at Capitola does not allow itself to be disturbed by the waves. This we regret... Its success meant cheap power and an electric railroad from Capitola to Santa Cruz and from this city to the metropolis. It meant more --- a mechanical revolution so vast as to be beyond the powers of comprehension." 8

In the end, the wave motor project was a disappointment but the hydroelectric project was a success. Thirteen days later the Sentinel happily announced: "Power Furnished by Big Creek Miles Away--Water Harnessed for Electrical Purposes". 9

The Armstrong Brothers and the Santa Cruz Wave Motor: 1898

Two years after the Gerlach wave motor failed, the Santa Cruz Sentinel was finally able to run a headline about a wave motor that worked. On June 25, 1898 it announced, "The Ocean Harnessed. A Wave Motor Has Finally Proved A Success". 10

The wave motor was not built to supply electricity but to supply ocean water for sprinkling the streets and keeping down the dust. At the time, it was mentioned that the wave motor had the potential for producing power but the idea was not followed.

This time Santa Cruz had invested in the right project. The wave motor was a novelty that made their city unique and it provided water for 12 years. It was photographed and put onto postcards. The wave motor's tall tower also provided an excellent place for photographers to take panoramic pictures of the surrounding area.

The inventors were a pair of brothers named William and John E. Armstrong. They had originally built a small model of their wave motor in the cliffs off Black Point and the city officials who came to see it were impressed. The Armstrongs made an agreement with the City of Santa Cruz to install their device in the rocky bluffs on the shores of the beach below West Cliff Drive.

The Armstrongs' wave motor, an oscillating water column, was built inside the cliff. They had dug a thirty-five by six foot hole into the side of the cliff that ran to a level below low tide. From there another tunnel connected it with the ocean. Inside of the thirty-five-foot well was a pump, and attached to that a 600-pound float. When the waves crashed on the shore, they forced water through the tunnel and up the well, lifting the float, opening the valve and filling the pump. As the water receded, the well water would fall, dropping the pump and the float. The valve would close and the piston, under the weight of the float, forced the water through a pipe to a tank on the hill.
Armstrong Motor Well

The wave motor was dismantled in 1910 because of improved street paving that made it unnecessary to water down the roads.

Santa Cruz is the only city in California that has taken pride in being a pioneer of wave power as an alternative energy source. Articles about the Armstrongs' wave motor and its practicability were written long after it was gone.

The only part of the wave motor that remains today is the thirty-five-foot deep well in the cliff.

Ocean Energy is Here!