Cayucos wave-power pioneer Achille B. Tognini

Posted by David Middlecamp on February 27, 2014 

Achille Tognini and his wave power machine built in Cayucos circa 1913, patented in 1915. Twice built and twice destroyed by the ocean, the venture cost Tognini $20,000 of his savings. Photo courtesy of the George Canet Collection.

GEORGE CANET COLLECTION

The flow of thoughts through an inventor’s mind is restless as ocean waves.

Failure is part of the journey, ideas dashed on the rocks, even if Thomas Edison recasts it as discovering “…10,000 ways it won’t work.”

Recently the concept of generating energy from motion in the ocean has regained momentum.

Currently a proposal for converting the shuttered Morro Bay Power Plant to wave power is under consideration.

The history of wave generation in the region traces to Cayucos even before electric power lines arrived in town.

Achille B. Tognini was granted U.S. patent 1127945 on Feb. 9, 1915, for the gearing system he hoped would harness inexpensive power from an inexhaustible source.

The idea was more than a paper drawing; he assembled his system Nov. 5, 1913. Nature proved stronger than the idea, and soon wrecked the effort.

Achille’s life dream and expenditure of his life savings have been documented several times.

David Sneed wrote a story about him for The Tribune on March 9, 2002, and the Los Angeles Times published a story June 27, 1949.

The following story is from the Nov. 17, 1951, Telegram-Tribune by Terry L. Clark:

Early Cayucos Resident Tried to Harness Ocean Tides

CAYUCOS, Nov. 17.—The battered remains of an old water wheel on the rocky coastline at Bruce’s Cove just north of here have often aroused the curiosity of travelers along state Highway 1, and have become a popular target for photographers.

Yet few people viewing the quaint ruins today realize that they are looking upon the failure of a pioneer effort to harness the wasted horsepower of the tides.

The local project antedated by nearly 25 years the interest of the late President Franklin D. Roosevelt in harnessing the tides at Passamaquoddy Bay off the coast of Maine, and its sturdy concrete base stands today as something of a monument to the vision and tenacity of a pioneer Swiss builder in this community.

At high tide, the surf comes thundering through the channel cut into the cliffside, and covers with white foam a rusty axle embedded in two concrete pillars at the water’s edge, just as 38 years ago the sea discouraged A.B. Tognini’s attempts to put its rhythmic movements to worked for mankind.

“His full name was Achille B. Tognini, but he was known as ‘Beans’ to most of us when I was a boy,” Cayucos Constable Roy Genardini said yesterday, in recalling that the pioneer inventor made his home with the family of Roy’s father, Efrom Genardini.

After working for different dairymen in this area for several years, Tognini went into the contracting business, and several buildings still standing here bear his name. He also ran a general merchandise store here under the name of Tognini and Ghezzi, but in 1922 he sold his interest and retired.

“But it was shortly after the turn of the century that Beans got to thinking about the power potentialities going to waste here on the beach, and he started planning to harness the tides,” Genardini recalled.

There was no electricity in the coastal area in those days, and the thrifty Swiss decided that the community should have the use of the power being expended by the surf pounding on its shores.

He built small models of a “wave motor” which he hoped would produce electricity for the Cayucos area, and used the models in efforts to interest outside capital in his idea.

Failing in this, he spent his own money, some $20,000 of it, in his project on the rocky coastline at Bruce’s cove.

All of the work had to be done at low tide when the site was fully exposed to permit blasting and pouring of concrete foundations. As a result, construction was done by night as well as by day, when tides favored.

A channel was cut through the rock, and massive concrete pillars built to support the axle on which the wheel was to be turned by the incoming tide.

There was a well to house the intricate gears, and a long sluiceway was built into the cliff, up which the tide was to rush as it propelled the machinery. After months of work by a crew of workmen, the mechanism was hoisted into place Nov. 5, 1913 — but not for long.

The force of the incoming tide was too great, and the cast-iron gears were smashed. Not to be defeated, Tognini replaced the broken gears with an identical set, skillfully made of steel.

“It looked for a time as if the second effort might be more successful,” recalls Genardini, “but it too failed to stand against the pounding surf.”

Tognini still wasn’t whipped. He tried other ideas to harness the tide. One was a float, which was supposed to operate a form of piston rising and falling with the tide.

Another was a plan to pump sea water up into a reservoir on the cliff then to let it run down hill and operate a turbine. He finally became discouraged in his lone efforts to put the mighty Pacific to work for his fellow townspeople.

Like all inventors who lived too soon, but whose efforts contributed something to the great mass of human experience aimed at a better life, “Beans” was laughed at and ridiculed for his pains, the constable said.

“Occasionally he found a prospective investor who seemed interested, but who wanted to see the device work before putting up any money.”

Tognini died in 1937 after spending most of his life savings in a vain effort to put the mighty Pacific to work for his fellow townsmen.

He had made his home with the Genardini family from the time he came to this country from Someo, Switzerland. He never married.

Many old-time Cayucos residents remember the determined Swiss inventor who was obsessed with his ambitious project.

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