In the late 1870s Pelton modeled, tested and manufactured his first turbine wheel, dubbed the Pelton Runner—later referring to the impulse blades only—at the Miners Foundry in Nevada City, California. In 1878, at the Mayflower Mine in Nevada City, he installed the first operational Pelton wheel. At that time the Knight Foundry wheel was being sold as the industry standard, but in a head-to-head competition staged in 1883 at the Idaho Mine in nearby Grass Valley, Pelton's design proved much more efficient.
The Pelton design provided 90 percent efficiency (of converting streamflow kinetic energy to horsepower) while the next best competitor achieved less than 77 percent—at a time when most extant water wheels typically rated less than 40 percent.
The Pelton wheel also provided sustained power during (typical) lowflow conditions in a mountain stream. In 1887 a miner attached Pelton's wheel to a dynamo and produced the first hydroelectric power in the Sierra Nevada.
In 1895, the largest installation of Pelton's wheel during his lifetime was accomplished at the North Star Mine Powerhouse, Grass Valley, California, by the engineer Arthur De Wint Foote, who designed and installed an over-sized wheel of 30 feet diameter; it performed successfully, greatly increasing the hydropower delivered by the Pelton runners to produce compressed air for mining operations.
Pelton was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2006. There are memorials and monuments celebrating Pelton and the Pelton Runner mounted in Camptonville, California, in the Miners Foundry in Nevada City, California, and at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington D.C., California Resort at Disney Land, among other sites.