Britannia-on-the-Bay

24 May 1900

During the late nineteenth century, electricity was the big new invention that was transforming peoples’ lives. Within a short span of years, electric lights replaced gas lamps in homes, in businesses and on city streets in the major cities of North America. Horse-drawn public transportation was also retired in favour of electric streetcars, also known as trolleys. But while the fast and comfortable trolleys were very popular on weekdays and on Saturday mornings transporting commuters from the suburbs to downtown offices, streetcar companies found their vehicles underused on Saturday afternoons and Sundays. What to do? The answer was to increase weekend ridership by giving people someplace to go and something to do on their time off.  Spurred by the success of Coney Island in New York City, transit companies in many major North American cities built amusement parks, colloquially known as “electric parks.” Constructed at the end of a streetcar line, these parks attracted thousands of working class men, women and children seeking weekend fun and excitement. Of course, people had to buy a streetcar ticket to get there; the days of the automobile were still in the future.

Ottawa-Hull was no exception to these trends. Thomas Ahearn and Warren Soper introduced the electric streetcar to the nation’s capital in 1891. Four years later, their Ottawa Electric Railway Company (OERC) opened the West End Park on Holland Avenue in Hintonberg, which was then on the outskirts of the city. Later known as Victoria Park, following the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1897, the park was the home to many rides and musical entertainments. The West End Park was the location of the showing of the first motion pictures in Ottawa in 1896. Across the Ottawa River two miles west of Alymer, the Hull-Alymer Electric Railway Company opened “Queen’s Park,” in May 1897, again named in honour of Queen Victoria, at the western terminus of its line. Among the attractions at this park, located on Lac Deschênes (a widening in the Ottawa River rather than an actual lake), were a merry-go-round, a water chute and a “mystic maze.”

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People boarding the OERC trolley, Britannia-on-the-Bay, 1900, Henry Joseph Woodside, Library & Archives Canada, PA-016974.

To compete with the Queen’s Park development in Quebec, the OERC acquired eighteen acres of land in the little summer cottage community of Britannia Village to the west of Ottawa. There, it established in 1900 an amusement park, with swimming and boating facilities on the Ontario side of Lac Deschênes, with a purpose-built tramline linking the new park to downtown Ottawa. Appropriately, it was called the Britannia line. Thomas Ahearn gave journalists a sneak preview of the new line in mid-January 1900. Although the rails had been laid all the way to Britannia Village, at that date the electric lines only went as far as Richmond Road. But the tramline was completed in time for its official opening at 6am on the Queen’s Birthday holiday on 24 May 1900. From the post office at the corner of Sparks and Elgin Streets to Britannia-on-the-Bay tram stop took just twenty-eight minutes, much of which was through the city. The trip from Holland Avenue, the previous end of the line, to Britannia-on-the Bay, with stops at Westboro, Barry’s Wharf and Baker’s Bush, took only eight minutes. The cost for the trip from downtown was initially set at 10 cents—the usual 5 cent fare plus another five cents to travel on the newly completed Britannia line. The five-cent supplement was later dropped.

In and of itself, the trip to Britannia-on-the-Bay was an exciting adventure for Ottawa citizens at the dawn of the twentieth century. Carried in specially-made carriages, trolley goers were taken along rails that ran close to the south side of Richmond Road except for the last mile or so where they crossed Richmond Road to head into Britannia. After leaving the city, which essentially ended at Preston Street, people journeyed through fields of grain and cow pastures, past fine homes and shoreline cottages before reaching their destination. A journalist on the initial January test run said there was a number of long grades with several sharp turns that give the route “a rolling appearance” which will “add zest,” since “pleasure-seeking humanity likes a spice of danger with its bit of fun.” He added that between Hintonburg and Britannia, there were a number of lovely spots.

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The footbridge over the CPR tracks at Britannia Park, 1900, Henry Joseph Woodside, Library & Archives Canada, PA-016975.

On reaching Britannia-on-the-Bay, riders crossed to the park, its beach and a long pier via a high footbridge, built at a cost of $1,500 by the OERC, which went over the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) tracks that ran north of the tramline. The footbridge allowed visitors to the park to avoid any danger of being hit by passing trains. On the other side were picnic gardens, concession stands as well as bathing and boating facilities on a thirty-foot wide pier that extended 1,050 feet into Lac Deschênes. The pier was built of wood with a stone base, using material excavated by the Metropolitan Power Company in an earlier failed attempt to build a canal and hydroelectric generating station at Britannia. Lit by electric lights at night, the pier was furnished with seating that ran along its length, perfect for visitors to sit and enjoy the sights, listen to band concerts, and to watch the promenading crowds. At the end of the pier was a perpendicular, two hundred foot long breakwater that protected moorings for boats. At the land end, two octagonal pavilions were erected at a cost of $2,500, housing a restaurant, changing rooms and bathrooms, a ladies’ parlour and sitting rooms.

The weather on opening day was bright and fine, attracting thousands of Ottawa picnickers to try out the OERC’s new park and pier at Britannia. Although the pavilions were not quite completed, they “were temporarily fitted up for use” for the estimated crowd of 12,000-15,000 visitors. The band of the 43rd Battalion gave a concert in the afternoon and evening to the multitudes. When darkness fell, the park was brilliantly illuminated by electric lights. Ten large arc lights lit up the pier.

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Britannia Pier, 1900, Henry Joseph Woodside, Library & Archives Canada, PA-016976.

The new Britannia Park was a big success, and over the next several years was considerably improved and expanded. With the new waterside park eclipsing the old Victoria Park on Holland Avenue, the OERC cannibalized the latter’s attractions, moving its merry-go-round and auditorium to Britannia. In 1904, the OERC increased the size of the park by buying the 35-acre Mosgrove property close to Carling Avenue. It also extended the pier by four hundred feet, at the end of which a three-story boat house was erected that became the Britannia Boating Club’s clubhouse. In addition to rooms for members and a lower storage area for boats and canoes, which were available for rent by visitors, the clubhouse had a large ballroom and grandstand for spectators. At night, a searchlight on top of the building played over the darkened waters of Lac Deschênes. Other attractions at Britannia Park included excursions on the double-decker, side-wheeler, steamer G.B. Greene, the “Queen” of the Ottawa River which took tourists upstream to Chats Falls two or three times a week. Through the summer, holidaymakers were entertained by the festivities and music of “Venetian Nights.”

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Britannia Boating Clubhouse, c. 1907, William James Topley, Library & Archives Canada, PA-009028.

Britannia Park enjoyed its peak of popularity before World War I. Then things started to sour. In 1916, the G.B. Greene burnt. Though it was rebuilt, with Canada at war sightseeing wasn’t as popular as in the past. The steamer ended up towing logs and was dismantled in 1946. In August 1918, the Clubhouse at the end of the pier was consumed by flames. Some two hundred canoes and boats, along with the personal effects of members as well as trophies, furnishings and other valuables were lost. Although the cause of the $50,000 fire was never accurately determined, it was believed that a lighted cigarette carelessly thrown into the window of a bathroom was to blame.

Through the 1920s, amusement parks everywhere began to lose their allure. With more and more families owning their own automobile, people had the luxury of exploring other entertainment options. No longer were they limited to where the trolley could take them. Queen’s Park outside of Aylmer closed. Britannia limped on. The Park’s Lakeside Gardens Pavilion still managed to pull in the crowds for dances through the 1930s. Sunday band concerts also remained popular. In the early 1930s, the OERC began promoting the Park as a great place for parents to send their children. For youngsters under 51 inches tall, (i.e. roughly 8 years old or less) the trolley company advertised that they could travel to Britannia for only 6 4/7 cents, total fare, if they purchased a book of seven tickets for 25 cents plus an additional 3 cent fare for the Britannia line. Under its policy of “Safety First,” the trolley company said that special attention and care would be given to children by its car men. “It is therefore possible to send children to Britannia-on-the-Bay with the assurance that they will be safe while going, while at the beach and while returning.” Clearly this was a different time with a different level of care expected of parents. Few today would consider sending young children to swim at a public beach on city transit without formal supervision.

By the late 1940s, Britannia Park and Britannia beach were becoming shabby from years of use and limited maintenance. Transit consultants advised the financially weak OERC to close the park. In 1948, the Ottawa Transport Commission, which was owned by the City of Ottawa, took over the transit company, including its Britannia property. Concerned that the park was continuing to deteriorate, the City decided in 1951 to operate it directly. Some improvements were made, including the building of a children’s miniature railway at the park. However, more grandiose plans that include a zoo, stock-car racing and two artificial pools never left the drawing board. Park infrastructure continued to rot. Meanwhile, the beach was becoming fouled by weeds and pollution. By 1954, what had been one of Canada’s top tourist attractions was now considered “Canada’s worst.” That year, the footbridge over the CPR tracks was demolished. (The trains themselves continued to go through the Park until they were re-located out of downtown Ottawa in 1966.) In 1955, the aging Lakeside Gardens burnt to the ground.

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Defunct Trolley Station, Britannia Park, 2015.

New investments were finally made into the park in 1958. The rotting wooden pier, now deemed unsafe, was demolished. The stone base of the original 1,050 foot pier built in 1900 was widened and the beach expanded. Lakeside Gardens was also rebuilt for dances. With these changes, the Park experienced a brief renaissance. However, it was not to last, doomed by changing tastes, and for Lakeside Gardens, the lack of a liquor licence. The beach was also increasingly shunned owing to a persistent weed problem. City efforts to control the weeds using bulldozers, chemicals and tons of rock salt proved fruitless. (This was a time before much consideration was given to the environment.) In any event, pollution closed the beach for extended periods. During the 1960s and 1970s, Britannia Park was threatened by a planned extension of the Ottawa River Parkway (today’s Sir John A. Macdonald Parkway) through the Park using the old CPR right-of-way, now turned into a bike path, as well as the construction of the Deschênes Bridge that would have link Alymer to Ottawa. Both ideas were finally scuppered by opposition from area residents and changing government priorities.

Today, Britannia Village, annexed by Ottawa in 1950, is no longer a remote summer cottage community. Businesses and housing have long filled the open space between the old City of Ottawa and Britannia and beyond. The streetcars that once linked it to downtown are gone; the last trolley to Britannia-on-the-Bay rode into history in 1959. But the magnificent park and beach endure. Owing to the marked improvement to the water quality of the Ottawa River due to the closure of the pulp and paper mills that had polluted it with their effluent, and the treatment of sewage by riverine communities, boaters and swimmers have returned. While Britannia Park and its beach may no longer attract the hordes of day trippers they did every weekend one hundred years ago, they remain a popular summer destination for people trying to escape the heat of the City. The Ron Kolbus-Lakeside Centre, formerly the Lakeside Gardens, also continues to host big band dances as well as education courses ranging from the arts and crafts and dog obedience, to yoga and fitness.

Sources:

Evening Journal, (The), 1897. “Handled The Motor,” 27 May.

—————————-, 1900. “The New Electric Line To Britannia,” 15 January.

—————————-, 1900. “Searchlight on Lake Deschenes,” 2 April.

—————————, 1900. “Ottawans Loyally Observed the 24th,” 25 May.

—————————, 1906. “A Good Show At Britannia,” 22 May.

—————————, 1918. “Britannia Club House Is Destroyed By Fire Loss Nearly $50,000,” 30 August.

—————————, 1931. “The Children’s Beach At Britannia-on-the-Bay.” 13 July.

—————————, 1948, “Battle Of Seaweed Goes On At Britannia,” 1 May.

—————————, 1951. “Britannia Park Is Saved,” 21 June.

—————————, 1954. “Recommend Closing Britannia Park Amusement Centre,” 27 May.

—————————, 1954. “State of Britannia Park,” 28 May.

—————————, 1954, “At Last New Deal Coming For Battered Britannia Park,” 23 July.

Ottawa, (City of), 2016. Ron Kolbus-Lakeside Centre, http://ottawa.ca/en/facility/ron-kolbus-lakeside-centre.

Taylor, Eva & Kennedy, James, 1983. Ottawa’s Britannia, Britannia Historical Association, Ottawa.

 

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The End of Winter Driving Woes

16 April 1928

Ottawa is known for its long, snowy winters. Notwithstanding this, driving conditions are typically good throughout the season. Even through the worst blizzards, the snow ploughs, salters and sanders are out promptly, keeping Ottawa’s thoroughfares open, and the traffic moving. While minor, neighbourhood streets may not get the same attention, they too are cleared within hours of a major snowfall; sidewalks are also quickly ploughed. And when snowbanks begin to obstruct sightlines and impede traffic, city crews are out to reduce or eliminate them. Specialized equipment, which can eat through the iciest snowbank like a hot knife through butter, throws the snow into the open boxes of awaiting trucks that cart it away to dump sites throughout the city.

So accustomed have we become to good winter driving conditions, there was widespread criticism of a recent City staff recommendation to Council that snow-plough operators wait until ten centimetres of snow had fallen before they start clearing roads instead of seven centimetres. Apparently, the City could save $1 million by so doing—a considerable sum, but only a drop out of its snow-clearing budget.

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Sparks Street, 6 April 1885, Samuel J. Jarvis/Library and Archives Canada, C-002186

Our forebears would be amazed by the state of Ottawa’s winter roads. Until the late nineteenth century, no roads were ploughed. While sidewalks were cleared, typically by store-owners, the snow was simply thrown into the middle of the street. Over time, the road bed could rise four feet or more above the sidewalk level. Wheeled traffic became impossible, and many businesses were forced to suspend operations until the return of warm weather. People got around on foot or by horse-drawn sleigh. The latter might sound romantic, but city roads quickly became rutted and icy. “Cow holes”—potholes, only larger—became a significant nuisance. Public transit, provided by Ottawa’s street passenger railway, was to be avoided. In summer, its horse-drawn carriages were pulled smoothly along railway tracks from New Edinburgh to LeBreton Flats. Its winter sleigh service was not so comfortable. The Ottawa Journal described progress down Ottawa’s streets as being “painfully slow.” This was not just a figure of speech. Customers were bumped, jostled and jolted as sleighs were dragged in and out of the cow holes. The coming of spring only made things worse. Roads became virtually impassable. Pedestrians were knee-deep in slush. Flooding was a serious risk if clogged drains and ditches were not opened in time.

Things began to improve in 1892 with the arrival of the Ottawa Electric Railway Company (OER) that operated a railed, electric tram service on the main streets of the city. Initially, City Council permitted the company to run sleighs through the winter months; nobody thought trams could operate once the snow arrived. However, Thomas Ahearn, the owner of the OER, invented an electric, rotary snow plough that was fixed to the front of the tram, thereby assuring year-round service.

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Sleigh on Wellington Street in front of the East Block, Parliament Hill, date unknown, Interior Ministry/Library and Archives Canada, PA-043776.

By the 1920s, a variety of agencies were responsible for snow ploughing in Ottawa. Under the terms of its service contract with the City, the OER ploughed the snow off the 60 miles of streets on which its trams ran, roughly one-third of Ottawa’s 168 miles of roadways. This did not mean, however, that these streets were cleared to the pavement. The OER was required to leave sufficient snow on the roads for sleighs. The Federal District Commission (FDC), the forerunner of the National Capital Commission, also ploughed the Driveways for which it was responsible, while the Federal Department of Public Works cleared snow from the roadways on Parliament Hill and on parts of Wellington Street. However, all other Ottawa arteries and side streets, roughly 100 miles, remained unploughed, and quickly became impassable to wheeled traffic.

Fortunately for pedestrians, Ottawa’s Public Works Department took responsibility for clearing 250 miles of city sidewalks using horse-drawn, walkway ploughs at a cost of roughly $30,000 per season. City workers were paid 50 cents an hour, time and a half at night. Ottawa was divided into nine districts, each with a foreman in charge of snow-ploughing operations. Ploughing teams were sent out as soon as 4-5 inches of snow had fallen. After a heavy snow fall, or two or more light falls, amounting to 12-15 inches, the walkway ploughs were used to push the snow into the centre of the streets where it was flattened by heavy rollers. Heated sand was sometimes used on slippery walks.

As the Roaring Twenties progressed, and the number of automobile owners rose dramatically, Ottawa City Council came under growing pressure to improve winter driving conditions throughout the city. Snow-covered roads increasingly became an economic issue. Retailers worried that customers couldn’t reach them. Grocers complained that their profit margins were too slim for them to own a truck for summer deliveries as well as a horse and sleigh for winter deliveries. City staff also discovered the main arteries along which the OER ran were deteriorating faster than expected, owing to automobile traffic being funnelled along those few ploughed roads. Tire chains installed by car owners to improve traction in snow were chewing up the pavement. City Council considered a ban on chains but rejected it as chains were widely used throughout the province. An alternative was to plough the side streets, thereby spreading the automobile traffic, and hence road wear, over more roadways.

In late 1926, City Council ordered the Public Works Department to try “various measures” to keep Ottawa’s principal streets open. Poor Works Commissioner Macallum was reported to have been “quite at a loss” to know what he should do. He had only eighteen, old, horse-drawn walkway ploughs at his disposal. In early 1927, the Council acquired mechanized help in the form three tractors and ploughs: two Fordson crawler-type tractors, furnished with V-type Sargent ploughs from Campbell Motor Sales for $2,295, and one 1.5 ton Holt Caterpillar tractor with a Walsh V-type plough from E. N. & W. E. Soper for $5,970. Unfortunately, the vehicles didn’t arrive in time to avoid “violent attacks” at City Council over the quality of Ottawa’s streets when warmer weather arrived in March. Councilmen complained that Carling Avenue was in a “disgraceful condition” owing to ruts. Meanwhile, downtown pedestrians were said to be wallowing around in slush up to their knees.

The following winter (1927-28), the City’s newly equipped Public Works Department started to plough twenty-four miles of Ottawa streets adjacent to those cleared by the OER. This still wasn’t adequate. In February 1928, Frank Askwith, the City’s Deputy Commissioner of Public Works submitted a report to the City’s Board of Control, recommending the ploughing of all streets, some 100 miles of roadway, that were not cleared by the OER or the FDC. (As a point of comparison, Ontario ploughed 800 miles of provincial highways during the 1928-29 winter season.) Askwith also recommended the purchase of two high-powered tractor ploughs capable of clearing streets at a speed of 12 miles per hour at a cost of $15,000. He additionally suggested that more “scarifiers” be used to break down ice ridges and reduce uneven road surfaces. The estimated additional annual cost to the City of his proposal was $25,000. Askwith recommended against removing snowbanks from the streets owing to cost considerations. The Board of Control welcomed the recommendations, and on 16 April 1928, City Council adopted Askwith’s plan to commence that following winter season. The cost of the endeavour was to be borne by property owners at a charge of 30 cents per foot of frontage.

Unfortunately, you can’t please all the people all the time. Sleigh owners complained about insufficient snow being left on the roads. Some property owners also objected to the cost of snow ploughing, preferring their streets to remain unploughed. But most citizens wanted the City to do even more. Retail merchants argued persuasively about the dangers, especially to the elderly, of people trying to alight from parked cars that were perched dangerously on roadside snowbanks. The City consequently began to remove the snowbanks from in front of stores. Permission to dump the snow into the Rideau Canal at a site south of the Laurier Street Bridge was granted by the Superintendent of Canals. The City later began to clear snow in front of all churches as well as in front of residences from which funerals were to take place; district foremen were required to monitor funeral notices.

Ruts too were a perennial source of complaint, as they made winter motoring hazardous. Once a driver got stuck in one, it was almost impossible to get out until the car came to an intersecting channel. For several years, the City and the OER fought over whether the tram company was doing an adequate job of maintaining the roads its carriages used. The tramline company claimed that while it was responsible for the ploughing of snow from the streets on which it operated, it was not responsible for the removal of ruts that might subsequently develop. After a battle of words, the City threatened in 1929 to send a $1,025 bill to the tramline company for rut removal. It desisted when the City’s solicitor said that the contract was sufficiently vague that it was uncertain that the City would win a legal case. Fortunately, harmony was restored when the OER took steps to cut down the ruts to a depth the City considered acceptable.

Ottawa’s first year of cleared streets was deemed a great success. At the end of February 1930, in an editorial titled “The Ruts of Yesteryear,” The Ottawa Journal opined that the nuisance of spring ruts had been finally overcome. “For the first time, motoring has been practicable in all parts of the city for the whole winter.”

In 2015, the City of Ottawa cleared 5,938 kilometres of highways, road and bike paths, and a further 2,233 kilometres of sidewalks at a cost of $67.5 million.

Sources:

CBC News, 2016. “Ottawa $7.6 million over budget for snow clearing in 2015,” 1 March.

City Of Ottawa, 1927. “Borrowing of $15,000 for the purchase of snow-ploughing apparatus,” By-Law # 6269, 16 May.

——————, 1927. Minutes of Board of Control, 3 March.

——————, 1928. Minutes of Board of Control, 16 April.

——————, 1928. Minutes of Council, 20 February.

——————, 1928. “Snow plowing,” By-law 6554, 10 December.

Ottawa Citizen (The), 1929. “City Gets Permission To Dump Snow Into The Canal, Ruts On Road A Major Problem, 6 February.

Ottawa Evening Journal (The), 1922. “With Six Horse Cars Running And “Toonerville” Equipment Ottawa Hops Into City Class,” 21 October.

——————–, 1924. “Criticize System Of Plowing Snow,” 11 January.

——————–, 1926. “City Is Buying Three Tractors To Move Snow,” 26 November.

——————–, 1928. “More Roadways May Be Plowed With Tractors, 1 February.

——————–, 1928. “Violent Attacks In Council on ‘Disgraceful Conditions” Existing On Roads,” 8 March.

——————–, 1928. “Keeping Up Roads,” 27 March.

——————–, 1928. “Suggest Plowing 100 Miles Of Streets At Cost Of $25,000,” 4 April.

——————–, 1928. “Preparing for Next Winter,” 5 April.

——————–, 1928. “Council Approves Of Plan To Plow 100 Miles Streets, 17 April.

——————–, 1928. “Planning To Keep 1,200 Miles Open.” 22 September.

——————–, 1928. “Dr. McElhinney Endorses Plan of Controller, 7 December.

——————–, 1929. “City Gives Up Hope Of Collecting Cost Cutting Down Ruts,” 24 April.

——————–, 1929. “City Accepts OER Efforts To Clear Snow,” 21 December.

——————–, 1930. “The Ruts Of Yesteryear,” 25 February.

——————–, 1932. “Snow Removal Policy Passed, Cost is $20,000,” 8 January.

Quebec Telegraph (The), 1921. “Question Of Snow Removal From The Streets Of Quebec Important One For Citizens,” 26 November.

 

 

Ahoy-hoy Ottawa

9 November 1877

Even though one hundred and forty years have passed since Alexander Graham Bell was awarded a patent for the telephone, there is still bitter disagreement over whether he was truly the inventor of the device. Many others were working simultaneously in the field, including Antonio Meucci, Elisha Gray and Johann Reis. All have claims on being the telephone’s “father.” Even if priority of claim is accorded to Bell, the telephone is hardly an all-Canadian invention as many Canadians believe. According to Bell himself, the telephone was conceived in Brantford but developed at his workshop in Boston. Moreover, three countries can consider Bell to be one of their own as he was born in Scotland, moved to Canada in 1870, but subsequently became a naturalized U.S. citizen. Later, he divided his time between Canada and the United States, dying at his country retreat near Baddeck, Nova Scotia in 1922.

In 2002, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution (No. 269) drafted by Congressman Vito Fossella that in essence gave priority of claim to Antonio Meucci, an Italian inventor who had immigrated to New York in the nineteenth century, based on a patent caveat (a notice of an intention to file a patent) for a “sound telegraph” filed with the U.S. Patent Office in 1871. Worse still, the Congressional resolution insinuated that Bell had stolen Meucci’s invention.

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Alexander Graham Bell, late in life, Moffett Studio, Library and Archives Canada, C-017335.

Appalled by this slight on Canadian history and Bell’s integrity, the Canadian House of Commons responded ten days later by passing a parliamentary motion affirming Bell as the inventor of the telephone. While there is no evidence that Bell stole Meucci’s ideas, it’s true that Meucci had been working on developing a similar instrument for some years. However, his patent caveat application did not describe an ability to transmit voices. Unable to afford the small fee to maintain his position, Meucci let his patent caveat lapse.

On the same day that Bell’s lawyer filed a patent application at the U.S. Patent Office in Washington D.C. in February 1876, Elisha Gray submitted a patent caveat for his telephone. The two submissions were remarkably similar. While many accounts say Bell’s submission beat Gray’s by two hours, it’s not clear which got to the Patent Office first. A contrary view has Gray getting his application in ahead of Bell only for it to end up at the bottom of an “In” basket. Regardless, under the law at the time who got to the Patent Office first mattered less than who could demonstrate that he came up with the idea first. Bell successfully made his case to the patent examiner, and was awarded U.S. patent #174,465 in March 1876 for “The method of, and apparatus for, transmitting vocal or other sounds telegraphically…by causing electrical undulations, similar in form to the vibrations of the air accompanying the said vocal or other sound.” His case was strengthened by the fact that Gray withdrew his patent caveat and did not immediately challenge Bell’s claim.

Three days after receiving his patent, Bell produced a functioning telephone. While tinkering with a device at his Boston workshop, Bell’s famous words “Mr Watson, come here, I want to see you.” were heard by his assistant, Thomas Watson, who was working in a separate room down the hall. For that particular experiment, Bell had used a water-based transmitter similar to the one proposed by Gray in his patent caveat—providing Bell naysayers “proof” that he had lifted Gray’s idea. However, Bell never used this type of transmitter in public demonstrations, working instead on the electromagnetic telephone that he demonstrated at the Centennial Exposition in June 1876 in Philadelphia. As an aside, Bell recommended that people answering the phone should say “Ahoy-hoy” rather than “Hello.” This suggestion never caught on, though it did gain a following after its use by “Mr Burns” on the popular television cartoon series The Simpsons.

Needless to say, with the similarities between the Bell and Gray submissions, legal suits began to fly, especially after Gray re-submitted his patent application in 1877. But after two years of litigation, Bell was credited with the invention. This did not stop the legal challenges. Over the next decade, as it became increasingly apparent that there were huge profits to be had in the telephone industry and as new advances in telephone technology were made, the Bell Telephone Company, which was established in 1876 by Bell, his father-in-law, and a Boston financier, was embroiled in hundreds of patent challenges. Some of these law suits went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. A U.S. Congressional study into the telephone was also undertaken in 1886. Despite all the hearings and all the law suits, the Bell Telephone Company emerged triumphant, its patent rights confirmed.

North of the U.S. border, Alexander Graham Bell received Canadian patent #7,789 for his telephone in August 1877. Canadians did not appear to be greatly impressed by the new technology. In early 1878, The Globe newspaper ran an article posing the question Is the telephone a failure? While saying that the invention was “awe-striking” and that it “had faced little popular or scientific hostility,” the newspaper opined that the telephone had serious operational problems, in, particular interference from other lines and “leakage” that led to “the force of the voice to be lost.” Just as we have concerns today about internet security, the newspaper also fretted about telephone security; telephone lines could be easily tapped.

Alexander Melville Bell, the inventor’s father, wrote a blistering riposte, saying that he regretted “that it should be necessary to defend the merits of so original an invention against the pretensions of pottering envy and wise-after-the-event detraction.” Bell senior called the telephone “a triumphant success,” and that they were “learning and improving,” noting that the problem with interference with other wires had already been remedied.

Notwithstanding this stout defence of his son’s invention, there were no Canadian buyers for Bell’s Canadian patent rights when they came on the market. In 1879, Bell senior, to whom his inventor son had earlier given his Canadian patent rights, could not find a Canadian buyer willing to pay his $100,000 asking price. (This is equivalent to about $2.5 million today.) Instead, he sold them to the National Bell Telephone Company of Boston that was later to be become the American Bell Telephone Company. The American company in turn established the Bell Telephone Company of Canada, based in Montreal, under a federal charter at the end of April 1880.

Ottawa’s introduction to the new communications technology occurred in the fall of 1877. After a demonstration of the telephone at the Ottawa Agricultural Exposition in September of that year by William Pettigrew, a friend of Bell senior, the first telephone line was installed on 9 November 1877, linking the office of Alexander Mackenzie, the Premier of the Dominion of Canada, in his capacity as the Minister of Public Works to the office of Lord Dufferin, Canada’s Governor General, at Rideau Hall. It was a private line. Telephone exchanges that would allow multiple people to be connected to each other through an operator were still in the future.

The contract between Bell senior and the Premier called for the installation of two wooden hand telephones #18 and #19 and two wooden box telephones, #25 and #26, at a fee of $42.50 per annum, payable in advance, due annually on 21 September each year. While the lease was executed on 9 November, the lease was backdated to 21 September so that the honour of Canada’s first telephone lease could go to the government. In actuality, the first Canadian commercial telephone lease was signed by Hugh Cosset Baker, an entrepreneur in Hamilton, Ontario, with the District Telegraph Company in October 1877. The telephone line linked Baker’s office to that of a colleague.

Dave Allston, in his Ottawa blog titled The Kichissippi Museum, recounts a delightful story of the first telephone test call between Rideau Hall and Mackenzie’s office. It seems that Mackenzie’s private secretary, William Buckingham, who was stationed at Rideau Hall for the test, was so rattled by hearing the Premier’s voice coming out of a wooden box, that he flubbed reciting the Lord’s Prayer. Admonished by the Premier, he was forced to repeat himself. Following that embarrassing introduction, the Premier and the Governor General spoke to each other for the first official telephone call.

Mackenzie was not terribly impressed with the new-fangled communications instrument owing to its unreliability. It must also have been awkward to use; the same hole was employed for both listening and talking. But when the Premier asked for the telephone to be removed, he was overruled by the Governor General. Apparently, Lady Dufferin, the Governor General’s formidable consort, was much taken with the telephone. According to a 1961 Citizen article she would sing and play the piano into the phone to people at the Premier’s office. Captain Gourdeau of the Princess Louise Dragoon Guards would sing back to her.

With the invention of the telephone exchange—the first exchange in Canada (and, indeed, the first in the British Empire) was installed in 1878 in Hamilton, Ontario—a telephone service similar to what we know today was made possible. In the major Canadian cities, service was initially provided by two competing companies—the Dominion Telegraph Company that marketed Bell equipment and the Montreal Telegraph Company that marketed Edison equipment. This competitive struggle between the two companies paralleled the patent war underway at that time in the United States between the Bell Telephone Company that naturally used Bell equipment and the Western Union Telegraph Company that used Edison equipment. Inconveniently to telephone users, subscribers of one service could not make or receive telephone calls from the other service. The Dominion Telegraph Company opened its Ottawa telephone exchange managed by Warren Soper in January 1880. Its first telephone directory consisted of two pages with less than 80 subscribers. The Montreal Telegraph Company followed suit a month later with its Ottawa office managed by Thomas Ahearn.

Almost immediately after it was established in April 1880, the Bell Telephone Company of Canada purchased the Dominion Telegraph Company. Later that same year, it also acquired the Montreal Telegraph Company, thereby uniting the two large Canadian providers of phone services under one company, and in the process stopping the ruinous war between the two companies that brought them to the point of bankruptcy. In Ottawa, the new Bell Telephone Company was managed by Thomas Ahearn who later went on to fame and fortune as Ottawa’s electricity baron when he joined forces with Warren Soper to create the electrical firm called Ahearn and Soper.

Through the 1880s, the Bell Telephone Company successfully saw off other challengers in the Ottawa market through acquisitions and legal threats. Mid-decade, the company issued a public notice that it would prosecute anyone using the “Wallace” Telephone, or any other telephone provider that infringed on patents originally granted to Bell, Edison, Berliner, and others,” that were still in force and were owned by the Bell Telephone Company of Canada. Instead, the company advertised “instruments under the protection of company patents and are entirely free of risks of litigation.” Would-be buyers of competing equipment were also reminded that such telephones “will not be allowed to connect…into the Company’s lines or exchanges.” The announcement was signed by Thomas Ahearn, Bell’s agent in Ottawa.

By early 1886, Bell Telephone had roughly 400 telephone subscribers in Ottawa, and was growing rapidly. (There were 1,400 subscribers in Montreal.) In October the following year, direct long distance service between Ottawa and Montreal was inaugurated. Previously, callers were routed through Brockville and Prescott. Within weeks, a rapid increase in traffic led to plans for additional long distance lines. In 1888, new telephone poles were erected on Rideau Street and Sussex Avenue to replace old ones that were too short to carry the increasing number of wires. The Ottawa Journal complained that “a telephone company has been stringing wires all over the streets at its own sweet will, without the slightest reference to any civic authority.”  In April 1900, Ottawa was the first Canadian city to do away with the old hand-cranked telephones. With batteries installed in a central office instead of in a customer’s telephone, a person could now reach an operator by simply picking up the receiver. The familiar, table-top telephone that would dominate the telephone scene for the next century had arrived.

Sources:

Allston Dave, 2015. “When the telephone arrived in Kitchissippi,” The Kitchissippi Museum, http://kitchissippimuseum.blogspot.ca/2015/10/when-telephone-arrived-in-kitchissippi.html.

Bell Homestead: National Historic Site, City of Brantford, 2016. Telephone History, http://www.bellhomestead.ca/history/Pages/TelephoneHistory.aspx.

BCE, 2016. History: From Alexander Graham Bell Until Today, http://www.bce.ca/aboutbce/history.

CBC Digital Archives, 2016. Canada Says Hello: The First Century of the Telephone, http://www.cbc.ca/archives/topic/canada-says-hello-the-first-century-of-the-telephone.

Canadian Parliamentary Motion on Alexander Graham Bell, 2016. Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canadian_Parliamentary_Motion_on_Alexander_Graham_Bell.

Casson, Herbert N. 1910. The History of the Telephone, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/819/819-h/819-h.htm.

Globe (The), 1878. “Is The Telephone A Failure,” 4 January.

———, 1878. “The Telephone,” 12 January.

———, 1883. “Discovery of the Telephone: Interview with Pref. Bell,” 1 September.

Globeandmail.com. 2016, Bell Canada: The History of One of Canada’s Oldest Companies, http://v1.theglobeandmail.com/v5/content/features/BellIncomeTrust/bell_incometrust.html.

Mccord Museum, Operator. May I help you?: Bell Canada’s 125 years, http://www.musee-mccord.qc.ca.

Motherboard, 2012, No-one remembers who invented the telephone,” 17 July, http://motherboard.vice.com/blog/alexander-graham-bell-did-not-invent-the-telephone.

Ogle. E. B. 1979. Long Distance Please: The Story of the Trans-Canada Telephone System, Toronto: Collings Publishers.

Ottawa Citizen (The), 1961. “Line Veterans Revive Old Days,” 28 October.

Ottawa Journal (The), 1886. “Public Notice,” 1 February.

—————-, 1886. “Ottawa to Montreal,” 21 April.

—————-, 1886. “Montreal and Ottawa,” 22 July.

—————-, 1887. “Another Telephone Line,” 22 November.

—————-, 1888. “The Overhead Network Growing,” 5 June.

—————-, 1888. “Civic Notes,” 25 June.

Stritof, Bob and Sheri, 2006. “Who Really Invented The Telephone,” Telephone Tribute, http://www.telephonetribute.com/telephone_inventors.html.

Uren, Janet, 2006. “The man who lit up Ottawa,” Ottawa, http://wordimage.ca/files/Ahearn.pdf.

U.S.Patent Office, 1876. Improvements in telegraphy, Patent #174465, 7 March.

Ottawa Enters the Automobile Age

11 September 1899

At the end of the nineteenth century, the world stood at the cusp of the automobile age. For decades, inventors, tinkerers, and entrepreneurs in Europe and North America had been working hard on developing a vehicle that could be driven on streets and highways without the aid of horses or other draught animals. In 1875, l’Obéissante, a steam-driven vehicle invented by Amédée-Ernest Bollée of France, which could carry twelve passengers, travelled from Le Mans to Paris in eighteen hours. Ten years later, Karl Benz invented the Motorwagen, the first automobile with a gasoline-powered engine. The first International Motor Show was held in Berlin in 1897. Also that year, battery-powered, electric automobiles, nicknamed “hummingbirds,” were introduced as taxis in London. According to the Annuaire Generale de l’Automobile, there were about 10,000 vehicles in Europe in 1899, of which roughly two-thirds were in France.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the American Duryea Brothers built their first internal combustion car in 1893. Three years later, Henry Ford and Ransom Eli Olds started production of gasoline-driven automobiles. In June 1899, there were only 72 automobiles in New York City, most of which were electric hansom cabs. In 1900, total U.S. vehicle production topped 4,000, with some 8,000 automobiles on American roads. By 1910, U.S. car production, led by the Ford and Buick companies, had ramped up to almost 130,000 units.

Canadians too were busy. Henry Seth Taylor, born in Stanstead, Quebec in 1833, is credited with building the first car in Canada, a four-wheeled steam buggy that he demonstrated at the Stanstead Fair in 1867. Sadly, it was not successful, and Taylor turned his attention to other inventions. In 1893, William Still and Frederick Featherstonehaugh built an electric automobile in Toronto that had a top speed of 15 miles per hour, and was showcased at the Toronto Industrial Exhibition of that year. Three years later, George Foot Foss of Sherbrooke, Quebec built a four-horsepower, one-cylinder, gasoline-powered vehicle, later dubbed the “Fossmobile.”

Warren Y. Soper, the partner of Thomas Ahearn in Ottawa’s electricity business that owned the Ottawa Electric Company and Ottawa’s tram system among other things, was an early automobile investor. He was one of a group that bought out Canada’s leading bicycle companies in 1899 to create the Canadian Cycle and Motor Company (CCM) that operated out of Toronto. While primarily a bicycle company, the new firm under President Walter Massey also began to produce automobiles, including the electric Ivanhoe from 1901-1904 and the Russell, an electric, two-passenger runabout produced from 1903 to 1916 by a CCM subsidiary, the Russell Motor Car Company. The Russell is considered Canada’s first, successful, production automobile.

At the turn of the century, the automobile was still a rich man’s toy. Cars were custom-made in very small workshops, and could easily cost $2,000-2,500, many times the average worker’s annual income. Assembly-line production, which was to lower the price of an automobile to within the grasp of the middle class, was still a decade or more in the future. But for the wealthy seeking a mode of transportation, an automobile was competitive with a traditional two-horse carriage. It also had the allure of a status symbol. In 1899, the Ottawa Journal noted that to own and operate a two-horse carriage in New York would cost $120 per month or more, excluding the cost of purchasing a “flash carriage.” This monthly bill, included $30 for the upkeep of each horse plus an additional $5-15 for shoeing and veterinarian bills, and a further $40 to pay the wages of a full-time coachman. By comparison, one could lease an automobile, complete with driver, for $180 per month, including the cost of repairs. In fine aristocratic style, the chauffeur could wear private livery while the lessee’s crest or monogram could be painted on the doors of the vehicle. Automobiles were also more spacious that horse-drawn carriages, and could go for longer distances.

When Ottawa got its first glimpse of the horseless carriage is a bit murky. A 1912 Ottawa Evening Journal article stated that first first automobile to grace Ottawa’s streets was a De Dion in 1898, driven by Harry Ketchum, the owner of an Ottawa bicycle company, who had imported it from France. The  one-cylinder vehicle, which had four spoke wheels, was described as a cross between a bicycle and an automobile, with something like a bicycle seat for the driver and a passenger seat “located dangerously near the front wheels.” However, there was no mention of the vehicle in the 1898 press. Moreover, the following year, when Thomas Ahearn drove down Sparks Street on 11 September 1899 in an electric automobile, the Journal described the car as Ottawa’s first.

Ahearn had imported the electric vehicle from Chicago. Earlier that year, he and W.W. Wylie, the manager and chief mechanic of the Ottawa Car Company, another firm owned by Ahearn and Soper that manufactured electric streetcars on Slater Street, had gone to an automobile show at Madison Square Gardens in New York. The two men were captivated by what they saw. The automobile they ordered was a two-seater, electric buggy with pneumatic tires that could run at five speeds, ranging from 2 to 15 miles per hour. It had a range of 50 miles on a single charge. The make of the vehicle was not reported.

The Journal said that the vehicle looked like an ordinary carriage except for the fact that there was a steering lever in front of the seat, and a brake rising through the floor in front of the dashboard. The storage battery was hidden within the body of the vehicle, with a meter in front of the driver showing the amount of charge available. Two buttons under the seat allowed the driver to turn on and off the current “at will.” The vehicle was also key-controlled to prevent it from being operated if left unattended. The keyhole was located under the seat. The automobile’s gearing, covered and dust-proof, was attached to the bottom of the carriage at the real axle. The vehicle weighed 1,000 pounds, and cost $1,600.

On that Monday morning, Thomas Ahearn drove down Sparks Street in front of hundreds of people who admired the passage of the swift and silent automobile. Seated beside Ahearn was Alexander Burritt, Ottawa’s City Registrar, who Ahearn chauffeured to his office—Ottawa’s first commute by car. Later that day, Ahearn and his son Franklin took a spin out to Britannia to witness work on the streetcar line that was under construction.  Afterwards, the vehicle was put on display at the 1899 Central Canada Exhibition.

Automobile 12-5-04

Automobile Advertisment, Wilson & Co., Ottawa, 12 May, 1904, The Ottawa Journal

While it may be uncertain whether it was Harry Ketchum or Thomas Ahearn who drove the first car on Ottawa’s streets, it appears that Ketchum sold the first car in Ottawa in 1902 to Dr Mark  McElhinney, later secretary of the Ottawa Valley Motor Car Association,  for $900. The make of the automobile is unknown. Ketchum also opened one of the first car dealerships in Ottawa. In early 1903, Ketchum & Company, which sold are repaired bicycles out of their premises in the Grant Building on the north-west corner of Bank and Sparks Streets, offered for sale the “pick of the American market,” including the “celebrated Winton Touring Car, the Stanhope, and a full line of Ramblers.” At roughly the same time, Wilson & Company marketed the Pierce Motorette, a single cylinder, gas powered vehicle made by the Pierce Arrow Automobile Company of Buffalo, New York, out of its offices at 142-146 Bank Street. It later added to its range the Pierce Stanhope and the top of the line Pierce Grand Arrow, as well as a Ford touring car, an Olds runabout, an Oriental Buckboard and the “made in Canada” electric Ivanhoe.

Despite eye-popping prices that started at roughly $600, orders for automobiles came pouring in. By August 1903, there were fourteen cars on Ottawa streets, eighty by mid-1905. Colonel Hurdman was the talk of the town when he purchase a $3,000 Pierce Arrow from Wilson & Company in May 1904. The two-cylinder, 18-horsepower vehicle was the first of its kind in Ottawa. It could carry five passengers comfortably, two in front and three in the “tonneau.”  The automobile was furnished with two burnished headlamps, and was painted blue and gold. It could travel 150 miles on one tank of gas.

Complaints about reckless drivers scaring horses and pedestrians alike also started to pour in. Recall that during these early years of motoring, people didn’t need to pass a government driving test in get behind a steering wheel. In August 1903, the Ontario government passed legislation restricting the speed of automobiles on any public highway within a town or city to 10 miles per hour. Racing was also forbidden, and when approaching a horse, the driver of an automobile had to exercise every reasonable precaution to prevent frightening the animal. The fine for the first offence was $25; subsequent offences could lead to one month in prison.

Motoring bodies also provided guidance to new drivers who were instructed to obey the rules of the road, keep to the right and pass only on the left, and to respect the 10 miles per hour speed limit. Motorists were also cautioned that vehicles did not have right-of-way at street crossings (this was before street lights), and not to drink and drive. Apparently, nine-tenths of automobile accidents at that time involved intoxicated drivers.

Byward Market William James Topley  Library and Archives Canada  PA-009842

Byward Market, Upper photo taken circa 1895, William James Topley/Library Canada, C-005647. Lower photo taken circa 1920, Library & Archives Canda, C-006254. In roughly twenty-five years, horses all but vanished.

Byward Market, c.1920-30, LAC, C-006254

Of course accidents happened. The first automobile accident on Ottawa streets occurred at 10.30pm on 9 November 1903 when Joseph O’Grady of Britannia was run down by a car driven by Harry Ketchum at the corner of Maria Street (now Laurier Avenue) and Bank Street. After receiving immediate care from Allen’s Drugstore located at that corner, O’Grady was taken to the Water (Bruyère) Street Hospital to be treated for a broken leg. Ketchum said he was going “fairly slowly” when O’Grady, who had been waiting for a tram, walked onto the street in front of his automobile after failing to hear his horn. O’Grady did not blame Ketchum for the accident.

Needless to say, Harry Ketchum also received the first speeding ticket issued in Ottawa. In early June 1905, Constable Ethier charged him and Mr E.G. Shepherd with speeding and racing on Wellington Street. At their trial, the officer estimated that the two men were driving their vehicles in excess of 25 miles per hour, taking only seconds to traverse the distance between Kent and Bay Streets. Ketchum argued that the two cars could not have possibly been going faster than 10 miles per hour since Shepherd’s car was in poor condition. He brought in a professional chauffeur, Joseph Gentile, who had driven Shepherd’s car that same day to testify that the vehicle could not have exceeded the speed limit. Ketchum also testified that the two men had only pretended to have been racing. The judge, unable to arrive at any idea of the speed of the automobiles, dismissed the case.

While the introduction of the automobile and the demise of the horse and buggy had their drawbacks, including accidents, smells, and loud noises that disturbed the serenity of town and countryside, there were many positives, in addition, of course, to greater ease of travel and communication. Prior to the automobile, vast tracks of arable land were devoted solely to the production of fodder and grain to feed horses and other draught animals. It’s also often forgotten that animal waste posed serious pollution and disposal problems for cities. The spread of disease was another issue. As early as 1900, the Ottawa Journal reported the hope of the medical profession that “when automobiles glide through Ottawa streets and the horse is only used for pleasure,” that tetanus will almost completely disappear. The same article also hope that the arrival of the automobile would reduce the number of traffic accidents. It noted that in Paris where the automobile was already widely used, the proportion of accidents causing death involving automobiles was significantly lower than those involving horse-drawn vehicles.

Regardless of the pros and cons of the automobile, its allure proved irresistible. Within a few short years, the face of Ottawa was irrevocably changed. In 2011, there were 515,784 registered vehicles in Ottawa and 653,324 licensed drivers. Sadly that same year 3,690 people were injured in collisions with 25 fatalities.

Sources:

Bonikowsky, Laura, 2006, “Automobile,” Historica Canada, 2 February, http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/automobile/.

Canada Science and Technology Museum, 2016, In Search of the Canadian Car, http://www.canadiancar.technomuses.ca/eng/frise_chronologique-timeline/1800/.

Farfan, Matthew, 2014, “Henry Seth Taylor (1833-1887) And Canada’s First Car,” Townships Heritage Web Magazine, http://townshipsheritage.com/article/henry-seth-taylor-1833-1887-and-canadas-first-car.

General Motors Heritage Center, Olds, Ranson Eli, https://history.gmheritagecenter.com/wiki/index.php/Olds,_Ransom_Eli.

German National Tourist Board, 2016. Home of the Car, Milestones in the German automotive industry, http://www.germany.travel/en/specials/home-of-the-car/history/history.html.

History, 1991. “Automobiles,” http://www.history.com/topics/automobiles.

Kichissippi Times, 2014. “This 101-year old company began with one great idea,” http://kitchissippi.com/2014/09/18/history-of-ketchum-manufacturing-westboro/.

McGenty, George, 2014, “CCM – The Best Bikes In Town,” Presentation, 25 October 2013, Historical Society of Ottawa, January 2014, http://hsottawa.ncf.ca/Dnlds/HSONewsJan14.pdf.

Ottawa Citizen (The), 1899. “Sunday at the Fair,” 18 September.

Ottawa, City of, 2015. 2011 Ottawa Road Safety Report, http://ottawa.ca/en/2011-ottawa-road-safety-report.

Ottawa Journal (The), 1899. “Cost Of An Automobile,” 10 June.

————————–, 1899. “A $6,000,000 Company,” 22 August.

————————–, 1899. “The First Automobile,” 7 September.

————————–, 1899. “A Trip In An Automobile,” 11 September 1899.

————————–, 1899. “Annuaire Generale de l’Automobile,” 23 November.

————————–, 1903. “Lockjaw And Automobiles,” 25 January.

————————–, 1903. “Local Automobilists Say Objecting Cabmen Are Jealous,” 18 August.

————————–, 1903. “First Automobile Accident,” 10 November.

————————–, 1904. “A New Automobile Store For Ottawa,” 26 April.

————————–, 1904. “Col. Hurdman Buys $3,000 Pierce Arrow,” 10 May.

————————–, 1905. “Automobile Road Rules,” 17 March.

————————–, 1905. “Dangerous Automobiles,” 8 June.

————————–, 1905, “Fast Ride In Automobile,” 15 June.

————————–, 1912. “Change In Motor Cars.” 10 February.

The Early Electric Car Site, 2016. Car Companies, http://www.earlyelectric.com/carcompanies.html.

The Old Motor, 2014. The Pierce-Arrow — the Pride of Buffalo, New York, 7 March, http://theoldmotor.com/?p=116215.

An Electric Banquet

29 August 1892

During the late nineteenth century, electricity was the cutting-edge, new technology, and Ottawa was Canada’s high-tech capital, thanks to two factors—the inventive skills of Thomas Ahearn, the Ottawa-born technological genius and entrepreneur, and the power-generating ability of the Chaudière Falls. Ahearn and his partner, Warren Soper, were responsible for lighting Ottawa’s streets with electric lights years ahead of other Canadian cities, and for providing Canada’s Parliament with indoor, electric lighting long before the U.S. Congress could boast such amenities. Ahearn and Soper also built and operated Ottawa’s electrified urban transit system, the Ottawa Electric Street Railway, whose carriages were electrically heated using one of Ahearn’s patented devices. Confounding the “experts,” Ottawa’s electric trams operated through the winter owing to yet another Ahearn invention, an electric snow plough. Ottawa was a great testing ground for electrical devices due to its proximity to the Chaudière Falls, the source of relatively inexpensive hydro power which was exploited by another Ahearn and Soper company, the Chaudière Electric Light and Power Company.

Oven

A pictorial description of Thomas Ahearn’s electric oven. Canadian Patent Office, 1892.

In August 1892, the Canadian Patent Office issued three patents to Thomas Ahearn. Sandwiched between his electric water bottle and his electric flat iron, was patent no. 39,916 for the electric oven. It was described as “An oven having in its hearth inclosed (sic) pits in which electric heaters are placed.” Just like modern ovens, the interior of Ahearn’s oven was lit by incandescent lamps that allowed a person to monitor whatever was being cooked through a glass window.

While some accounts suggest that the Carpenter Electric Heating Company of Philadelphia had invented the electric oven a year before Ahearn was granted his patent in Canada, there is no doubt that the first dinner entirely cooked using electricity took place in Ottawa on 29 August 1892 at the Windsor House hotel. According to a bemused Ottawa Journal journalist, “a complete repast, comprising a number of courses” was cooked “by the agency of chained lightning.” The hotel proudly proclaimed on its menu that “Every item … has been cooked by the electric heating appliance invented and patented by Mr T. Ahearn of Ahearn & Soper of this city and is the first instance in the history of the world of an entire meal being cooked by electricity.” Even the soup, sauces, and after-dinner coffee and tea were prepared using Ahearn’s electric heaters.

The dinner, or more accurately the feast of some thirty different items, consisted of:

Soup

Consommé Royal

Fish

Saginaw Trout with Potatoes, Croquettes, Sauce Tartar

Boiled

Sugar-Cured Ham, Champagne Sauce,

Spring Chickens with Parsley Sauce

Beef Tongue, Sauce Piquant

Roasts

Sirloin of Beef and Horse Radish

Turkey with Cranberry Sauce

Stuffed Loin of Veal, Lemon Sauce

Entrées

Larded Sweetbreads with Mushrooms

Lamb Cutlets with Green Peas, and Strawberry Puffs

Vegetables

Potatoes, Plain and Mashed

Green Corn, Escalloped Tomatoes

Vegetable Marrow

Pudding and Pastry

Apple Soufflés, Wine Sauce

Apple Pie, Black Current Tarts, Chocolate Cake

Coconut Drops, Vanilla Ice Cream, Maraschino Jelly

Fruits

Apples, Raisins, English Walnuts,

Almonds, Watermelon, Grapes

Black Tea, Green Tea, Coffee

Cheese, Biscuits

One hundred guests were invited by the hotel’s proprietor, Mr Daniels, to enjoy the banquet. The guest list included Ottawa’s Mayor Olivier Durocher, Warren Soper, as well as the presidents of the Ottawa Electric Railway and the Chaudière Electric Light and Power Companies. Also in attendance were numerous newspaper reporters that ensured widespread publicity. The meal was prepared at the electric tram sheds owned by Ahearn and Soper, and rushed by a special carriage to the hotel located several blocks away. The meal included a twenty-one pound roast of beef, a thirteen pound roast of veal, and three big turkeys that were cooked simultaneously in the cavernous Ahearn oven; apparently, the oven could accommodate twice that amount.

After the meal, which was acclaimed as a huge success, with everything “cooked to perfection,” the guests boarded another special tram and taken to view the oven at the tram sheds. There, Thomas Ahearn, who had stayed back to supervise his oven’s operation, provided an explanatory lecture. The arched brick oven was six feet wide with two Ahearn electric heaters installed in the bottom, powered by electricity generated by the Chaudière Electric Light and Power Company. The “current consumed by the two [heaters] was 43 amperes at 50 volts.”  The inside of the oven measured four feet by four feet. Peepholes, covered with heavy plate glass, permitted the chefs to observe the progress of the cooking without having to open the door. A major selling feature was the even cooking of the oven—“no scorching in one part and half-done-ness in another part” said the Evening Journal. As a vote of confidence in the new electric oven, Mr Daniels, the owner of the Windsor House hotel, ordered one of Ahearn’s newly patented ovens to be installed in the hotel’s kitchen.

Oven Ahearn

Thomas Ahearn’s Oven In Operation At the Central Canada Exhibition, Ottawa, October 1892.

A few weeks later, there was another, even larger scale, demonstration of Ahearn’s Electric Cooking Oven at the Central Canada Exhibition held in Ottawa. As part of a display of Ahearn electrical products, including electric home heaters, coffee boilers, and special restaurant heaters, a local baker, Mr R.E. Jamieson, used the oven to bake buns, twelve pans at a time, that he sold to the crowds at twenty-five cents each. This was an extraordinary price. A multi-course meal at the Café Parisien on Metcalfe Street could be had for only forty cents. The Electrical Engineer, a New York-based electrical trade journal, quipped that  the expression “‘Went off like hot cakes’ now reads in Ottawa ‘went off like electric cakes.’”

The Ahearn oven that the baker used was slightly different from the one used for the Windsor House banquet, having three heating elements instead of two. The extra element was needed to provide additional heat to offset heat loss through the frequent opening of the door in the cooking of multiple rounds of buns. The oven was also equipped with a pyrometer, turn-off switches, interior lights, and a clock. The oven was the hit of the Fair. Thomas Ahearn was awarded a special gold medal for his display of electrical devices.

While Thomas Ahearn and Warren Soper were successful entrepreneurs, making fortunes from their electrically-based, business empire, the Ahearn electric oven proved to be a dud. It was too bulky to be easily used as a household appliance. As well, few homes or businesses were wired for electricity. Even where electricity was available, electric ovens, being energy gluttons, were expensive to operate, and were not initially competitive with the more familiar wood, coal, or gas ovens. It wasn’t until the 1930s that electric ovens became widely accepted.

 

Sources:

Canadian Patent Office Record and Registrar of Copyrights and Trade Marks, 1893. No, 39,916, Electric Oven, Four Électrique. Vol. 20, Ottawa: Government Printing Bureau.

Daily (The) Citizen, 1892. “Café Parisien,” 8 October.

Electricity, 1893. An Electric Banquet, 14 September, 1892, Volume 3, July 20, 1892 to January 11, 1893.

Electrical (The) Engineer, 1892. Electric Cooking At Ottawa, Can., Volume 14, July-December.

Electrical Review, 1893. A Course Dinner Cooked By Electricity, Volume 21-23, August 27, 1892 to February 18, 1893.

Evening (The) Journal, 1892. “An Electric Banquet,” 30 August.

Innovateus, 2013. Electric Stove, http://www.innovateus.net/content/electric-stove.

Library and Archives Canada, 2006. Made in Canada, Patents of Invention and the Story of Canadian Innovation, Thomas Ahearn, https://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/innovations/023020-3010-e.html.

Mayer, Roy. 1997. Inventing Canada: One Hundred Years of Innovation, Vancouver: Raincoast Books.

National Academy of Engineering, 2015. Great Engineering Achievements of the 20th Century, http://www.greatachievements.org/.

Images:

Patent No. 39,916, Ahearn Electric Oven, The Canadian Patent Office Record And Registrar of Copyrights and Trade Marks, Vol. 20, Ottawa: Government Printing Bureau, 1893.

Thomas Ahearn’s Oven in Operation, Canada Central Fair, Ottawa, October 1892, The Electrical Engineer, “Electric Cooking at Ottawa, Can.,” Volume 14, July-December, author unknown.

It’s Electrifying!

1 May 1885

During the late nineteenth century, the race was on to develop a practical electric lamp, one that delivered a steady, brilliant, and durable light. It also had to be cheap; the electric light was up against a well-established competitor, the gas lamp. Gasworks were major industries at the time. Well capitalized and employing tens of thousands, they lit city streets, businesses and homes, with gas delivered through underground pipes. There were two electric contenders at that time, the arc lamp, which was first demonstrated by Humphry Davy at the beginning of the century but was not a practical source of light until the invention of efficient generators (dynamos) in the 1870s, and the incandescent lamp, perfected by Thomas Edison in 1879. The arc lamp consisted of an “arch” or arc of light between two carbon electrodes in air. While providing an intense, bright light, arc lamps burnt very hot, often emitting sparks. To protect against fire, arc lamps were often equipped with glass globes, open at the top to release the heat. The globes also helped to diffuse the light, which improved its quality, and to block dangerous ultra-violet emissions, though people were unaware of such radiation at the time. Edison’s incandescent bulb used a carbon filament inside a vacuum tube that produced light and heat when electricity was passed through it. Its light was much less intense that that of the arc lamp. For illuminating large spaces, especially outdoor spaces, the arc lamp initially had the edge over the incandescent bulb. In contrast, the smaller incandescent bulb was much better suited for indoor settings. Arc lamp street lights were installed in Paris in 1878 for the Exposition Universelle. The following year, Charles Bush fitted Cleveland’s Public Square, a four-block downtown plaza, with arc lights. The eponymous Bush Electrical Company, a precursor firm of the General Electric Company, became a supplier of arc lamps throughout North America.

Electric lighting arrived in the Ottawa area in mid-1881 when E.B. Eddy installed Bush arc lights in his huge lumber, match, and woodenware works in Hull, Quebec located at the Chaudière Falls. Forty arc lights, with a generator run by waterpower to provide the electricity, illuminated the yard at a cost of $11,000. The carbon electrodes, or “pencils,” used in the lamps lasted eight hours before needing to be replaced. Eddy’s lights were fifty percent cheaper to run than naphtha or coal gas lamps. A small, five arc-light system was subsequently fitted on the Ottawa side at the Levi Young mill on Victoria Island at a cost of $900. The system was sufficient to light the mill’s interior, the walls of which were painted white to reflect back the light, and the lumber yard outside. So good was the illumination that it was reported that the workmen preferred to work at night under the lights.

While E. B. Eddy was installing electric lights at his lumber works, Henry C. Spalding, a Boston electrical engineer and inventor, came to Ottawa to present City Council with an ambitious plan to light the entire city by placing large, Bush arc lamps on ten high towers, as much as 200-240 feet tall. He had chosen Ottawa as a candidate for his lighting system since it was small city, hence cheaper to light, and, being a capital, would be a conspicuous place for a successful trial. His was a radical, and largely untested, concept at the time, though such towers were later erected in some U.S. cities. In May 1881, City Council approved a trial of Spalding’s tower idea, but the project never got off the ground. No doubt, the huge expense was a factor. Spalding wanted $150,000 per year, though he would provide free lighting for thirty days. Adequate power supplies was likely another factor. Despite this setback, Ottawa City Council was unfazed. A committee struck to look at city lighting concluded in December 1881 that the city had sufficient water power to light lamps of 4,000 candle power suspended from four 200-foot towers at a capital cost of about $20,000, and a running annual cost of $7,000-8,000. The following January, a test tower, 100-200 feet high (accounts vary) was built at the top of Nanny Goat Hill overlooking Lebreton Flats, roughly where Christchurch Cathedral is located today. On 7 April 1882, the tower’s arc lamps were tested. They were a big disappointment. Their brilliance fluctuated, and they provided less volume of light than expected. The idea of lighting the city using towers was dropped.

Arc Lamp, 1884, San Jose

Tower Arc Lamp, installed in San Jose, California, 1884

While the City explored other options of lighting its streets, incandescent lighting came to Ottawa. In early April 1883, Thomas Edison’s patented light bulbs were installed for the first time in Canada at the Canada Cotton Manufacturing Company in Cornwall. Four hundred visitors came to see them switched on. Many were parliamentarians from Ottawa. Duly impressed with what they had seen, a plan to electrify Parliament was swiftly put into motion, equipping the Senate and the House of Commons with 150 Edison lights, each of 16 candle power, in both chambers. Thomas Ahearn, Ottawa’s entrepreneur and inventor par excellence of the nineteenth century, and his partner Warren Soper, supplied the power plant in the House of Commons’ basement. The lights were officially switched on when Parliament opened for the second session of the 5th Parliament on 17 January 1884, though not before Ottawa experienced what was probably its first electrical fire. When the Edison representative switched on the lights in the Senate Speaker’s dining room to give a demonstration to Sir Hector Langevin, the Minister of Public Works, prior to the official launch, the rubber and silk insulation around the wiring caught fire. Fortunately, the fire was quickly extinguished, and repairs made.

Thomas Ahearn

Thomas Ahearn, engineer, inventor, and entrepreneur par excellence

The following year, negotiations began in earnest between the City and Ahearn and Soper to light Ottawa’s streets. The need for new street lights had become pressing. In early 1884, the City’s Fire and Light Committee had complained that Ottawa’s naphtha and gas street lights were in “a dilapidated state.” In March 1885, the City signed a contract with Ahearn and Soper’s Ottawa Electric Light Company (OELC) for the provision of electric street lights.  The OELC would “supply, erect, maintain and keep in repair” 165 arc lamps, each of 2,000 candle power, for three years, as well as additional lamps as may be required. The price tag was less than a tenth of that demanded by Henry Spalding four years earlier. The City would pay $13,000 per annum for the initial 165 lamps, $40 per lamp, per annum, for the next fifteen lamps, and $80 per lamp, per annum, for any additional lamps beyond 180. The City required wires to be kept completely insulated, with all installations of plant and equipment inspected and approved by the City Engineer and the “Superintendent of the Fire Alarm.” The location of lamps and poles were also subject to the approval of the City Engineer. The contract required the OELC to keep the lights on every night from “dark to daylight, excepting when the moon shines bright and clear and the sky is unclouded.” The lamps had to be lit a minimum of 280 nights each year.

Work to put up the necessary poles and install the arc lamps commenced immediately. Six weeks later, at dusk on 1 May 1885, Ottawa’s new electric street lights were officially switched on in the presence of Mayor McDougall and other city fathers. The City celebrated the event with a band and a parade.  The night before, while the streetlight system was being tested, Ottawa’s City Council had given Ahearn and Soper’s company permission to produce and sell electricity throughout the city. By-law No. 600 authorized the OELC to “construct, maintain, complete and operate works for the production, sale and distribution of electricity for purposes of light, heat and power.” The by-law also gave the company permission to string its wires on poles “along Ottawa’s streets, squares and bridges.”

Government and citizens were delighted with their new street lights. The Daily Citizen enthused that the lights placed Ottawa “ahead of any city in America.” In an editorial, the newspaper described the event as “one which should mark another era in the progress of the city.” At year-end, the Fire and Light Committee boasted that Ottawa was the “best lighted” and only city in Canada that was entirely lit by electricity. 199 electric arc lights had been installed covering a larger area that what had been lit previously by naphtha and gas. Costs had also been reduced. Lighting costs for 1885 amounted to $13,651, down from $15,447 in 1884, prior to the introduction of electricity.

In 1887, Thomas Ahearn and his partner Warren Soper established the Chaudière Electric Light and Power Company to provide electricity to the OELC, and subsequently to the Ottawa Electric Railway (Ottawa’s streetcars) which the duo established three years later. Ahearn and Soper later acquired other electricity providers in the city, and by the mid-1890s had established a virtual monopoly in electric power production in the area. In 1950, their company, now called the Ottawa Light, Heat and Power Company, was acquired by Ottawa Hydro.

Sources:

Adamek, Anna, 2014, “Turning On The Lights In Parliament,” Parliament of Canada, http://www.parl.gc.ca/About/House/collections/collection_profiles/CP_electrification-e.htm.

Ahern, Dennis, 2013. “Thomas Ahearn, The Canadian Edison,” Ancestery.com, 2013, http://homepages.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~aherns/ahedison.htm.

Daily Citizen, 1885, “The Electric Light,” 1 May.

—————, 1885. “Advancement,” 2 May.

Edison Tech Center, 2010: The Electric Light: Arc Lamps, http://www.edisontechcenter.org/ArcLamps.html#works.

Low-Tech Magazine, 2009. “Moonlight Towers: light pollution in the 1800s,” 19 January, http://www.lowtechmagazine.com/2009/01/moonlight-towers-light-pollution-in-the-1800s.html.

Mayer, Roy, 1997. “Turning Up The Heat,” Inventing Canada: One Hundred Years of Innovation, Raincoast Books: Vancouver.

Ottawa City Council, 1885. “Minutes: Memo of understanding between the Ottawa Electric Light Company and the Corporation of the City of Ottawa,” 16 March.

———————, 1885. “Minutes: “Consideration of Contract for electric street lighting,” 20 March.

———————, 1885. “Minutes, By-law 600: Authority granted to The Ottawa Electric Light Company,” 30 April.

——————–, 1886, “Minutes, Report of the Fire and Light Committee,” 15 January.

The Citizen, 1928. “Electric And Gas Companies Of Ottawa Were Organized In Face Of Numerous Hardships,” 13 March.

The Globe, 1881. “The Electric Light: An Experiment of Lighting the Streets to be Tried at Ottawa,” 24 May.

————-, 1881. “The Electric Light: Proposed Scheme for Illuminating the Capital,” 2 June.

————-, 1881. “New Uses for Gas: The Time for Its Abolition Not Yet Arrived,” 27 August.

————-, 1881. “Notes from the Capital: The Electric Light Again,” 12 December.

————-, 1882. “Trial Of The Electric Light,” 11 January.

————-, 1882. “Notes From The Capital: Electric Light Experiment,” 13 January.

————-, 1882. “From The Capital,” 8 April.

————-, 1882. “The Electric Light: Practical Results of its Working in Ottawa,” 2 August.

————-, 1883. “Electric Light: Edison’s Light in Operation in Canada,” 4 April.

Uren, Janet, 2014. “The Man who lit up Ottawa,” The Citizen, 1 August.

Images: Tower Arc Lamp, Low-Tech Magazine, 2009. “Moonlight Towers: light pollution in the 1800s,” 19 January, http://www.lowtechmagazine.com/2009/01/moonlight-towers-light-pollution-in-the-1800s.html.

Thomas Ahearn,  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Ahearn, Library and Archives Canada, PA-012222.