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.

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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.