The Bytown Consumers Gas Company

25 March 1854

For millennia, cities, stores and homes went dark after sunset. Artificial lighting was limited to the illumination provided by fireplaces and torches of various description. Outdoors, wealthy pedestrians might hire a link-boy who, for a small fee, might carry a flaming brand to light their way. The alternative was the feeble light cast by a lantern, or making do with moon and star light. At home, candles made of tallow from rendered beef, mutton or pig fat, which cast a sputtering and smelly glow, were widely used. Also popular and inexpensive were rush-lights made from the pith of the rush plant dipped in grease. The poorest had to be satisfied with a saucer of grease and a twist of cloth. The wealthy could afford sweet-smelling, beeswax candles. Regardless, evenings must have been dim and shadowy, the light uncertain.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, burning oil derived from the rendered blubber of whales became popular owing to the bright light such fuel provided. The right whale, so-called for being a slow swimmer, which made it easier to catch, and its propensity to float after being harpooned, was the preferred catch. Sperm whales were also prized. Top quality sperm oil, also called spermaceti, was used to make candles given its waxy nature and lack of smell. The spermaceti organ of a sperm whale could contain as much as 1,900 litres of this valuable commodity—the reason why these great beasts were hunted to near extinction along with their right whale cousins.  In 1850, whale-oil lamps were placed over public wells in Bytown’s Upper and Lower Town.

Gas ODC 15-7-1854

Notice that appeared in the Ottawa Citizen, 25 March 1854

A new lighting alternative came to the fore during the first half of the nineteenth century, first in Europe then in North America. This was manufactured gas, sometimes called coal gas. Manufactured gas was made by distilling black, bituminous coal in a heated retort. (A retort is a closed vessel made of glass or metal.) The vapour was then cooled and purified. The resulting gas was then stored and conveyed to consumers via underground pipes. Manufactured gas was first used for lighting in Europe during the early nineteenth century. Reportedly, by the mid-1820s, most English towns of any significance were lit by gaslight. The technology crossed the Atlantic, with Boston and New York both furnished with gaslight by 1825. Gaslight came to Montreal and Toronto during the 1840s.

In 1854, Bytown’s leading citizens thought their community was sufficiently large to make a gas works in the town a paying proposition. Although Bytown boasted a population of only 7,000 souls, the town had great prospects. Area politicians hoped to convince the government that Bytown would make a fine capital for the new Province of Canada. Twenty prominent electors requested that Mayor Friel hold a public meeting “on the propriety of getting up a Gas Company for the town.”

In early March 1854, a Town Hall Meeting, chaired by the mayor, was held to discuss the issue. Six resolutions were passed. First, it was resolved that the inhabitants of Bytown were of the opinion that the bringing of gas to the town was “of considerable importance, both socially and economically.”

Second, a joint-stock company should be established to be called The Bytown Consumers Gas Company. The resolution also asked for the support of the Mayor and the Corporation of Bytown of an application to the Provincial Legislature for the necessary powers.

Third, it was resolved that the population of Bytown was sufficiently large and wealthy to make a gas works a profitable investment.

Fourth, it was agreed that a “book” be opened immediately to take subscriptions for stock in the new company, and that an application be made to the Provincial Legislature for an act of Incorporation.

Fifth, it was resolved that a Committee be formed to obtain subscriptions in the new company, and that a meeting of stakeholders would be called to organize a company once £2,000 ($10,000) had been collected. The Committee would include three area members of the Provincial Parliament—G. B. Lyon, E. Malloch, and John Egan—as well as the current mayor, Henry. J. Friel, as well as Alexander Workman, and Joseph-Balsora Turgeon, two prominent politicians who would later become mayor.

Sixth, the citizens agreed that the new gas company should have a capitalization of £10,000, divided into shares of £10 each.

Events moved quickly. Three weeks later, it was official. A notice dated 25 March 1854 appeared in the Ottawa Citizen announcing that an application would be made to the Parliament of Canada at its next session to incorporate The Bytown Consumers Gas Company. It also serviced notice that it would request the ability to dig up roads for the purpose of laying pipes and to be able to hold property and undertake whatever was required for the manufacture of gas.

The following month, a declaration of intent to establish a gas company in Ottawa was registered in the Registry Office of the County of Bytown and sent to the provincial secretary in Quebec. This declaration was required under legislation passed the previous year entitled An Act to provide for the formation of incorporated Join Stock Companies for supplying Cities, Towns and Villages with Gas and Water (Victoria 16, Chapter 173). The act set out the objects of such firms, their rights and obligations. Such rights including the laying down of pipes under public roads so long as they caused no unnecessary damage and permitted free and uninterrupted passage along the streets when the works were underway. The Act also required a gas company to locate their gas works so as not to endanger public health or safety. Consistent with the provincial act, Mayor Friel signed By-law 110c a few days later giving the Bytown Consumers Gas Company the authority to dig up Bytown’s streets and squares to lay down its gas pipes consistent with the provincial legislation. Later, the Ordnance Department gave its consent for the company to install gas pipes along Sappers’ Bridge over the Rideau Canal subject to a nominal rent and the company’s agreement to remove the pipes if requested.

At the beginning of May, sufficient funds had been raised to require the meeting of stakeholders as specified under the fifth resolution approved the previous March. Subscribers to the capital stock of the company met in the office of John Bower Lewis, the second mayor of Bytown (and future first mayor of Ottawa). There, the senior officers of the company were elected: Dr, Hamnet Hill as President; Alexander Workman as Vice-President; and C. H. Piney as Treasurer/Secretary. A corporate seal for the company was adopted, and a corporate by-law was passed authorizing the opening of a stock book.

The first task of the company’s trustees was to find an expert to provide advice on building a gas works. They hired W. R. Falconer of Montreal to make estimates, plans and specifications. Within three weeks, Falconer had submitted his report. He estimated that the cost of the proposed gas works would be £8,310, including the £300 needed for land on which to build the plant. He recommended that while all the tanks and buildings could be erected that summer, the pipes should be laid the following spring, with the works in operation by 1 August 1855.

Subsequently, a Mr. A. Perry of Montreal submitted a tender for the contract according to Falconer’s specifications. To the disappointment of the shareholders in the Bytown Consumers Gas Company, his price to do the work came in at £8,375, excluding the cost of purchasing the necessary land for the gas works. Perry, however, must have liked the company’s prospects. He submitted a supplementary tender offering to buy £1,000 of the company’s shares and to loan it a further £3,000 at 6 per cent per annum for ten years.

The trustees demurred, of the view that Perry’s financial offer was too expensive. They did, however, find a suitable piece of property for £500 that they believed was large enough to accommodate the gas works and allow for future expansion.

However, at a meeting of stockholders held in August 1854, President Dr. Hamnet Hill revealed that the take-up of shares in the Company had been discouraging. Only £3,925 had been raised locally, and no Montreal investors had been found. He was disappointed that people who had said they would subscribe for shares had subsequently backed out, or had bought a smaller amount. He recommended two options to shareholders. Either they wait until “other persons of enterprise” came forward, or dissolve the company and return the investments of people less the costs already incurred.

What exactly happened next is unclear. There is a brief reference in the Ottawa Citizen in September 1854 to the effect that Bytown had “decided against a gas works.” However, in December 1854, the company was still around with the press reporting on a major shake-up of the firm’s senior officers. Alexander Workman resigned as Vice-President and was replaced by Mr. J. M. Currier. Henry Friel was elected Chairman and Francis Clemow was appointed secretary. At the same meeting, it was announced that a site for a gas house had been purchased on King Street (now King Edward Avenue) between Rideau and York Streets for £500. Somehow the necessary capital for the company had been found.

Pipes were laid through 1855, with the main line running under Rideau, Sparks, Sussex, York and Nicholas Streets. By the beginning of 1856, work had progressed sufficiently, despite “some trifling difficulties,” to permit the lighting of gas. In mid-April 1856, the price of gas was set thirty shillings per thousand (presumably cubic) feet, payable at the end of each quarter. A 25 per cent discount was given for prompt payment. This was an astronomical price by today’s standard and was a source of complaint. The Bytown gas price was roughly 50 percent higher than the price in Montreal, which was $5 per thousand feet (20 shillings), less a 35 per cent discount (in 1859), twice the New York price and five times that of that in London. A lack of economies of scale owing to Bytown’s small size might have been a factor in the price differential. By the early 1890s, Ottawa’s gas price had dropped to $1.80 per thousand cubic feet.

Gas ODC 25-12-1860

Advertisement for gas-lit chandeliers, Ottawa Citizen, 25 December 1860.

Notwithstanding the exorbitant price, gas street lights quickly lit Ottawa’s main streets, starting with Rideau and Sussex Streets. Advertisements appeared in local newspapers urging wealthy homeowners to lit their houses with gas lamps. In 1860, William Stevenson, a steam and gas fitter who operated out of Ogdensburg, New York advertised French and English chandeliers for sale in the Ottawa Citizen. He claimed his prices were cheaper than what could be obtained from Montreal, notwithstanding duties. He invited Ottawa residents to check out his store in Ogdensburg where he always had a large stock on display. He also offered a money-back guarantee. This was cross-border shopping nineteenth century style!

The introduction of gas has its downside—pollution. The Bywash, which ran from the Rideau Canal down King Street to the Rideau River became fouled with tar and other refuse from the coal gas plant on the street. Fish deserted the creek and people could no longer drink or wash in it. There is a report of boys who went swimming in the Bywash being dyed a dark colour by the dirty water. Apparently, it took a month for the stain to wear off. The Bywash was finally covered over and converted into a sewer. Of, course, the pollution didn’t go away. It was just hidden from view, and was still funnelled untreated into the Rideau River and thence into the Ottawa River.

In 1865, the Bytown Consumers Gas Company updated its name to the Ottawa Gas Company. Twenty years later, it rapidly lost its lighting business to a new competitor—electricity introduced to Ottawa by Thomas Ahearn and Warren Soper. However, manufactured gas remained the fuel of choice for home stoves—electric stoves and ovens were uneconomic until the 1930s. As prices fell over time, gas was also increasingly used for heating. In 1906, Ottawa’s electric and gas industries were merged into a giant lighting and heating monopoly called The Consolidated Light, Heat and Power Company controlled by Soper and Ahearn. This state of affairs continued until 1949 when, following a city plebiscite, Ottawa purchased the electrical side of the firm to form Ottawa Hydro, leaving the Ottawa Gas Company in private hands. In 1957, Consumers Gas of Toronto purchased the company. The following year, natural gas was piped into the Ottawa area, and the production of manufactured gas ceased.

Sources:

City of Ottawa, Bylaws.

National Post, 1957. “Share Purchase Offer Expected For Gas Firm,” 18 May.

Newton, Michael, 1979. Lower Town, Ottawa, Vol. 1, 1826-1854, Manuscript Report # 104, National Capital Commission.

Ottawa Citizen, 1854. “Town Hall Meeting,” 6 March.

————————-, 1854. “Gas Company,” 25 March.

————————-, 1854. “No Title,” 6 May.

————————-, 1854. “To the Shareholders of the Bytown Consumers Gas Company,” 6 August.

————————-, 1854, “From Our London Correspondent,” 23 September.

————————-, 1856. “Meeting of Shareholders,” 9 April.

————————-, 1859. “The Cost of Gas,” 28 October 1859.

————————-, 1926. “Gas Refuse Hurt Old Bywash Creek,” 24 July.

————————-, 1926. “Dye Took Month To Wear Off Boys,” 31 July.

————————-, 1928. “Pioneer Industries Won Over Hardship,” 13 March.

————————-, 1949. “OLHP IS Formally Absorbed,” 31 December.

Ottawa Journal, 1960. “Older Than Ottawa,” 26 April.

 

 

Earthquake!

28 February 1925

When most Canadians or Americans think of earthquake-prone areas, what first comes to mind is the west coast of North America, especially California, the site of many memorable earthquakes, including the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906 which destroyed over 80 per cent of the city and killed roughly 3,000 people. Baseball fans of a certain age will also recall the Loma Prieta quake that hit the San Francisco area in 1989 and disrupted Game 3 of the World Series between the San Francisco Giants and the Oakland Athletics. 67 people lost their lives and close to 4,000 people were injured in that disaster. Property damage was estimated at $5 billion.

Both of these San Francisco earthquakes occurred on the 1,200 kilometre-long San Andreas Fault, the tectonic boundary between the Pacific Plate, which is sliding northward, and the North American Plate which is moving southward. The fault is part of the “Ring of Fire,” an area prone to earthquakes and volcanoes that follows the perimeter of the Pacific Ocean.  The Loma Prieta quake had a magnitude of 6.9 on the moment magnitude scale (Mw). The moment magnitude, which is typically used today, is calculated slightly differently from the older but better known Richter scale developed by Charles Richter in 1935. But both scales measure the magnitude of the earth’s movement as detected by a seismograph on a logarithmic scale. The moment magnitude scale is more accurate, especially for large earthquakes. The 1906 quake is estimated to have had a magnitude of 7.9 Mw. Although it was only one step larger on the logarithmic scale than the 1989 temblor, it released roughly 32 times more energy (101.5). A two-step increase in magnitude would release 1,000 times more energy (103).

Vancouver and Victoria are Canada’s most earthquake-prone cities. They are located in the Cascadia subduction zone, a 1,000 kilometre-long fault that stretches along the west coast from the top of Vancouver Island down to northern California. Three tectonic plates, the Explorer, the Juan de Fuca and the Gorda, are moving east under the North American plate. This area has been hit by several major earthquakes in the past, including a massive one in 1700 centred off of  Vancouver Island that had an estimated magnitude of 8.7 to 9.0 Mw. In other words, it released roughly 32 times more energy than the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and more than 1,000 times more energy than the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. In 1949, an 8.1 Mw tremblor hit the Haida Gwaii (formerly the Queen Charlotte Islands) region, north of Vancouver Island.

After the western metropolises of British Columbia, the next most seismically active cities are Montreal and, believe it or not, Ottawa. Both cities are located in the Western Quebec Seismic Zone which has two sub-zones, one along the Ottawa River and the other from Maniwaki, north of Ottawa, to Montreal. Incredibly, there is on average one earthquake every five days in this region. To the east of the Western Quebec Seismic Zone is the even more active Charlevoix Seismic Zone, located close to Quebec City along the St Lawrence. Here, one earthquake is recorded on average every one and one half days. Of course, the vast majority of the earthquakes in both zones are only small earth trembles that are scarcely noticed except by seismographs—but not always. A powerful earthquake with an estimated magnitude of 7 Mw struck the Charlevoix-Kamouraska area in 1663, followed by nine days of aftershocks.

Earthquakes, Natural Resources Canada

The Western Quebec Seismic Zone. The dots represent earthquakes of magnitude 3 or higher since the beginning of the twentieth century. Source: Natural Resources Canada.

Seismic activity in this part of Canada is not well understood. Much of central-eastern Canada is covered by the Canadian Shield, a massive, ancient, and stable rock formation that makes up the interior of the North American Plate. Lacking plate boundaries, this is not a locale that one typically associates with earthquakes. According to Natural Resources Canada, eastern Canadian earthquakes are due to “regional stress fields” and are concentrated in areas of “crustal weakness.” The end of the last ice age, which had caused land once pressed down by the weight of glaciers to rebound, may be a factor. Some scientists believe that “post-glacial rebound stress” has directly caused earthquakes, or has reactivated old faults which have led to earthquakes.

Ottawa residents are likely to remember the moderate magnitude 5.0 Mw earthquake that struck the nation’s capital in late June 2010. The epicentre was located roughly 60 kilometres north of Ottawa near Buckingham, Quebec. It was felt in Toronto, Montreal and south to New Jersey in the United States. Damage was slight. Some windows were broken, and power was cut in parts of downtown. No injuries were reported.

This earthquake was reportedly the strongest Ottawa had experienced in sixty-five years. That earlier earthquake struck on 28 February 1925 at 9.20.17 pm Eastern Standard Time. The capital was shaken by a 6.2 Mw earthquake whose epicentre was located near Shawinigan, Quebec, 260 kilometres distant, in the Charlevoix Seismic Zone. So strong was the quake that it was felt more than 1,000 kilometres away. On the Modified Mercalli Index, which measures an earthquake’s intensity or effects as opposed to the amount of energy released, the earthquake reached level VIII (severe) (out of ten grades) in the area close to the epicentre. At this level, people panic, trees are shaken strongly, and there is widespread building damage, including fallen chimneys, walls and pillars.

While the epicentre of the 1925 earthquake was more than 200 kilometers further away than the 2010 earthquake, its effects on Ottawa were considerably larger owing to its increased magnitude. A 6.2 Mw earthquake is almost 16 times bigger than a 5 Mw earthquake and is 63 times stronger in terms of energy released.   After the earthquake, The Ottawa Evening Journal reported that the capital had not seen such excitement since Armistice Day that ended the Great War in 1918. Fortunately, there were no injuries and property damage was slight.

The 1925 earthquake lasted ten minutes or longer in some locales, though tremors apparently continued for several hours, keeping anxious citizens awake through the night wondering whether a still larger quake was still to come. Residents of Sandy Hill and Ottawa South were the worst affected in Ottawa, mostly likely because of the soft clay on which these neighbourhoods sit. Some people became nauseated by the rolling motion underfoot which was described like “the swaying of a rapidly moving train or the rolling of a small boat.” This was followed by an intense up and down bumping, accompanied in some areas by a low, thunder-like noise, or rumble. The earth’s movement was most strongly felt by those in the upper floors of apartment buildings, especially those situated close to the Victoria Memorial Museum (now called the Museum of Nature). At the Queen Mary Apartments on the corner of Elgin and McLeod Streets, walls and ceilings cracked, furniture bumped, plaster fell from walls, china rolled off of plate rails, and doors creaked. In the nearby Mackenzie Apartments, several windows broke while on the upper floors plaster dust covered furniture and mirrors broke. Many residents rushed from the building in panic. At the Victoria Memorial Museum, plaster fell from the walls. Oddly, cracks in the entranceway closed, making it the only building to have possibly benefited from the earthquake. The building, which was constructed on clay, had been plagued with cracks since it was completed in 1911. Indeed, the tower above the main entrance had to be removed a few years after the museum was completed for reasons of public safety owing to settling.

At the Auditorium on Argyle Street, the Ottawa Senators had just started the second period of a game with their arch rivals the Montreal Canadiens when the earthquake struck. With the teams locked 0-0, many of the rabid 8,000 fans in the Ottawa Auditorium didn’t at first notice anything was amiss. A loud noise that rattle the arena was attributed to an automobile that had just completed an advertising tour of the rink during the first intermission. According to The Globe newspaper, the arena vibrated violently. A crash, possibly due to a falling window, almost sparked a panic. However, once the vibrations eased, people settled down again to continue watching the game. On the ice, the Ottawa goalie, Alex Connell, thought he was becoming ill. A “shimmy” under his feet made him feel dizzy. He called out to his defencemen that he felt funny. (For those who are wondering, the Senators went on to beat the Canadiens 1-0.)

At the Lisgar Collegiate, a musical event was underway in the school’s auditorium. Miss Roxie Carrier was on stage singing a solo as the Belle of Antiquera in a production of the Spanish operetta “El Bandido.” When the earthquake struck and built in intensity causing the floor and walls to sway, members of the audience began to panic. Shrieks from the balcony brought people to the feet. Many started to head to the exits. However, the presence of mind of Miss Carrier, who calmly remained on stage, as well as the prompt response of the ushers and policemen settled the audience who returned to their seats.

In the hours following the initial shocks, in what may have been an international first, Ottawa’s radio station, CNRO of the Canadian National Railways, broadcasted full and authoritative news updates about the earthquake, relaying the latest information from the Dominion Observatory, which was monitoring the tremors with its seismograph, and from railway agents through the Canadian National Telegraphs. These news reports did much to allay the fears of area residents who were concerned for the safety of absent loved ones. Mr J. G. McMurtrie, superintendent of broadcasting at CNRO, said that the shock was plainly felt at their studio. Conditions were quite alarming for a time at their operating room on the roof of the Jackson building, one hundred and twelve feet above Bank Street.

Although Ottawa was badly shaken, damage was slight. Other cities experienced more serious effects. In Quebec City, there was a general panic. A section of Union Station’s roof was damaged and many windows were broken. Several poorly-built shacks on the city’s outskirts were reportedly flattened. In Montreal, a fire started in the furnace room of St James’s Basilica owing to a broken fuel line causing $10,000-15,000 damage. A stone church in St Hilarion, Quebec also collapsed. Although details are sketchy, newspapers attributed the deaths of two women to the earthquake, one in Trois-Rivières and another in Toronto, due to fright.

Roughly ten years later in November 1935, the same area, including Ottawa, was shaken by another serious earthquake, this time a slightly smaller magnitude 6.1 Mw tremblor centred in Timiskaming in the Western Quebec Seismic Zone 360 kilometres from Ottawa. Again, although the capital region received a good shaking, there was little damage.  The most significant effect was a landslide in Parent, Quebec which took out a section of the Canadian National Railway line.

With increased awareness of Ottawa’s vulnerability to seismic disturbances, work has been undertaken to assess and strengthen existing buildings, such as the Bank of Canada’s head office on Wellington Street, and the Museum of Nature on McLeod Street. Fortunately, the Parliament Buildings are constructed on solid rock and are less susceptible to damage from earthquakes. A major quake could however cause serious damage to historic masonry buildings in the Byward Market area. Timber-framed homes, even those that are externally brick-clad, are likely to fare relatively well as timber frames can flex in response to tremors. Natural Resources Canada’s website provides a useful list of things that can be done to protect our homes from damage in the event of a significant earthquake.

Some words of caution: when earthquakes occur, our natural reaction is to run outside. However, studies have shown that it’s better to drop down, and cover your head preferably close to an interior wall or, better still, under a sturdy table, and wait until the shaking stops. Being outside exposes people to the risk of falling glass, masonry and other debris, a particular concern in high-rise urban areas. If you are outdoors, get away from buildings. If you are in a car, pull over and stay away, if you can, from anything that might collapse such as buildings, overpasses or bridges. Good luck to all should “the big one” strike!

Sources:

CBC. 2011. 2010 quake led Ottawa to change policies, 23 June.

Earthquake Alliance, 2018. How to protect yourself in an earthquake, https://www.earthquakecountry.org/dropcoverholdon/.

Globe (The), 1925, “Eastern Canada and U.S. Shaken By Earthquakes,” 2 March.

Montreal Gazette (The), 1925. “Great Mass Of Rock In Earth’s Crust Slipped,” 2 March.

—————————-, 1925. “Seismic Narrative Told By Broadcast To Radio Fans,” 2 March.

—————————-, 1925. “Fought Blaze In Furnace Room Of St. James Basilica,” 2 March.

Natural Resources Canada, 2016. Earthquakes Canada,” http://www.earthquakescanada.ca/index-en.php.

Ottawa Citizen (The), 2017. “A major earthquake could hit Ottawa. Are we prepared?” 21 April.

————————-, 2017. “Magnitude 3.3 earthquake shakes Ottawa-Gatineau,” 14 August.

Ottawa Evening Journal (The), 1925. “Villages Are Terrified As ‘Quake Wrecks Church.” 2 March.

—————————, 1925. “Quake Closes Cracks In Victoria Museum,” 2 March.

—————————, 1925. “Many Tenants Of Apartments Were Alarmed,” 2 March.

—————————, 1925. “Ottawa Severely Rocked By Heaviest Earthquake Recorded For Centuries,” 2 March.

—————————, 1925. “Miss Carrier IS Heroine At School Event,” 2 March.

—————————, 1925. “First Shock Worst Down Quebec City,” 2 March.

—————————, 1925. “People Of Ottawa Relate Earthquake Adventures,” 2 March.

—————————, 1935, “Locate Centre of ‘Quake 200 miles From Ottawa,” 1 November.

—————————, 1935. “Ottawa Shaken Today By Three Earth Tremors,” 2 November.

Wu, Patrick and Johnston, Paul, 2000. “Can deglaciation trigger earthquakes in N. America?” Geophysical Research Letters, Vol. 29 pps.1323-1326, 1 May.

The Return of Halley’s Comet

18 May 1910

Years before the return of Halley’s Comet, astronomers around the world including at the Dominion Observatory at the Experimental Farm began to prepare for its arrival. The comet was scheduled to return in the spring of 1910, seventy-five years after its previous brush with Earth in 1835. Unlike that earlier year, astronomers now had the instruments to track, conduct spectroscopic research, and photograph this celestial visitor. Beyond knowing that its trajectory would take the comet between the Earth and the Sun, a scant 14 million miles from our planet, they were largely ignorant about it. Experts estimated that the head of the comet was as big as 42 Earths with a tail 62 million miles long and 600,000 miles wide. So close was it to come, astronomers expected that the Earth would pass through the comet’s tail. This was enough to send a frisson of alarm through the general public. Doom-laden views of certain observers, combined with long-standing superstitions that comets were portents of disaster, meant that there was a genuine fear that the end of the world was nigh.

Halley's Comet Yerkes, 29-5-1910 Prof Edward Barnard NYT 3-7-10

Halley’s Comet 29 May 1910, taken by Professor Edward Barnard, Yerkes Observatory, appearing in New York Times, 3 July 1910.

Newspaper coverage was also unhelpful. Although the vast majority of astronomers viewed the return of Halley’s Comet with delight, seeing it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to view close-up a celestial event of remarkable beauty, considerable column inches were given over to the apocalyptical views of the few. This was an early example of seemingly balanced coverage providing a decidedly unbalanced view of what was likely to transpire. Of course, articles portending disaster sold papers, a phenomenon noted by the Ottawa Evening Citizen. In a swipe of its competitors, most likely the Ottawa Evening Journal, the Citizen remarked after the Comet’s safe passage “There was no collision, as the superstitious and the ignorant feared, and, if truth must be told, some newspapers unfortunately traded in those fears by more or less veiled stories and hints.”

Halley’s Comet was named after Edmond Halley, an English astronomer and friend of Sir Isaac Newton, who was the first to describe the periodic nature of the comet in 1705, and predicted its return in 1758. Sadly, Halley, who died in 1742, was not alive to witness the event. However, the return of his comet, visible to the naked eye on Christmas Day 1758, immortalized him. Looking at historical records from China, historians have dated the first known recorded appearance of Halley’s Comet to 240BC.

We now know Halley’s Comet has a peanut-shaped nucleus roughly 15 kilometres long with a diameter of 8 kilometres, considerably smaller than the late 19th century estimates. Nonetheless, a collision with Earth would have been disastrous. The Chicxulub asteroid that likely led to the extinction of the dinosaurs sixty-five million years ago is believed to have been smaller. Halley’s Comet, a remnant from the formation of our solar system 4.6 billion years ago, consists of dust, rock and ice. Its tail is made up of dust and sublimated gases that spew off as it approaches the Sun. The comet spends much of its time in the Kuiper Belt that circles the Solar System.

By 1909, the world’s telescopes were trained to the western sky shortly after sunset to watch for the comet’s return. When it was first spotted by telescope is a bit murky. The Ottawa Evening Journal reported that the Dominion Observatory in Ottawa received a telegram that a German astronomer had seen Halley’s Comet as early as mid-September 1909. The first Canadian spotting apparently occurred mid-January 1910 in British Columbia. At this point, the comet was hurtling towards the Sun reaching its perihelion (closest approach) on 20 April before commencing its return to the outer Solar System, but not before brushing close to the Earth. It was not yet visible to the naked eye.

With the return of Halley Comet, many newspapers, including the Ottawa Evening Journal, ran articles linking previous appearances of the comet to wars, plagues and other disasters of the past. One story managed to ascribe the biblical Deluge, dated to 2349 BC, to the comet as well as the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in 1900 BC. Other world-changing events linked to the comet included the sack of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 AD, the sack of Rome by Attila the Hun in 451 AD, the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, the War of the Roses in 1456, and Wolfe’s Conquest of New France in 1759. For 1910, the article noted the return of the comet coincided with threatened war in the Balkans and labour unrest and socialist demonstrations in America and Europe. Coincidentally, King Edward VII died on May 6th, another apparent “victim” of the comet.

Halley' Comet Fight 13-4-10 OEJ

Cartoon, The Ottawa Evening Journal, 13 April, 1910.

Halley’s Comet’s appearance in the night sky allowed astronomers to use state-of-the art equipment to photograph it and to conduct spectroscopic analyses. In February 1910, the Yerkes Observatory in Wisconsin announced the discovery of cyanogen gas, a chemical compound related to cyanide, in the comet’s tail. This stoked comet fears to new heights, especially when a French astronomer, Camille Flammarion, opined that all of the earth’s inhabitants would suffocate owing to the gas when the earth passed through the comet’s tail. He reportedly added that if there was also a “diminution of nitrogen and an excess of oxygen,” “the human race would perish in a paroxysm of joy and delirium, probably delighted at their fate.”  Professor Pickering of Harvard University suggested that Flammarion could be right. “The consequences of a collision of the earth with the comet’s tail may mean destruction to us,” he said. Another French astronomer, M. Deslandres of the Paris Observatory thought that the comet’s tail crossing the Earth’s atmosphere would led to an incalculable number of X-rays that would cause the water vapour in the atmosphere to condense leading to rains not “seen since the days of Noah’s great deluge.”

These were minority views within the astronomical profession. The famed American astronomer, Percy Lowell, said “Nothing can occur to the earth in consequence of its passing through the tail of the comet. The consistency of the tail is probably less than any vacuum procurable on earth.” (Mind you, Lowell also spotted “canals” on Mars that supposedly were a desperate attempt by Martians to tap water at the dying planet’s poles.) A similar sanguine view was expressed by Sir Robert Ball of Cambridge University. A Columbia University professor argued “the Maker of the universe” would not allow any harm to come to “the home of the highest form of life that He has fashioned.” Astronomers at the Dominion Observatory patiently addressed the questions of concerned Ottawa citizens. They also lectured at the Y.M.C.A. and other locales about the harmlessness of the comet’s return. At St Mathias Church, Dominion astronomer John Plaskett in a lecture titled “Wonders of Creation” rejected Flammarion’s thesis, echoing Lowell and Ball that there was no danger from the cyanogen gas as it was too rarefied to have any impact.

Halley's Comet Mary Proctor, San Fran Sunday Call

Mary Proctor, astronomer and author, member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, 1862-1957, San Francisco Sunday Call. University of California, Riverside.

One of the most reasoned, scientific assessments of the return of Halley’s Comet that appeared in the popular North American press was by a respected amateur astronomer, Mary Proctor. In an October 1909 Ottawa Journal article, Proctor said that “the fulfillment of the [Halley’s] prediction may be awaited serenely.” She added “Woe betide it, however, should it come too near to Jupiter, which has the reputation of being the greatest comet capturer of the skies.” (In 1994, this prophetic comment was captured on film when astronomers observed the tidal forces of Jupiter pulling apart the Shoemaker-Levy comet, causing it to plunge into the planet.) Later, after Flammarion’s dire prediction of the end of all life, she reiterated her views even more forcefully, adding “Astronomers are being suspected as conspiring together to keep the uninitiated in ignorance of the true fate awaiting our planet.” Instead of believing in conspiracy theories, she urged people to enjoy the comet’s approach, and “experience a spectacular display of cometary glory.”

After been lost in the light of the Sun for a couple of weeks, Halley’s Comet reappeared in the morning sky shortly before dawn in mid-April, 1910. Its reappearance was noted by Mr Robert Motherwell at the Dominion Observatory on 13 April using the observatory’s 15-inch aperture telescope. Owing to intense sunlight, it was not visible to the naked eye, and wouldn’t be for some days. Motherwell discredited reports from around Canada that the comet had been spoted. He ascribed such sightings to confusion with Venus.

Halley's Comet OEJ 16-4-1910

Illustration for serial on a comet striking the Earth, The Ottawa Evening Journal, 16 April 1910.

The Journal took this opportunity to run a fanciful serialized story that had initially appeared in the Aldine Magazine of New York in the 1870s about a fictitious collision of Plantamour Comet with the Earth. In the story, the collision split the Earth into three pieces, with Asia completely vapourized, leaving America the only habitable part of the globe. When the clouds finally lifted, there were two new moons in the sky—Europa and Africa—that had split away from the Earth complete with their own seas and atmosphere. Now separated forever, the remaining people of America could only communicate with the survivors of Europa and Africa by using ten-foot high letters made of tin.

Halley’s Comet became visible to the naked eye in Ottawa early in the morning of 29 April 1910, when it was spotted by Mr Motherwell at the Dominion Observatory. It was visible in the eastern sky at a declination of eight degrees north of the equator. While the two Ottawa newspapers agreed on the sighting, they agreed on little else. The Journal reported that Motherwell got only a partial view of the comet at shortly after 3am in a break in the clouds that lasted just sixty seconds. The Citizen reported that the comet was located by Motherwell at about 4.20am and that the astronomer had a good view for about 30 minutes before the Sun became too bright. By early May, the comet was visible to all who got up early enough. It was to be seen low on the horizon with its tail pointing nearly upwards.

With the comet visibly bearing down on the Earth, the focus of attention shifted to what might happen when the Earth moved through the Comet’s tail, scheduled to occur sometime around May 20th. In preparation for the event, it was reported that restaurants in New York and Paris were hosting comet parties. Recalling Flammarion’s dire prediction, one enterprising restauranteur advertised that pure oxygen would be blown into the dining room to counteract the effects of cyanogen gas. More seriously, Dr Koltz at the Dominion Observatory said that it would take several hours for the Earth to pass through the tail. He rejected any concerns that this transit would have on the Earth, though there may be some magnetic effects. He warned of the possibility that telephone and telegraph service might be adversely affected. Dr King, the chief of the Dominion Observatory, thought there might be a “sort of aurora borealis, but nothing outside of that.” Parliament Hill was deemed a good vantage point to see the comet at its best.

Halley's Coment OEJ 19-5-10

Cartoon, The Ottawa Evening Journal, 19 May 1910

In the event, both the Ottawa Evening Journal and the Ottawa Evening Citizen reported that Ottawa was in the comet’s tail for several hours during the night of May 18th. As expected, the Earth’s passage through the tail was uneventful. There was no cyanogen gas, and there was no deluge of biblical proportions, though cloudy skies and rain made comet watching in Ottawa difficult. Telecommunications were unaffected. Dr Kloz said that instruments at the Dominion Observatory detected some slight magnetic effects, but that was all. Newspaper accounts again differed on whether the comet sparked a viewing of the Northern Lights. According to the Journal, shortly after midnight the clouds broke and there was “a magnificent display of the Aurora” that spread across the “entire dome of heaven” before disappearing again as the clouds returned. The newspaper added that the aurora was most brilliant in Toronto and contained “all the colours of the rainbow.” Contrarily, the Citizen reported that “there was none of the auroral effects some had predicted.” There was also no mention of an aurora borealis in Toronto’s Globe newspaper.

Halley’s Comet got progressively fainter during the following days as it continued its journey back out the Kuiper Belt. It returned to the inner Solar System in 1986. This time, however, the comet’s reappearance was unremarkable as it and the Earth were on opposite sides of the Sun when it occurred. For those who missed Halley’s Comet, you’re next opportunity will be July 2061. The showing is expected to be better this time.

Sources:

Astronomical Society of the Pacific, 1986. What have we learnt about Halley’s Comet?, https://astrosociety.org/edu/publications/tnl/06/06.html.

Curran, Kevin, 2012. Halley’s Comet, http://www.fallofathousandsuns.com/halleys-comet.html#past-appearances-of-halleys-comet.

Globe (The) 1910. “Through A Comet’s Tail,” 19 May.

Ottawa Evening Citizen (The), 1910. “Halley’s Comet Has Been Discovered,” 17 January.

————————————, 1910.  “Halley’s Comet Is Located By Dominion Observatory,” 13 April.

————————————, 1910. “The Earth Takes Its Bath In the Comets Tail Tonight,” 18 May.

———————————–, 1910. “Ottawa Thro’ Comet’s Tail From 8.30 Last Night to 12.30,” 19 May.

Ottawa Evening Journal (The), 1906. “The Star of Bethlehem,” 29 December.

————————————-, 1909. “More About Halley’s Comet,” 19 March.

————————————-, 1909. “Astronomers Preparing For The Return of Halley’s Comet,” 30 April.

————————————, 1910. “Halley’s Comet Said To Be Full Of Cyanogen Gas,” 8 February.

————————————, 1910. “Gas From Halley’s Comet Could Not Affect Earth,” 10 February.

————————————, 1910. “Lectures on Halley’s Comet,” 18 February.

————————————, 1910. “Ottawa and District Will Soon See Halley’s Comet, 14 March.

————————————, 1910. “Harmlessness of Halley’s Comet,” 21 March.

————————————, 1910. “It’s Mighty Little Wisest Men Know About Comets,” 2 April.

————————————, 1910. “Must be Pretty Scrappy Stuff in Halley’ Comet,” 13 April.

————————————-, 1910. “Halley’s Comet Was Seen At the Observatory This Morning, 13 April.

————————————-, 1910. “When the Comet Struck,” by W. T. Alden, 14 April.

————————————-, 1910. “Comet Seen One Minute,” 29 April.

————————————-, 1910. “Comet History, And Why Halley’s Is Harmless,” by Mary Proctor, 14 May.

————————————-, 1910. “Comet Night Preparations,” 17 May.

————————————-, 1910. “Comet Passes Very Quietly,” 19 May.

Simon, Kevin, 2015. Fantastically Wrong: That Time People Thought A Comet Would Gas Us All To Death, https://www.wired.com/2015/01/fantastically-wrong-halleys-comet/.

The Fastest Chicken in the World

16 March 1978

The Americans, the Russians, and now apparently the North Koreans, have their ICBMs, the British their Trident submarines, and the French their force de dissuasion. What does Canada have? We have, or rather had, the chicken cannon. Although fodder for many jokes on the Royal Canadian Air Farce, this piece of Canadian weaponry did more practical good than all the nuclear arsenals of the world. More accurately called the “flight impact simulator,” the chicken cannon, or bird gun, was used at Ottawa’s Macdonald-Cartier Airport from 1968 to 2009 to certify airplane windshields, engines and other aircraft parts against bird strikes.

Chicken Cannon Air Farce

Royal Canadian Air Farce, 2000, “Chicken Cannon,” Air Farce Archives, CBC.

Collisions with birds represent a serious threat to airplanes, particularly during take-offs and landings when planes traverse avian airspace. (Canada geese have, however, been encountered at 30,000 feet.) A bird striking an airplane in flight has what is known as kinetic energy (E) that is directly proportional to its mass (M) and to the square of its velocity (V). (The formula is E=1/2MV².) Consequently, even a small bird, can do significant damage, including shattering an airplane’s windshield and killing the pilot. Flocks of birds can cause multiple strikes, and if they are sucked into an airplane’s turbines, can lead to catastrophic engine failure.

Birds have collided with airplanes since the dawn of aviation. Particularly problematic are gulls, accounting for roughly half of recorded bird incidents. Orville Wright apparently experienced a bird strike in 1905. Aviation pioneer Cal Rodgers was the first person’s whose death was caused by a bird strike when a gull downed his airplane over the Pacific Ocean near the coast of California in 1912. But research into bird strikes on airplanes didn’t really get going until the early 1950s. In part, this reflected the fact that bird strikes were a fairly rare phenomenon during the early years of flying. Airplanes were small and relatively slow. As well, piston-driven airplane engines are less susceptible to damage from bird strikes that turbine engines with axial-flow compressors such as those used by modern jets and turbo-prop airplanes.

Today, global statistics on bird strikes are hard to come by as many countries don’t collect statistics on plane-bird interactions. Also, many strikes are unreported since they either caused no damage or go unnoticed. However, by one estimate, a bird strike occurs once in every 2,000 flights. Consequently, the odds that any particular flight will experience a bird strike are small. But as there are more than 100,000 aircraft flights every day in the world, this means on average there are at least 50 bird strikes per day. According to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), there were 13,688 airplane strikes with wildlife in 2014 in the United States, of which almost 97 per cent were represented by birds, with the remainder accounted for by terrestrial animals, bats, and reptiles. (The terrestrial animals and reptiles were hit while the airplanes were taxiing—no flying pigs or pterodactyls. In Australia, there have been kangaroo strikes.) Fortunately, most collisions with wildlife do not lead to human fatalities. FAA statistics show that in the twenty years to end 2013, only twenty-five people died from aircraft collisions with wildlife in the United States, with another 279 injured. In Canada, there have been only two known airplane crashes due to bird strikes that caused human deaths. In 1971, three people died when a Cessna 180 hit a bald eagle in British Columbia. In 1976, a military training jet, a CT-114 Tutor, was also downed by birds near Regina causing the death of its two crewmen.

Besides the loss of life, bird strikes are costly for airlines. Repairing and replacing damaged equipment is estimated to cost as much as US$1.25 billion per year. Added to these direct costs are the costs of prevention, deterrence, and liability paid for by airlines, airline manufacturers, and airports.

Chicken Cannon, Electra Accident 1960

The Eastern Airlines Lockheed Electra aircraft brought down by a flock of starlings, Boston, 4 October 1960, Aviation Safety Network.

Airplane manufacturers began using gas-operated bird cannons to test aircraft windshields during the 1950s. The earliest-known chicken gun was built by de Havilland in England. Canada got into the business during the 1960s following two serious incidents in the United States. In early October 1960, a Lockheed Electra owned by Eastern Airlines struck a flock of starlings shortly after take-off from Boston Logan Airport to Philadelphia. Birds were ingested in three of its four engines causing engine failure and the aircraft to crash. Sixty-two of the seventy-five people on board perished. Two years later, a Vickers Viscount owned by United Airlines en route from Newark, New Jersey to Washington D.C.’s National Airport met a flock of whistling swans flying at 6,000 feet. One or more birds hit the airplane’s left horizontal stabilizer sending the aircraft out of control. All seventeen people on board died.

In light of these accidents, Transport Canada asked the National Research Council (NRC) to establish a committee to look at the problem. A multi-prong approach was taken—prevention, research and testing, certification of aircraft, and bird-proofing. The committee, called the Associate Committee on Bird Hazards to Aircraft, involved Transport Canada, the Department of National Defence, the Canadian Wildlife Service, the major Canadian airlines, aircraft manufacturers, pilots, and NRC aircraft experts.

As part of its research efforts to certify aircraft against bird strikes, the Committee examined a number of methods of “delivering” a bird to its research target before choosing a cannon powered by compressed gas. Alternatives included a steam catapult like those used to launch V1 (Buzz) bombs during World War II, a gunpowder-powered catapult, and a rocket-powered sled on rails. Another (crazy) suggestion was to mount a test cockpit on top of an operational airplane and crash the test cockpit into a live bird that was suspended upside down from a gantry.

Chicken Cannon diagram

Diagram of the Chicken Cannon, NRC.

The chosen design was based on a six-inch bore, British bird gun built in 1961 at the Royal Aeronautical Establishment at Farnborough, England. The NRC’s ten-inch bore gun with a forty-foot long barrel and an overall length of seventy feet was built by Fairly Aviation of Dartmouth, Nova Scotia in 1967. (The longer the barrel the faster a projectile can be fired.) The device had a 60 cubic foot reservoir that was rated to a maximum pressure of 200 pounds per square inch (psi). With the air inside the barrel evacuated, a projectile could be hurled at speeds above Mach 1 (the speed of sound, or 717 miles per hour or 1,195 kilometres per hour).

The projectiles were chickens that had previously been euthanized and frozen. Defrosted before use, they were precisely weighed. Standardized weights of one, two, four and eight-pound birds were used in tests. The bird packages were then loaded into “sabots,” or metal containers with liners whose thickness depends on the weight of the bird being used. A total projectile weight, including sabot and liner, would range from four pounds (1.81Kg) for a one-pound bird to 10.43lb (4.73Kg) for an eight-pound bird. Upon firing, the sabot was captured by an “arrestor” to stop it from hitting the target after the chicken. Synthetic chickens, made of gelatine and fibrous material were used for calibrating the gun. Real chickens, and other fowl, were, however, used in actual tests as there is no substitute for the real, feathered thing. The tests were recorded using high-speed, colour film.

Chicken Cannon Test, NRC

Aftermath of a test of the Chicken Cannon on an Aircraft Windshield, NRC.

The bird gun was housed in building U-69 at the Ottawa airport. Initially, the idea was to park an airplane in for certification on a concrete apron in front of the gun. However, with tests typically done on aircraft components rather than on an entire aircraft, a test room was built that allowed year-round operations. The cannon could be moved up and down, while a target could be positioned from left to right. An earthen berm surrounded the test area in case of wayward projectiles. The berm itself was later fenced off to stop cross-country skiers from venturing into the operational zone. The Flight Impact Simulator Facility (FISF) received its certification in September 1968.

The airline industry welcomed the new test facility. Instead of each airline manufacturer building, maintaining, and staffing their own bird guns, which they would only use occasionally, it was more cost effective to go to a dedicated facility. Most major aircraft manufacturers had equipment certified at the NRC’s facility at the Ottawa Airport, including Airbus, Boeing, and Bombardier. To receive certification, a tested part had to be sufficiently durable to a bird strike to permit the aircraft to land safely.

Needless to say, firing dead birds at various pieces of aircraft equipment is a messy business. Feather, guts, and flesh can be distributed widely. There is even a word for this gooey mess—“snarge.” One reason for holding the tests inside a test room is to contain the snarge. There is a story that sometime during the 1960s, the U.S. military conducted a chicken gun test outside in front of invited guests. While the test was successful, the guests, along with their cars in the adjacent parking lot, were splattered with chicken debris.

Most commercial aircraft certification tests are performed at under 40 psi, simulating aircraft speeds of up to 350 miles per hour—likely speeds at which aircraft might encounter birds on take-offs and landings. However, tests were also performed on military aircraft that fly at considerable higher speeds. As well, military jets often travel close to the ground where they are more likely than commercial craft to come into contact with birds. On 16 March 1978, the NRC’s 10-inch bore bird cannon fired a 1 kilogram (2.2 pound) chicken projectile at a speed of Mach 1.36, equivalent to 1,040 miles per hour or 1,674 kilometres per hour—as fast as a 7.62mm round of ammunition. This made it the fastest chicken in the world.

Along with the 10-inch bore gun, the FISF had a second, smaller 3.5-inch bore gun used for testing the impact of small birds, hail, 20mm cannon slugs, and other small flying objects. It was even used to test atomic pacemaker battery casings. A five-inch gun was later built in Ottawa to perform tests on the ingestion by engines of birds and ice shed off of the wings and fuselage of airplanes. It was subsequently dismantled. In addition to testing the durability of parts of both fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft, as well as the ingestion of birds by engines, the chicken cannons were also used in high impact tests of the durability of aircraft  “black boxes”—the now orange-coloured flight data and cockpit voice recorders.

Over the career of the Flight Impact Simulator Facility more than 3,500 shots were fired, using roughly 3.5 tons of chickens. After long, honourable careers, both the 10 inch and 3.5 inch chicken cannons were retired in 2009. In 2012, the guns were donated to the Canada Aviation and Space Museum.

Despite precautionary efforts at airports to reduce the risk of birds colliding with aircraft during take-offs and landings, including making the airfields less desirable to birds, bird strikes continue to occur. In January 2009, US Airways, flight 1549, an Airbus A320, was famously struck by a flock of Canadian geese at an altitude of close to 3,000 feet on takeoff from New York’s LaGuardia Airport. With both engines stalling, the pilot ditched into the Hudson River. Dubbed the “Miracle on the Hudson,” all passengers and crew were safely rescued. In April, 2016, a Dallas-bound, American Airlines Airbus 321 jet was struck by a bird thirty minutes after takeoff from Seattle, severely denting its nose cone. The pilot safely returned the airplane to Seattle with more than 150 persons on board.

Such occurrences underscore the importance of continued research into deterrence and protection of aircraft from flying objects, including the latest threat in the skies—drones. Canada remains a leader in the field through work conducted by the Bird Strike Association Canada and its Bird Strike Committee which is endorsed by Transport Canada, and is organized according to guidelines issued by the International Civil Aviation Association. Canada is also a member of the World Bird Strike Association that meets regularly to share research and ideas.

 

Sources:

Many thanks to Ron Gould who, along with Ron Elmer, told me the story of Canada’s bird gun and the Flight Impact Simulator Facility. Ron Gould was the Technical Officer at the National Research Council who operated the bird guns from 1976 to his retirement in 2010.

ABC News, 2016. American Airlines Aircraft Returns to Seattle Airport After Damaging Bird Strike, 27 April, http://abcnews.go.com/US/american-airlines-aircraft-returns-seattle-airport-damaging-bird/story?id=38721606.

Aviation Safety Network, 2017. “Lockheed -188A Electra, Eastern Airlines, 4 October 1960,” https://aviation-safety.net/database/record.php?id=19601004-0.

Aviation Stack Exchange, 2017. “How many bird strikes are there per year? Any world-wide statistics? https://aviation.stackexchange.com/questions/23420/how-many-bird-strikes-are-there-per-year-any-world-wide-statistics.

——————————. 2017. “Vickers 745D Viscount, United Airlines, 23 November 1962,” https://aviation-safety.net/database/record.php?id=19621123-1.

Bird Strike Association of Canada, 2017. http://www.canadianbirdstrike.ca/.

Gould, R. W., 2007. “Really Big Guns, The Origins of Compressed Air Cannons and their use at the NRC,” National Research Council of Canada.

Fortier, R. 2012. “Acquisition Proposal, Items linked to bird strike research by the NRC,” Canada Aviation and Space Museum.

McKinnon, Bruce and Searing G, 2016. “History of Bird Strike Committee Canada,” Bird Strike Association of Canada, http://www.canadianbirdstrike.ca/en/history-bird-strike-committee-canada.

National Research Council, 2007. “It’s a Bird, it’s a Plane … It’s a Bird Striking a Plane,” 7 January, https://www.nrc-cnrc.gc.ca/eng/achievements/highlights/2007/bird_plane.html.

Wiggins’ Weather

22 September 1882

Canadians love to talk about the weather. This undoubtedly reflects the fact that we get a lot of it—four distinct seasons with a wide variability of rain, snow, wind, and temperature. In Ottawa, temperatures of plus or minus 30 degrees Celsius are not unusual. Weather-loving Canadians may also be channelling their farming forebears. During the days before the Weather Network or Environment Canada, when Canada was primarily an agricultural country, the weather really mattered. Livelihoods depended (and still do) on the right mix of sun and rain. For farmers, a reliable weather forecast might mean the difference between a good harvest and crops rotting in the fields. For fishermen, an ability to read the clouds and other signs of approaching storms literally meant life or death. Recall the adage Red sky at night, sailors’ delight. Red sky in morning, sailors take warning.

It therefore not surprising that in the years before meteorology became a serious science, famers’ almanacs, which provided detailed weather forecasts, were popular. Any guidance about weather trends, however dubious, was welcomed. The Old Farmer’s Almanac, founded in 1792, remains in print today. Based on arcane weather lore, its weather predictions are still eagerly read, if not taken seriously. Back in the 1870s, a well-respected almanac was produced by Henry George Vennor of Montreal. Vennor came to prominence when he accurately predicted a green Christmas for Montreal in 1875. The Vennor Almanac was much sought after throughout North America until Vennor’s premature death in 1884.

Wiggins march 1883 Topley StudioLAC-PA-201322

Dr E. Stone Wiggins, March 1882, Topley Studio, Library and Archives Canada, PA-201322.

As a weather prophet, Vennor was eclipsed by another Canadian, Ottawa’s Dr Ezekiel Stone Wiggins who took the weather forecasting business to a whole new level. On 22 September, 1882, he announced in the Ottawa Citizen that:

A great storm will strike this planet on the 9th of March next. It will first be felt in the Northern Pacific and will cross the meridian of Ottawa at noon (5 o’clock London time) on Sunday, March 11th, 1883. No smaller vessel than a Cunarder [a large passenger ship of the Cunard Line] will be able to live in this tempest. India, the south of Europe, England, and especially the North American continent will be the theatre of its ravages. As all the low lands on the Atlantic will be submerged, I advise ship-builders to place their prospective vessels high up on the stocks, and farmers having loose valuables as hay, cattle, etc., to remove them to a place of safety. I beg further most respectfully to appeal to the Honorable Minister of Marine, that he will peremptorily order up the storm flags on all the Canadian coast not later than the 20th February, and thus permit no vessel to leave harbor. If this is not done hundreds of lives will be lost and millions worth of property destroyed.

In November 1882, Wiggins sent a telegram to President Arthur of the United States in which the doctor reiterated his fantastic prediction. He also fine-tuned his forecast adding that the “planetary force” would especially submerge the coastal lands bordering the Gulf of Mexico and those “washed by the Gulf stream” [i.e. from Florida to the Carolinas] and that the New England States would suffer “severely from the wind and floods.” As well, there would be “universal destruction” along the east side of the Rocky Mountains, “owing to the great stratospheric pressure in those regions.” He added that the March 1883 storm would be “the greatest storm that has visited this continent since the days of your illustrious first President.” He advised President Arthur to order “all United States ships into safe harbor not later than March 5th till this storm shall have passed.”

News of Wiggins’ prophecy was picked up by American newspapers across the United States. There was little commentary about the merits of the forecast, though a few papers noted that “a Toronto press dispatch says Wiggins’ standing as scientific authority is somewhat doubtful.” Some papers gave Wiggins the benefit of that doubt. One Kansas newspaper recalled that before the biblical Flood, people had scoffed at Noah and his ark. The newspaper opined that “Wiggins and his kind deserved encouragement.” News of Wiggins’s storm also crossed the Atlantic, and was even reported in New Zealand.

Official reaction to Wiggin’s forecasts were decidedly negative. Mr Charles Carpmael, director of Canada’s meteorological service based in Toronto, told the Minister that “We have no reason to anticipate any violent disturbance between the 9th and 11th of March.” He added that “Mr Wiggins’ letter is patently absurd.” The American reaction was less restrained. General W. B. Hazen, the U.S. Chief Signal Officer, said “Too severe rebuke cannot be inflicted upon those who attempt to deceive or needlessly alarm the people by publishing such statements as that of Mr Wiggins. Their words are totally untrustworthy and the people should be so informed by those who are familiar with the subjects upon which these prophets presume to speak. Such statements fill lunatic asylums, and those who make them are enemies of society.”

Hazen noted that it is difficult to refute such predictions since there are bound to be storms in March on or about the date specified. Over the previous ten years, there had been on average a dozen March storms. He added that meteorology is in its infancy, and that nobody can forecast more than a few days ahead, at most a week. “All predictions of the weather to be expected a month or more in advance, whether based upon the position of the planets, or of the moon, or upon the number of sun spots, or upon any supposed law of periodicity of natural phenomena, or upon any hypothesis whatever which to-day has its advocates, are as unreliable as predictions of the time when the end of the world shall come.”

Despite the official rejection of Wiggins’ prophesy, many people took him seriously, or at least wanted to err on the side of caution despite the fact that Wiggins had no track record of success beyond what he himself trumpeted in the press. So who was Dr E. Stone Wiggins, and why was he so convincing?

Wiggins was born in 1839 in Queens County in central New Brunswick. His family descended from United Empire Loyalists, who had fled north from New York after the American Revolution. Settling in New Brunswick, the family became prosperous merchants. After his early education in New Brunswick, E. Stone Wiggins became a teacher in Ontario, and the author of a book on English grammar for school children. He married his cousin Susan Anna Wiggins, age 16, in 1861.

An amateur astronomer, Wiggins published at the age of only 24 a book titled The Architecture of the Heavens in which he claimed to have discovered that comets travelled through space by virtue of the positive and negative forces of electricity. In the same volume, he postulated the existence of dark planets that emitted no light. (While this might be interpreted as foreshadowing the concept of black holes, in Wiggins’ universe, planets and stars were dark if they had no atmosphere.) For this book, he was apparently awarded an honorary doctorate by some un-named school. He later took second place for a prize among 125 astronomers for an essay on comets.

In 1866, Wiggins was appointed superintendent of schools in Prince Edward County on Lake Ontario. He later attended the Philadelphia School of Medicine and Surgery, obtaining his M.D. in 1869. Returning to Canada, he was awarded a B.A. from Albert College, Ontario.  He later became principal of a school for the blind in Brantford. Returning to New Brunswick in 1874, he established a boys’ school in St John. In 1878, he unsuccessfully ran as the Conservative candidate for Queens County. Sir Leonard Tilley, who was from the same county and who became Finance Minister in the Conservative government of Sir John A. Macdonald, gave Wiggins a post in his department in Ottawa, a position he held until retirement in1908.

Wiggins almanacWiggins’ credibility as a weather prognosticator likely derived from the fact that he was a university-educated “astronomer” working for the Canadian government. (What he actually did for the Department of Finance is unclear.) He was also likeable and articulate, and held a fervent belief in his own forecasting ability. So convinced was he of his prophecy of a storm of biblical proportions that he published the criticisms levelled at him by the Canadian and American government meteorologists in his Wiggins’ Storm Herald with Almanac, 1883, along with his warning messages to the Canadian and American authorities.

As you might imagine, the world watched with bated breath the arrival of Wiggins’ storm. Fishermen on the east coast pulled in their boats. Passengers on trans-Atlantic liners postponed voyages. The day before his predicted Armageddon, Wiggins announced that the planets were moving into alignment for the great storm. But on March 9th, the weather across Canada was reported as being exceptionally fine. Wiggins still confidently predicted that the storm would hit the following day as heavy meteor showers during the previous two days showed that “an unusual pressure may be expected on the earth.”

According to the Globe newspaper, Wiggins couldn’t sleep the five nights before the predicted date of his storm. He also had received threatening letters from people. One said that if there were no storm “he had better secure a lot in the Beechwood Cemetery.” Wiggins told friends “Uneasy lies the head that dips into the future.” Early in the morning of March 10th, a large group of women asked Wiggins where they could find safety. Wiggins assured them that Ottawa would only get the tail end of the storm. In the event, Ottawa got 18 centimetres of snow on Sunday March 11th, the day that he had predicted that the great storm was to pass the meridian of Ottawa—admittedly not a very pleasant day but hardly an event of biblical proportions. In Toronto, the Globe reported that the wind was “scarcely ruffling feathers in ladies’ hats.” There was no flooding of the eastern seaboard. No lives were lost at sea, and there were no financial losses.

Wiggins Devlin 13-3-83

J. Devlin, retailer, known for his funny advertisements, mocks Wiggins, The Ottawa Daily Citizen, 13 March 1883.

Newspapers denounced Wiggins as a fake and a charlatan. One paper called him “a contemptible nincompoop who…has produced a commotion more injurious to the human family than the kick of Mrs O’Leary’s cow [that caused the Chicago fire].” Another American newspaper said “Some philanthropic Canadian woman should send Mr Wiggins a thimble in which to soak his head.”

Wiggin’s responded: “It is evident from the failure of my predictions that something is wrong with the solar system if not with the Cosmos.” He hypothesized that there was a dark moon “the invisibility of which may account for its never having been discovered, while its mere existence as a satellite of the earth will explain the apparent failure of my best-predicted storms.”

Notwithstanding his failure, Wiggins continued to issue weather forecasts. However, he became discouraged. In early 1886, he despondently told an Ottawa Journal reporter that although he had foreseen the big storm of the previous October and had been on the way to the press to warn people, he had turned back—“too much mental wear and tear to make these predictions even when you know you are right.”

Instead of the weather, Wiggins turned to predicting earthquakes, which he believed were also caused by celestial forces. Following the major Charleston earthquake that struck at the end of August 1886, Wiggins predicted an even larger tremor would hit the southern United States a month later. Despite his failure to predict the Charleston quake and efforts of newspapers and experts to allay concerns, people became terrified. On the day of his predicted tremor, many people in Atlanta spent the night in churches praying. Shops didn’t open, schools remained deserted, and high buildings were emptied of their occupants. When no shock materialized there was a “widespread feeling of relief in the community” along with widespread condemnation of Wiggins. The Moncton Transcript opined that “It is about time Wiggins as a prophet was suppressed and compelled to attend the work for which the country pays him.”

Oddly, when Ottawa experienced a minor earthquake in January 1888, Wiggins, the prophet, slept through it. When asked, Wiggins attributed the tremor to “the sun which was near the tropic of Capricorn.” He added that there would be no serious disturbance for many years, but North America should watch out after August 19th 1904. (The great San Francisco earthquake struck in April 1906.)

Wiggins Arbour

Plaque erected by the City of Ottawa on Arbour House, Britannia, built by E. Stone and Susan Wiggins in 1892-93, Wikipedia.

Wiggins had many other interesting and entertaining ideas. He thought the world was solid and if you dug to its centre, temperatures would drop. Similarly, he believed the closer one got to the sum the lower the temperature. He had little sympathy with “the prejudices of the old school men [who] persist in declaring that our moon is a dead planet and is not possessed of an atmosphere.” He also believed that plesiosaurs, an extinct marine reptile of the Jurassic Period, existed in Rice Lake, Ontario and in the North Atlantic. When a meteor fell in upstate New York in 1897, Wiggins thought it contained hieroglyphs that were a message from Martians. At one time, he asserted that there would come a time when “generals on the battlefield would converse with each other by merely striking their swords into the ground.” Things he did get right include his forecast that one day a traveller would be able “to converse with his family while trudging his weary way to the northern pole.” Hinting at global warming to come, Wiggins claimed that “every man and animal … is a stove to raise the temperature.” He anticipated that some day one would be able to grown oranges in Canada.

Wiggins and his wife lived on Daly Street for much of their lives in Ottawa. In the early 1890s, the couple built Arbour House in the then summer resort town of Britannia where they were pillars of the community. Wiggins was the commodore of the Britannia Yacht Club in 1899. He died at their summer cottage in 1910. Wiggins was buried in Queens County, New Brunswick at St Luke’s Anglican Church at Youngs Cove. The memorial on his grave reads Professor E. Stone Wiggins B.A., M.A., M.D., L.L.D. Canada’s Distinguished Scientist and Scholar. DEC. 3 1839-AUG. 14 1910. His wife Susie. In 1994, the City of Ottawa designated Arbour House as a heritage property.

Sources:

With thanks to Dr John D. Reid who described Wiggins’ contributions to weather lore in a wonderful presentation on Ottawa weather history at the Historical Society of Ottawa, 27 October 2017.

Billings Herald (Montana), 1883. “Wiggins and his Storm,” 15 March.

Brooklyn Eagle, 1899. “Questions Answered,” 11 June

Chicago Tribune, 1883. “Wiggins Nothing But An Astrologer And A Copier of Popular English Almanac-Makers,” 8 March.

Fort Wayne Daily Gazette, 1884. “Wiggins’ Dark Moon,” 6 July.

Globe, 1883. “Prof. Wiggins’ Storm,” 10 March.

——-, 1907. “Two Moons In Sky Says Prof. Wiggins,” 30 May.

Memphis Daily Appeal, 1883. “Wicked Wiggins,” 12 March.

New York Times, 1883, “Wiggins A False Prophet,” 10 March.

——————-, 1897. “Wiggins on the Aerolite,” 17 November.

Ottawa Daily Citizen, 1883. “Freaks of the Storm,” 13 March.

Ottawa Evening Journal, 1886. “Wiggins Claims the Storm,” 18 January.

—————————–, 1886. “The Shaken South,” 1 October.

—————————–, 1888. “Just a Wee Shake,” 11 January.

—————————–, 1910. “Astronomer Passes Away,” 15 August.

Ottawa Free Press, 1883 in Greensboro Watchman (Alabama), 1883. “Predicting Storms,” 15 February.

Rose, Geo. Maclean, 1888. A Cyclopaedia of Canadian Biography, Toronto: Rose Publishing Company.

Somerville, Scott, 1979. “A Vennorable Weather Prophet,” Chinook, Spring.

Transcript (Moncton), 1886 in Ottawa Evening Journal, “Victimizing Wiggins,” 5 October.

Wiggins, E. Stone, 1883. Wiggins’ Storm Herald with Almanac, 1883, Toronto: GMP Printing & Publishing, https://archive.org/stream/cihm_25726#page/n5/mode/1up.

 

The Dominion Observatory

29 April 1905

When next you have an opportunity to stroll through the Experimental Farm, take a look at the impressive red stone building with the verdigris copper, domed roof located off of Maple Drive close to Carling Avenue. It was once the Dominion Observatory, for a time the proud owner of the largest telescope in Canada. Its construction was due to the efforts of two men, Dr Frederick King, the first Dominion Astronomer, and Otto Klotz. The two initially worked together at the Cliff Street Observatory located on a small road overlooking the Ottawa River, roughly where the Supreme Court building stands today. This observatory was established by the government in the late 1880s to determine standard time, make “exact determinations of geographical locations” for explorers of the North West Territories, which at the time included Saskatchewan and Alberta, and to rate, test and adjust chronometers and other surveying instruments.

cliff st

The Cliff Street Observatory,  Canada Science and Technology Museum

The facilities on Cliff Street observatory were rudimentary. Its 6-inch aperture equatorial telescope was too small for serious scientific work. Moreover, the building was on such a narrow lot that there was insufficient space to build a heated room for people working there. Even more problematic was that the observatory only had a clear view of the sky to the north over the Ottawa River and to the south, though its southern view was often obscured by smoke from the many coal burning fireplaces in Ottawa. Its east and west view were obstructed by other structures, including a stable.

Plans for building a new, larger observatory date from late 1898 when King with Klotz’s help sent a memorandum to Clifford Sifton, the Minister of the Interior, recommending the construction of a new government-owned observatory to replace the inadequate Cliff Street facility. In the memo, King argued that astronomical investigation in Canada had been long neglected. A new observatory would help to address this shortcoming. It would also be of considerable scientific value for many branches of science, and would stimulate the study of science throughout the Dominion. He also advocated for the advancement of “pure” science as opposed to just “practical” science on the grounds that unforeseen benefits can emerge from such research, and that the Government should not leave this “wholly in the hands of foreign investigators.” King also recommended that the observatory be built on a knoll of land on Parliament Hill between the Centre and West Blocks. Later, when the knoll became the location of the Victoria Monument, he recommended building the observatory where the Summer Pavilion stands behind the Parliament buildings. King estimated that a 10-inch telescope and the construction of a suitable building with a 22-foot diameter dome roof with rollers would cost $16,075.00.

According to J. H. Hodgson, the author of the definitive account of the history of the Dominion Observatory, Klotz, ostensibly King’s subordinate, disagreed vehemently with the proposed site of the new observatory. It seems that relations between King and Klotz, who once had been close friends, had deteriorated owing to professional jealousy and perceived slights. Klotz thought the proposed site was too small for a national observatory and considered Parliament Hill to be “hallowed and sacred ground,” that would be profaned by such a use. He also had a different vision than King’s for the work of the new observatory, envisaging it expanding into other related areas of scientific research. While he agreed with King that there was a pressing need for better facilities, Klotz disagreed with King’s recommendation of a 10-inch equatorial telescope, which had quickly grown into a proposed 12-inch instrument, on the grounds that neither he nor King had any experience on such a machine. Klotz believed that the funds could be better used on a geodetic survey of Canada. He thought King just wanted to be able to brag that he was the Dominion Astronomer in change of a prestigious, world-class telescope.

In the end, Klotz won the argument on the site for the new observatory. Before settling on its Experimental Farm location, other sites considered included the bluff at the end of Concession Street (Bronson Avenue) overlooking the Ottawa River, a lot south of Strathcona Park, a location close to Rockcliffe, and a city lot at the corner of Maria Street (Laurier Avenue) and Concession Street. Neapean Point was also a contender but was rejected owning to concerns that the vibrations of trains running nearby might disrupt the delicate astronomical equipment. While the Experimental Farm was distant from the city centre and civil servant offices, it had the benefit of lots of space, and unobstructed views far from Ottawa’s smog and lights. An extension of the Ottawa Electric Railway to the Farm would also solve the problem of ready access.

 

telescope

The 15-inch aperture telescope, The Ottawa Evening Journal, 1 May 1905

While Klotz won the argument over the observatory’s siting, King ruled over its instrumentality. He apparently had little trouble persuading the government to purchase a still larger 15-inch aperture, equatorially-mounted, refracting telescope and other astronomical equipment from Professor John Brashear of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The local Pittsburgh newspaper headline read “No Limit As To Price.” The mountings for the 19 foot 6 inch long telescope, with a magnifying capacity of 1,500 times, were made by Warner and Swasey of Cleveland, Ohio. The instrument was completed by January 1903 at a cost of $14,625.59, well ahead of the completion of the observatory itself. The telescope was the same size as the one used at Harvard University, and second only in size to the huge 36-inch aperture Link telescope built in 1888 at Mount Hamilton, California.

The initial plans for the new two-storey high observatory with a revolving dome were drawn by government architects in 1901. David Ewart, the chief Dominion Architect, is credited for the observatory’s Baronial style architecture. Construction tenders closed in November 1901 with Theophile Viau winning the contract with a bid of $74,999. The contract was awarded in August 1902, and construction got underway shortly afterwards at the Experimental Farm. The final cost of the building was $93,800, far more than initially appropriated by the government for this project. It was ready for occupancy in April 1905. There were initially fourteen permanent staff members—all male. There were no female employees as no washroom facilities were provided for female personnel.

observatory

The Dominion Observatory, circa 1905, Canada Department of Mines & Resources, Library and Archives Canada,  PA-034064.

The state-of-the-art Dominion Observatory was unveiled to the men of the press gallery of the House of Commons on Saturday, 29 April 1905. That evening, journalists gathered in front of the Centre Block on Parliament Hill to be conveyed to the Experimental Farm. On arrival at the Observatory, they were met by the institution’s three leading astronomers, Dr King, Mr Klotz and Mr J.S. Plaskett, who explained to the men the workings of the astronomical instruments. With a clear sky, each journalist had an opportunity to view the constellations. Afterwards, Plaskett exhibited magic lantern views of Canadian scenery. (The magic lantern was an early slide projector.) Over coffee, Dr King spoke about the great value of the government’s contribution to the pursuit of astronomical knowledge. He hoped that the Dominion Observatory would be to Canada what the Greenwich Observatory was to England. Dr King indicated that one of the immediate practical benefits of the Observatory was the determination of the positions of various points throughout Canada used by surveys conducted by Dominion surveyors. The Observatory would also be used to calculate standard time for the country. Later, the Observatory conducted pure research into spectroscopic binary stars. (Spectroscopic binary stars are binary stars that are so close together that they cannot be viewed separately with a telescope. They are revealed by the Doppler effect on the light each star is emitting, shifting from red to blue as they move.) It also assumed responsibility for seismic, magnetic and gravimetric analyses. In 1914, a new building was built on an adjacent lot to house the Geodetic and Boundary Survey divisions. A full weather station was also maintained at the Observatory.

Within just a few years after the opening of the Dominion Observatory, its 15-inch aperture telescope was deemed to be too small. In 1913, the Ottawa Evening Journal opined that while the Dominion astronomers were doing sterling work on binary stars despite the small size of their telescope, a larger instrument was now necessary. The 15-inch aperture telescope was smaller than that of most national observatories, and was “altogether out of keeping with the standing of Canada.” It encouraged the construction at the Observatory of an instrument with an aperture of 60 inches, or better yet, one of 72 inches. The newspaper placed the cost at $70,000, with a special tower to house it costing an additional $40,000.

The newspaper’s argument found traction in government circles. Mr J.S. Plaskett of the Dominion Observatory designed a 72-inch aperture telescope. However, instead of Ottawa, the decision was made to locate it in Saanich, British Columbia, a site considered far superior to the Experimental Farm station. The Dominion Astrophysical Observatory on Observatory Hill was completed in 1918. It quickly became world renowned for its research into the Milky Way.

Observatory today

The Dominion Observatory, 2016, Google Maps

When Dr King died in 1916, Otto Klotz assumed his responsibilities as Dominion Astronomer despite his German roots and widespread anti-German sentiments at the height of the First World War. Klotz died in 1923. The Dominion Observatory in Ottawa continued operations until April 1970 when its astronomical and time-keeping work was assumed by the National Research Council of Canada. The Observatory’s 15-inch aperture telescope was given to Canada’s Science and Technology Museum. The old Observatory currently houses the Office of Energy Efficiency, part of Natural Resources Canada.

 

Sources:
Brooks, Randall & Klatts Calvin, 2005. The Dominion Observatory 100th Anniversary, http://www.casca.ca/ecass/issues/2005-me/features/brooks/e-Cassi_DomObsV4.htm.
Evening Journal, (The), 1901. “Sites For The New Buildings,” 31 May.
—————————-, 1903. “Ottawa’s New Observatory,” 28 February.
—————————-, 1905. “Private View of New Dominion Observatory,” 1 May.
—————————-, 1913. “The Dominion Observatory,” 27 February.
Hodgson, J.H., 1989. The Heavens Above and the Earth Beneath: A History of the Dominion Observatory, Energy Mines & Resources.
Pittsburgh Daily Post, 1900. “Big Telescope Goes To Canada,” 5 March.

 

The Arrival of Traffic Lights

5 March 1928

It’s hard to imagine city driving without the ubiquitous traffic lights that govern the ebb and flow of cars, trucks, cyclists and pedestrians on our streets and avenues. For the most part, we take them for granted. But when a power failure temporarily puts out the lights, the resulting gridlock reminds us how much we rely on them to keep our roads safe and traffic flowing. In contrast, back in the days before the arrival of the automobile when life moved at a more leisurely pace, there was little in the way of traffic controls. Even whether one should keep to the left or to the right was uncertain. As well, everybody had the same right to use the streets and highways as long as one took care not to injure others. Intermingled among horse-drawn delivery wagons, hansom cabs and omnibuses were cyclists and pedestrians. Not only was jaywalking an unheard-of offence, people thought nothing of strolling down the centre of the street.

The pace of life began to quicken in the late nineteenth century with the introduction of electric streetcars. But the arrival of the automobile in large numbers early in the twentieth century was the real game changer. With the rules of the road ill-defined, city streets had become increasingly dangerous. Traffic control became a priority in all major cities. To gain an appreciation of the chaotic traffic conditions in a major North American city during the early 1900s, here is a link (San Francisco Street Scene) to a fascinating short film of a drive down Market Street in San Francisco just days before the famous earthquake devastated the city in 1906.

Traffic lights actually predate the automobile. In late 1868, gas-lit signals were installed at the intersection of Bridge, Great George and Parliament Streets close to the Houses of Parliament in London to help control heavy horse-drawn and pedestrian traffic. Adapted from railway signals by engineer John Peake Knight, the three semaphore signal arms stood on a pillar twenty-two feet high. The horizontal signal arms indicated “stop” and “proceed with caution.” At night, gas lights were used with coloured lenses. Similar to today, a red light indicated that traffic should stop and a green light “proceed with caution.” The lights and signals were manually controlled by a police constable who would also blow a whistle to indicate he was about to change them. Although the new invention was effective at controlling traffic, a month after its installation a gas leak led to an explosion that severely injured the attending constable. This effectively scuppered gas-powered traffic signals in London.

Fast forward to the early years of the twentieth century, manually-powered semaphore traffic signals were used in many American cities to help control traffic. Like their British counterpart, the arms indicated whether traffic should stop or go. Instead of gas, kerosene was sometimes used to light lamps at night, with the standard red or green lenses indicating “stop” and “go,” respectively. In 1923, the inventor Garrett Morgan of Cleveland successfully took out a U.S. patent (# 1,475,024) for a hand-cranked semaphore traffic signal that featured three positions: stop, go, and all stop so that traffic could give way to pedestrians. Morgan reportedly sold his invention for $40,000 to the General Electric Company, a considerable sum in those days.

Traffic lights as we know them date from 1912 when one Lester Wire of Salt Lake City, Utah, who was head of the city’s traffic squad, invented a two-colour, red-green system. Wire never patented his device though it was apparently employed in Salt Lake City. In 1913, James Hoge of Cleveland submitted a patent in the United States for an electric “Municipal Traffic Control System” that consisted of “traffic control boxes or signals at street intersections and other suitable points.” Hoge’s objective was to permit policemen to better control traffic in order to give priority to emergency vehicles. Lamps of different colours would be used with one colour (red) to indicate “stop” and another colour (white) to indicate “move.” He received his patent (# 1,251,666) on 1 January 1918.

The modern, three-colour (red, amber, and green), electric traffic light, first appeared on street corners in Detroit in 1920. Its inventor was William L. Potts, a police officer who, like others at that time, was concerned about worsening road safety owing to the increasing popularity of the automobile. Like Lester Wire before him, Potts did not patent his device, apparently because being a government employee he was not eligible to do so. Within a few years, Potts’s three-colour, electric traffic lights were being widely used in American cities.

Electric traffic lights came to Canadian streets in 1925, first in Hamilton, Ontario and shortly afterwards in Toronto as a means of reducing the number of police constables directing traffic at major intersections. Taking note of Toronto’s favourable experience with traffic lights, police magistrate Charles Hopewell wrote in late 1927 to Ottawa’s Mayor John Balharrie and City Council recommending traffic lights of the three-colour variety be installed as an experiment at three major intersections on Sparks Street—at Bank, Metcalfe, and O’Connor Streets. He recommended against installing lights at the intersection of Sparks and Elgin Streets owing to uncertainty over government plans for the area. The Dominion government had recently expropriated land in this area, including the site of the old Russell Hotel, with a view towards beautifying Ottawa, which included widening Sparks and Elgin Streets. At each of the three chosen intersections, four traffic lights would be installed on the existing “Whiteway” lamp poles. Hopewell recommended the “Co-ordinated Progressive System” of traffic lights made by the Canadian General Electric Company over equipment manufactured by the Northern Electric Company, a forerunner of Northern Telecom. He estimated the purchase and installation costs at approximately $2,600 (about $37,000 in today’s money). After consulting the Ottawa Hydro-Electric Commission, the annual electricity cost for running the twelve sets of traffic lights, each equipped with three 60 watt bulbs, was estimated at $640.

Although Council supported Hopewell recommendation to install traffic lights on Sparks Street, the Police Commission in December gave the contract to Northern Electric rather than Canadian General Electric. The cost of buying its automatic traffic control system with twelve sets of lights was under $1,800, much lower than Hopewell’s initial estimate. The funds to buy the equipment came out of unused resources in the police department’s 1927 budget. Of the twelve sets of traffic lights, eleven were mounted horizontally on existing light poles. The twelfth was mounted vertically to see which configuration of lights would be more visible.

Although newspapers optimistically reported that the traffic lights would be ready for Christmas, it took longer than expected for the hydro company to connect them. Finally, shortly before 8am on Monday, 5 March 1928, the new, automatic traffic lights on Sparks Street were switched on. The street lights were synchronized to facilitate travel down the street. They were on a 45-second cycle, with a twenty-second green light, followed by a five-second amber caution light, and a twenty-second red light. Twenty seconds were deemed sufficient time to allow streetcars to unload and load their passengers. Initially, the lights were in operation Monday through Saturday. Extra police were on hand that first day to assist the public in observing the rules. Magistrate Hopewell was also there to witness the lights in use for the first time. He returned at noon to check how things were running.

Overall, the introduction of traffic lights went smoothly, though the volume of traffic was unusually light that first day, possibly owing to cold weather. The street cars were running normally, however, allowing police officials to check the timing of the lights. Groups of people stood around the street corners to watch the lights change colour. A number of car drivers and streetcar operators drove through red lights, but police overlooked the infractions owing to people’s unfamiliarity with the new system. Police also stressed that pedestrians should obey the lights as well.

traffic-signal-28-11-28

The pedestal street lights installed on Wellington Street in 1928, The Ottawa Evening Journal, 28 November 1928.

Naturally, there were complaints. Some motorists didn’t like the location of the lights. Magistrate Hopewell said it would take at least a week for the traffic lights to prove their efficiency. In the meantime, the system would be studied and improved, if necessary.

The new lights were judged to be a complete success, and were quickly rolled out to other important road junctures, including the Sparks and Kent and the Bank and Laurier intersections a few months later. The operation of the street lights was also extended to Sundays.

Wellington Street received its traffic lights in late 1928 at intersections with Elgin, Metcalfe, O’Connor, and Bank Streets. Instead of installing the lights on existing poles, new pedestal-type traffic lights were erected—a first in Canada. The lights, with top red, middle amber, and bottom light green, were mounted on pedestals with a two-foot base, standing over nine-feet high. The city had hoped to have the new traffic lights in operation earlier in the year, but delayed their installation pending approval from Prime Minister Mackenzie King who took a personal interest in plans to improve the Capital. The traffic lights were synchronized so that automobiles travelling at twenty miles per hour from the Château Laurier Hotel to Bank Street would not have to stop. The Ottawa Evening Journal proudly noted that Ottawa was the only city in North America, other than Buffalo, New York, to have an entire thoroughfare equipped with these new type of lights.

From then on, there was no looking back. Traffic lights, proven effective at controlling the flow of traffic and improving road safety, were here to stay.

Sources:

About Money, 2016. “Garrett Morgan 1877-1963,” http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2012/03/the-origin-of-the-green-yellow-and-red-color-scheme-for-traffic-lights/.

Bio, 2016. “Garrett Morgan Biography,” http://www.biography.com/people/garrett-morgan-9414691#cleveland-tunnel-explosion.

Brown, J. E., General Manager, Ottawa Hydro-Electric Commission to Mr. C.E. Pearce, Board of Control, 1927. “Letter,” 24 October.

City of Ottawa, 1927. “Minutes,” Traffic Control System, 6 December.

Globe and Mail, 2015. “First electric traffic signal installed 101 years ago,” 5 August.

History, 2016. “First electric traffic signal installed,” This Day in History, August 5. http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/first-electric-traffic-signal-installed.

Hopewell, Charles, Police Magistrate, to Mayor and Board of Control, 1927. “Letter.” 3 October.

——————————————————-, 1927. “Letter.” 5 December.

Idea Finder, 2007, “Traffic Lights,” http://www.ideafinder.com/history/inventions/trafficlight.htm.

Mark Traffic, 2016. “Traffic Lights Invented by William L. Potts,” http://www.marktraffic.com/traffic-lights-invented-by-william-l-potts.php.

Ottawa Evening Journal (The), 1927. “Traffic Lights Installed For Holiday Rush,” 12 December.

————————————, 1928. “New Automatic Signal System In Operation.” 5 March.

————————————, 1928. “Wellington St. Traffic Lights Now Are Likely,” 27 April.

————————————, 1928. “Traffic Lights To Operate Sundays,” 7 May.

————————————, 1928. “Ottawa To Get Latest Types Signal Lights,” 28 November.

Today I Found Out, 2016. “The Origin of the Green, Yellow and Red Color Scheme For Traffic Lights,” http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2012/03/the-origin-of-the-green-yellow-and-red-color-scheme-for-traffic-lights/.

U.S. Patent Office, 1918. “Municipal Traffic Control Signal of J. B. Hoge, Patent Number 1251666,” 1 January, https://www.google.com/patents/US1251666.