The Chaudière Ring Dam

19 December 1908

It would be hard to underestimate the importance of the Chaudière Falls to the development of the city of Ottawa. Along with the Rideau Canal, the city owes its existence to the power that was (and continues to be) generated at the Falls. Indeed, one could argue that without the Falls, the lumber industry, which was the economic life blood of the city through the nineteenth century, would have located elsewhere. And without its mills, it’s hard to imagine that little Ottawa would have been a viable candidate to be the capital of Canada in 1857 notwithstanding its ideal location.

From the early nineteenth century, settlers recognized the energy potential of the Falls. Lumber mills popped up on both sides of the River as well as on the islands that straddle the border between Ontario and Quebec, including the Wright’s, Chaudière, Victoria, Albert and Amelia Islands. Logs cut in the Ottawa hinterland were floated down the Ottawa River and its tributaries to these mills. In the years before electricity, the mills were powered by water wheels.

By the early 1880s, water-powered turbines had advanced to the point where it was economic to convert the energy of flowing water into electricity. The first hydro-electric plant in North America opened in 1881 on the U.S. side of the Niagara Falls. That same year, E.B. Eddy used a generator run by waterpower to power arc lights in his lumber, match and woodenware factory in Hull.

By the mid-1890s, Ottawa was known as the “Electric City,” due importantly to the development of electrical power made possible by harnessing the Chaudière Falls. At the time, it was estimated that 20 per cent of Ottawa’s population and 75 per cent of Hull’s population were directly dependent on the Falls for their livelihoods.

The two men most responsible for this electrical revolution, were Thomas Ahearn and Warren Soper. Ahearn was an inventor par excellence, Canada’s answer to Thomas Edison, while Warren Soper was the man with the business acumen. Together, the duo formed a powerful partnership that dominated Ottawa for a generation. In 1896, the Illustrated Buffalo Express newspaper wrote:

Through the splendid supply of cheap power afforded by the falls, combined with the business foresight and ability of two of its citizens [Ahearn and Soper], Ottawa has led the van, not only for the Dominion but also in many respects for the continent, in the way of the development of practical electricity.

In addition to powering a timber industry worth $5 million per year, a huge sum in those days, Ahearn and Soper’s Ottawa Electric Company provided power to many Ottawa-area businesses—as long as they were located within four miles of the generators at the Chaudière Falls. The Canadian Atlantic Railway Company’s repair shops in LeBreton Flats were powered by electricity. R.A. McCormick, a pharmacy on Spark Street, was heated electrically. The Ottawa Canoe Club even used an electric motor for hauling canoes out of the water. Ahearn and Soper’s electric railway system was also powered by hydro-electricity. The streetcar system had thirty miles of track with 40 cars running daily through the year. The streetcars were heated and lighted electrically, unheard of luxuries just a few years earlier.

The Ottawa Electric Company also provided street lighting throughout the city as well power for most of the 60,000 incandescent light bulbs in use in Ottawa at that time. The Buffalo newspaper enthused that is amounted to more than one bulb for every inhabitant, “a proportion claimed to be unequal by any other town of like size in America.”

While less expensive than using manufactured gas to light lamps, electricity did not come cheap, notwithstanding what the Buffalo newspaper said. In 1903, electricity reportedly cost 8 cents per kilowatt hour in Ottawa, equivalent to roughly $2 per kilowatt hour in 2019 dollars. The 2019 Ottawa Hydro’s off-peak rate is 6.5 cents a kilowatt hour.

Chaudiere Falls dam 3328647 Dept of Public Works

Picture of the Chaudière Ring Dam shortly after completion in December 1908, Department of Public Works, Library and Archives Canada, 3328647.

Growing demand for electricity as electrical lines were strung across the city, combined with economic growth, led to pressures to increase the production of hydro power at the Falls. However, conflicting interests and bickering among the power owners at the Chaudière caused long delays. On the Ottawa side of the river alone, there were 26 water lots lettered A to Z, most of which were controlled by electric power generators, lumber and flour companies. These lots were leased from the Dominion government for $100 per year. Added to the complexity of the problem was the fact that any agreement among the Ontario and Quebec power owners at the Grand Chaudière Falls had to respect the rights of power owners at the upstream Little Chaudière Falls. While the Dominion government recognized the importance of developing water power on the Ottawa river, it was not going to move until the private power owners came up with a solution to their disagreements.

In 1907, a settlement was finally reached among the water powers on the Ottawa River that settled “the vexed and prolonged differences between the users of water power at the Chaudière Falls.” The agreement was executed on the Ontario side by J.R. Booth, the Ottawa Electric Company, the Ottawa Electric Railway Company, the Ottawa Power Company, the Bronson Company, and the Ottawa Investment Company. On the Quebec side were the E.B. Eddy Company and the Ottawa and Hull Power Company. To facilitate matters, Thomas Ahearn and the Ottawa Land Association gave up their water rights at the Little Chaudière Falls.

The agreement was quite simple, and hugely profitable for the power producers. The Ontario and Quebec companies would share the water equally. They would also build a modern dam at the Chaudière Falls, replacing the existing submerged dam built forty years earlier. The new dam would raise the head of water at the cost of partially drowning the Little Chaudière Falls. For its part, the Dominion government would dam the upper reaches of the Ottawa river. By storing water upstream, water could be saved during the spring freshet and slowly released during the low water months of later summer and autumn. A steady, regulated flow of water would allow the hydro turbines to run more consistently and efficiently through the year. It would also improve navigation on the Ottawa River. As well, spring flooding would be mitigated. The City of Ottawa would also benefit. A higher water level behind a new dam would reduce the problem of anchor and frazil ice in the winter that blocked intakes to the City’s waterworks located upstream from the Falls. Anchor ice is submerged ice that forms in face-moving rivers at very low temperatures. Frazil ice is slushy ice that also forms in turbulent, super cold water.

Work began on a new dam in early August 1908 and proceeded rapidly in part owing to the Ottawa River’s extraordinarily low water level that year. The power owners established a committee in charge of the work consisting of George Millen, representing the north shore owners, William Baldwin, representing the south shore owners, and two engineers, J.B. McRae and William Kennedy Jr. Messrs. Quinlan and Robinson of Montreal were the contractors. The site’s superintendent was Mr. J. B. Laflamme who had considerable experience, having worked on the bridge across the Rio Grande River between the United States and Mexico at Eagle Pass and on the Trent Valley Canal. He kept a firm grip on the workers. He is reported as saying: “Two things I do not permit among my men are swearing and drinking.”  In charge of the concrete gangs was Uldric Marcotte would had worked on the piers for the Quebec bridge and the power dam on the Severn River at Ragged Rapids.

The first task was to take some two thousand soundings to determine the elevation of the river bed. Tests were also done to determine the velocity of the water at various points. Detailed drawings and specifications were approved for the contracts for concrete, steelwork, etc. Divers also cleaned the river bed. A temporary road to transport supplies to the site from the Chaudière Bridge was constructed along with a tool house, cement shed and a store shed.

Work began on the dam proper in late August on the Quebec side. Work commenced on the Ontario side shortly afterwards. As many as three hundred men were employed on the site working day and night to ensure that the dam was completed before the end of the season. The cost was $250,000.

Chaudiere dam winch 3326122 Topley LAC

The travelling winch used to raise the stoplogs that controlled the flow of the river, Topley Studios, Library and Archives Canada, 3326122.

The dam consisted of 49 concrete piers and two abutments constructed in the form of an arc of a circle with a radius of 546 feet, 9 inches, with the centre of the arc situated at a point within the Big Kettle of the Falls. Each pier was made of reinforced concrete, with steel rods bolted together. 1¾ inch anchor bolts fasten the rods to the bedrock of the river. To construct the piers, a wooden mould, made exactly to the shape of the pier, was filled with concrete and allowed to set. Each pier was 39 feet 5 inches long and four feet thick on the upstream side and 2 feet thick on the downstream side. To protect them from ice floes in the winter, the upstream sides were faced with a curved ½ inch steel plate.

The final pier was completed at 2.45 pm on Saturday, 19 December 1908. When the last bucket of concrete was poured, workmen hoisted the Union Jack on an improvised flagstaff in the presence of the engineers and representatives of the contractor. So accurately were the piers positioned, that holes drilled in the steel beams that connected the tops of the piers were only ½ inch out when the final pier was connected.

In total, the construction of the Chaudière Ring Dam entailed the excavation of 7,400 cubic yards of rock, the laying of 8,926 cubic yards of concrete, and the installation of 700 tons of steel.

To regulate the flow of the river through the dam, large stoplogs of British Columbian Douglas fir were purchased from Cameron & Company, and transported by rail across the country, arriving in Ottawa by mid-November. There were 550 pieces, totally more than 300,000 board feet of lumber. According to their position in the dam, the logs, each roughly 24 feet long, came in three sizes, 14 inches x 16 inches, 16 inches x 16 inches, and 16 inches by 18 inches. They were lowered between the piers by an electrically-operated, travelling winch with a lifting capacity of 50 tons. The winch travelled along a rail laid on top of a concrete road that connected the piers.

By the summer of 1909, several thousand horse-power of electricity was ready for sale at $15 per horse power per year, equivalent to 1.7 cents per kilowatt hour. 14,000 additional horse-power (roughly 10 Megawatts) could be made available with the installation of additional generators. Once the government had completed the water storage dams on the Upper Ottawa, many times that amount could be generated.

The Chaudière Ring Dam was the principal source of electrical power in Ottawa for the next twenty years. By 1928, however, electrical demand finally outstripped what could be generated at the Falls. Increasingly, additional power had to be purchased from the Hydro-Electric Power Commission of Ontario, later known as Ontario Hydro.

Chaudiere Ring Dam 2019

Aerial View of the Chaudière Ring Dam, courtesy of Jeff Young.

Today, the Chaudière Ring Dam produces 84.6 Megawatts of clean, renewable hydro-electricity. This is enough power to supply 58,000 homes. All of the six hydro-electric facilities in operation at the Chaudière Falls on both sides of the Ottawa River are owned and operated by Portage Power, a subsidiary of Hydro Ottawa. This includes Canada’s oldest operating hydro-electric plant situated on Victoria Island, which dates back to 1891. In 2017, Generating Station No. 5 located on Chaudière Island, was opened. Its state-of-the art powerhouse with four turbines was constructed entirely below ground. This permitted the creation of the Chaudière Falls Park with a viewing platform over the Falls, thereby restoring public access to the area for the first time in over 100 years.  To reinforce the eco-friendly nature of the new hydro facility, a fish ladder was installed to facilitate the migration of the American eel up the Ottawa River. As well, a sturgeon spawning bed was created to help restore the sturgeon population on the Ottawa River, devastated in the past by pollution.

Despite the environmental credentials of the hydro-electric facilities at the Chaudière Falls, the Chaudière Ring Dam remains controversial given its location at a site long considered sacred by Algonquin First Nations. The area, indeed all of Ottawa, remains unceded Algonquin territory. A “Free The Falls” group seeks the demolition of the Chaudière Ring Dam and the return of the Chaudière and Victoria Islands to their natural state or parkland.

 

Sources:

Back, Margaret, 2016. “Report of March meeting: Franz Kropp – Electrical Power Generation at the Chaudière Falls,” Historical Society of Ottawa, HSO Newsletter, June.

Illustrated Buffalo Express, 1896. “Making the Waterfalls Work,” 27 December.

Lambert, Lindsey, 2014. “Free Chaudiere Falls,” Ontario Rivers Alliance, https://www.ontarioriversalliance.ca/free-chaudiere-falls-lindsay-lambert/.

Ottawa Citizen, 1907. “Water Power Interests Settle Their Differences,” 25 November.

——————-, 1908. “Begin Work on Chaudiere Dam,” 11 August.

——————-, 1908. “Rapid Progress,” 18 August.

——————-, 1908. “Dam’s Progress,” 3 November.

——————-, 1908. “A Most Serious Condition,” 26 November.

——————-, 1908. “Piers Completed At Chaudiere,” 22 December.

——————-, 1909. “Ottawa’s Wealth Of Cheap Water Power,” 9 October.

——————-, 1909. “Electric Power Is Plentiful,” 6 November.

——————-, 1912. “Judge Gunn’s Report,” 2 December.

——————-, 2017. “Chaudière Falls opens up to the public with new viewing platform, free show, 10 October.

Portage Power, 2019. Portage Power, http://portagepower.com/.

 

Ahoy-hoy Ottawa

9 November 1877

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—————-, 1888. “Civic Notes,” 25 June.

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

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

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

An Electric Banquet

29 August 1892

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

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

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

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

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

Soup

Consommé Royal

Fish

Saginaw Trout with Potatoes, Croquettes, Sauce Tartar

Boiled

Sugar-Cured Ham, Champagne Sauce,

Spring Chickens with Parsley Sauce

Beef Tongue, Sauce Piquant

Roasts

Sirloin of Beef and Horse Radish

Turkey with Cranberry Sauce

Stuffed Loin of Veal, Lemon Sauce

Entrées

Larded Sweetbreads with Mushrooms

Lamb Cutlets with Green Peas, and Strawberry Puffs

Vegetables

Potatoes, Plain and Mashed

Green Corn, Escalloped Tomatoes

Vegetable Marrow

Pudding and Pastry

Apple Soufflés, Wine Sauce

Apple Pie, Black Current Tarts, Chocolate Cake

Coconut Drops, Vanilla Ice Cream, Maraschino Jelly

Fruits

Apples, Raisins, English Walnuts,

Almonds, Watermelon, Grapes

Black Tea, Green Tea, Coffee

Cheese, Biscuits

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Images:

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

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

It’s Electrifying!

1 May 1885

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

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

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

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

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

Thomas Ahearn
Thomas Ahearn, engineer, inventor, and entrepreneur par excellence

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

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

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

In May 1887, Thomas Ahearn and Warren Soper established the Chaudière Electric Light and Power Company (CELPC). This company was the first to provide incandescent lighting for general use in stores and homes in both Ottawa and Hull. Reportedly, lines were strung along their principal streets under the direct supervision of Thomas Ahearn.

After a “rate war” that occurred following the establishment of the Standard Electric Company in 1891, the OELC, the CELPC and Standard Electric merged in 1894 to form the Ottawa Electric Company with Thomas Ahearn as its President. The merger created a virtual monopoly in the production and distribution of electricity in the area. After buying out the Ottawa Gas Company in 1906, a holding company called the Consolidated Light, Heat and Power Company was incorporated. Three years later, it changed its name to the Ottawa Light, Heat and Power Company. In 1950, the company was acquired by the Ottawa Hydro Commission.

Sources:

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

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

Daily Citizen, 1885. “Ottawa Electric Light Company,” 19 February.

————–, 1885, “The Electric Light,” 1 May.

—————, 1885. “Advancement,” 2 May.

————–, 1894. “Notice,” 3 August.

————–, 1927. “Ottawa Heat, Light & Power Co. Reports Another Successful Year,” 1 March.

————–, 1928. “Electric and Gas Companies of Ottawa Were Organized In Face Of Considerable Hardships,” 13 March.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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