Electricity in Our Lives: Connecting Ingenium’s Collection to the City of Ottawa
Have you ever stopped and noticed the many ways electricity flows all around us?
Thomas Ahearn Memorial at Lansdowne
While completing our placement at Ingenium, we investigated the many ways that the use of electricity has developed here in Ottawa. The research began at Lansdowne Park, where the Thomas Ahearn Memorial Fountain commemorates the life and work of Thomas Ahearn (1855-1938), one of Ottawa's most significant energy entrepreneurs. Ahearn was involved in many important electrification projects in Ottawa, including: electrifying the Parliament Buildings, the introduction of electric streetcars and patenting one of the first electric ovens. Though we began by engaging with the material cultural traces of Ahearn's legacy, our project shifted to broader questions regarding electricity’s use in both public and private spaces.
Beach Foundry CE24-A Electric-Coal/Top & Bottom Ovens, circa 1931, 1976.0456
Sadie: Electricity in Private Spaces
Walking around Lansdowne Park and its neighbourhood, I considered how the electric ovens, refrigerators, and indoor lighting in restaurants and apartments are both everyday and exceptional phenomena we take for granted. However, this wasn’t always the case. In 1892, Ahearn displayed his newly-invented electric oven at the Central Canada Exhibition – held at what is today Lansdowne Park – by cooking the first meal by entirely electric means. This event put Ottawa at the fore of urban electrification. I was curious about what connections could be made between Ottawa’s modern ovens and Ahearn’s 1892 invention.
When electric appliances gained more traction in urban environments in the 1930s, companies like Canadian Westinghouse Co. and Beach Foundry Ltd. were major manufacturers in the region. Beach Foundry was locally situated in Hintonburg, while the Canadian Westinghouse Co. that Ahearn directed was a Canadian branch of the American company. Before electric appliances became more popular, coal-electric hybrid ovens like these helped to make the transition to electric energy in the home/private space.
While looking to connect these commercial ovens of today to Ahearn’s, I came across advertisements for appliances that revealed how eager these companies were to push electrification to their customers. Much of this advertising was directed at women. While Ahearn’s innovations helped establish electrical infrastructure in Ottawa, average citizens as consumers had plenty of influence on when and how the city was electrified in private spaces.
Lighting Unit, street, circa 1914 1967.1266
Angela: Electricity in “public” spaces
The introduction of electricity didn’t just change daily life in domestic spaces, electric streetlights, speakers, and traffic lights are just some examples of how electricity impacts daily life in public spaces. In 1885, Ottawa was the first city in the world to have all its streetlights powered by electricity. The streetlights were originally arc lamps, whose light is produced by an electric current flowing between the gap of two conductors. Incandescent lamps, like those shown, were introduced around 1914 to replace the arc lamps. Incandescent bulbs produce their light from a small, controlled fire within the bulb. Streetlighting was and still is an important part of maintaining public safety after dark.
Streetcar, 1927, circa 1927, 1971.0384
When I went to Lansdowne Park, I took OC Transpo, the name today of Ottawa’s public transit system. In 1948, the public transit system amalgamated with one of Ahearn’s companies, the Ottawa Electric Rail Company. Ahearn even patented in 1892 electric heating devices for inside the streetcars during the winter months. Electric streetcars linked areas of the city like Westboro, Britannia, Lansdowne, and Parliament, much like today’s O-Train does and the future full light rail transit system plans to do once completed. At the time, these streetcars were a faster and better transportation option for workers and leisure travellers to move from the outskirts to the city centre. This system opened the door for a more physically connected Ottawa.
Galvanometer circa 1882-1930, 1969.0298
Connecting Spaces through Electricity
Even though we have shown how electricity impacted private and public spaces in different ways, it also brought these spaces together. In Ahearn’s time, telecommunications technologies like the telegraph and radio were growing fields, connecting people from across the country. For example, in 1897, Canada had its first cross-Atlantic radio broadcast, reporting from coast to coast the events of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee.
This was a major feat that required a lot of labour and many devices like galvanometers which measure electric current within different wires to complete.
Electricity is everywhere, so researching its impact was an intimidating task. Breaking it down into specific objects like the oven or a streetcar, and focusing on Ottawa made it far more manageable and felt more personal. Studying historic moments through objects has allowed us to create more of a connection between us and our work. We encourage you to start looking a little more closely at the electricity you use every day and think about where it may have started.
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