The World’s First Electric Meal

This article was originally written and submitted as part of a Canada 150 Project, the Innovation Storybook, to crowdsource stories of Canadian innovation with partners across Canada. The content has since been migrated to Ingenium’s Channel, a digital hub featuring curated content related to science, technology and innovation.

Dubbed the “Edison of Canada,” Thomas Ahearn was the astute businessman and prolific inventor who literally electrified Ottawa. In 1882, Ahearn and his partner, Warren Soper, lit up the city’s streets with arc lamps; in 1891, they replaced horse-drawn trams with electric street cars; and to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897 their company illuminated the Parliament Buildings with thousands of lights.

To promote the wonders of electricity, not to mention his own business, Ahearn also orchestrated a very special dinner party. He invited guests to dine at the Windsor Hotel where he served up an elaborate menu featuring 21 items that ranged from trout to turkey to tarts. Following the banquet, guests were astonished to learn they had just consumed the world’s first meal cooked entirely with electricity. Ahearn escorted the diners from the hotel to his company’s nearby car shed where the food had been prepared on his electric cooking range. A reporter covering the event described it as made … of brick, about six feet wide and somewhat deeper and about six feet high… the maximum warmth produced by the two heaters literally sufficient to roast an ox … To avoid loss of heat, by opening and shutting of the oven door in cooking, there are at the side of the doors peepholes, as it were, protected by heavy plate glass. The progress of cooking can thus be watched without disturbance to the articles being cooked. (The Evening Journal, August 29, 1892)

  • Ahearn’s marvellous electric cooking range was ahead of its time in many respects – the interior lights and glass door were two innovations that would not come into common use in electric ovens until the 1930s. In fact, domestic use of electric cookers of any sort would be quite some time in coming. Even by 1900, only about 8% of homes in Ottawa had any access to electricity.
  • Ahearn was granted more than a dozen patents in his lifetime, including one for an electric iron and another for an electric snow sweeper. Electric streetcars first appeared in the national capital in the summer of 1891, but the snows of winter brought the cars to a standstill. Ahearn got them moving again by inventing an electric snow sweeper, basically a big circular broom attached to the front of the tramcar that spun at high speed to clear the track. Horse-drawn sleigh-wagons then carted the snow away leaving the streets clean and traffic moving. Ahearn also invented the world’s first car heating system to keep his passengers warm. It consisted of a water boiler placed at either end of each streetcar with a set of circulating pipes beneath the seats.
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Janis Nostbakken