Thomas Ahearn: the Canadian Thomas Edison

ONTARIO - History tells us Thomas Edison never visited Pembroke. If he did, we would have remembered.

He is often, incorrectly, credited with inventing the light bulb. It had been around for a while, but the prolific American inventor and businessman devised the incandescent electric light, making the light bulb safe and economical.

The public saw Edison's invention for the first time in December, 1879 when he lit up his Menlo Park, New Jersey laboratory with electric lights. Gas and electric carbon-arc technology followed. Then on Sept. 4, 1882, the first commercial power station went into operation on Pearl Street in New York City's Lower Manhattan. Edison's station served 59 customers paying 24 cents per kilowatt hour. Enter into the development of electric lighting, the Town of Pembroke. Enter, one W. B. McAllister.

McAllister was a prominent businessman and one of Pembroke's original entrepreneurs. A lumberman, McAllister had installed on the Muskrat River a small electric generation station to power his grist mill (it was situated opposite the present-day city hall). This would position Pembroke at the forefront of electric lighting in Canada.

Thus, enter Thomas Ahearn, the man often called the "Canadian Thomas Edison." In 1877, Ahearn had devised a rudimentary telephone system based on Alexander Graham Bell's technology. Using two homemade cigar boxes, magnets and wire, he made Ottawa's first long-distance telephone call, using telegraph wires running through Pembroke. This inventive mind could have been sued by Bell, but he was instead hired to run the Ottawa office of the Bell Telegraphone Company.

This didn't curb Ahearn's appetite to advance communications technology. In 1881, he founded an electrical company with Warren Soper and became the representative for the Westinghouse Company of Chicago. Contracted by Bell, the partners proceeded to build long-distance lines to Montreal, Quebec City and Pembroke. Ahern, a former telegraph operator for J. R. Booth, seemed to have a fondness for the upper Ottawa Valley. Perhaps this is why he chose Pembroke as one of the locations for his first venture into commercial lighting. Contrary to popular belief, the enterprise had installed lamps in commerical establishments as well as on some street corners.

The lights were turned on for the first time on the night of Oct. 8, 1884. Here's how the Pembroke Observer described it: "Electric lamps have been put into nine or 10 of the stores in town, and Wednesday evening they were illuminated by the electric light. The improvement is very marked. A few of the brilliant lights also illuminate our streets now, and there is considerable discussion going on as to where the street lamps should be located.

Compared with buildings illuminated with electric light, those illuminated with coal oil are dark indeed. This new light is truly wonderful."

A week later, town council inked an agreement with McAllister to power a series of street lights from dusk until 1 a. m. Five lamps - two on the east side of the Pembroke Street Bridge, and three on the west side - were installed and operated for $600 a year. The introduction of this new technology was greeted with some humorous observations by town folk.

"A young lady wants to know if the street lamps have been put up for the purpose of having a crowd of young men stand in their neighbourhood and gaze at the passers-by," exclaimed one news reporter. "She says it is perfectly lovely to take a walk with her beau in the brilliant light, but the lamp post starers mar the pleasure considerably. She will probably soon become accustomed to this state of affairs."

This didn't deter the popularity of the new invention. They say the lamp in the waiting room of the Copeland House was so strong that it illuminated the street in front of the hotel. The English and Methodist churches installed electric lights for their Sunday evening services.

Parishioners crowded the Church of England to see for themselves the electric lamp.

"What must heaven be, when this is so bright?" asked one lady sitting in the pews.

Over at the Methodist Church, the rector was closing his sermon when the lamps suddenly died out. There was brief panic until ushers lit some candles.

Apparently the two carbons used in the lamp had fallen together, extinguishing the bulb.

Night watchmen also found the lamps did not cut through thick fog as well as the coal oil lamps. There were other malfunctions of the light bulbs which gave McAllister pause to rethink the instrumentation: "The arc electric light continues to give entire satisfaction on the streets and in the stores. The incandescent light, however, is found to be took weak, and Mr. W. B. McAllister has decided to send the machine back and procure another arc machine in its stead."

Despite these setbacks, residents were asking for more street lights. McAllister moved the light in the west ward to the corner of Berlin and Renfrew Streets (Berlin is now called Isabella). By November, a month after the historic lighting of Canada's first commercial street lights, the use of electricity for lighting was commonplace.

This prompted the Observer-Standard to boast: "Saturday night our town was the only one on the whole line of the CPR from the Atlantic to the Pacific that is wholly lighted with electricity. Mr. McAllister's enterprise met with a prompt response from the merchants and the corporation, the latter adopting lights for the town hall and the streets. Commercial travellers pronouce Pembroke the best lighted town in Canada."

McAllister's plant was eventually upgraded as demand for the lights soared. It was initially two Weston 70-volt direct current dynamos and the incandescent lights ran in series of six, each taking 100 volts. If one light burned out, then all six failed. Larger machines were installed when residential and street lighting was added to Cecilia, William, McKay, Victoria, Church, Moffat and Hincks streets. In 1889, the Pembroke Electric Light Company was incorporated and additional lights were added to the intersections of Pembroke and Munro streets, and Christie and Mary streets. To light up as large an area as possible, the lamps were hung on brackets at the top of 45-foot poles.

Today, there are a few artifacts from the first street lights on display at the Pembroke Hydro Museum, including an 1884 arc lamp and meter. The museum, at the corner of Pembroke Street West and Frank Nighbor St., is located within the 1930 diesel substation. It should be noted that when the plant was dedicated on Oct. 8, 1930, J. A. Cone was still employed by the company. Cone had worked in McAllister's first plant for his brother, Henry, 43 years previous.

As for Thomas Ahearn, he went on to introduce the first electrically-heated street cars and invented the portable electric stove (and cooked the first meal in history by electric means). He also drove the first electric automobile in Ottawa. In 1927, Ahearn, along with Prime Minister Mackenzie King, made the first transatlantic telephone call from Canada to Britain.

The trio of Ahearn, Soper and McAllister should be remembered for making history in Pembroke with a simple streetlight.

Edison would've been proud.


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