Thomas Ahearn, the ‘King of Electricity’ and the Man who Made Ottawa

The Bytown-Ottawa Irish Heritage Trail: the Fabulous Ahearns, cont’d.

Coincidentally, the man who would create modern Ottawa was born the year that the city changed its name from Bytown. In hindsight, this was auspicious.  If Bytown owed its existence to the Duke of Wellington, Ottawa owed its entry to the modern era to Thomas Ahearn.   

We do not know much of Thomas Franklin Ahearn’s early life but considering the energetic, confident and brilliant son they had raised, John and Norah must have been loving and supportive parents.  Young Tom would have seen up close the magic worked by his blacksmith father, heating cold black iron until it glowed orange and soft enough to be shaped.  Satisfied, his father plunged it hissing into cold water.  A kind and patient father would have answered his son’s questions, turning the young lad’s wonder into curiosity about the infinite variety and utility of the things that could be made.  Likely too that Tom’s close friend Warren Soper visited the forge.  The boys supported each other in their exploration of the new scientific breakthroughs reshaping the world.  If metallurgy had fashioned civilization for millennia, and steam the age of industrialisation, harnessing electricity birthed the modern technological age.

It must have been a well-read household for Thomas was exposed enough to new developments to develop a passion for electricity.  He grew up as telegraphy came of age, spreading around the world, its binary signal spreading information in hours where before it would have taken weeks. That flow of information was transformative: for markets, armies, technology, and daily life. By the time Tom was eleven, the New York businessman Cyrus Field was hailed a hero for successfully laying the transatlantic cable, finally uniting the world’s telecommunications and putting the last piece in place for a truly globalized world. It is hard not to think that Field was an inspiration to young Tom.

Tom wanted to be a part of this but he was expelled from the College of Ottawa for misbehaviour.[1]  The lack of a formal education mattered little to him.  He joined the Montreal Telegraph office at Chaudière, as a messenger really intent on learning about the application of electricity. After a stint in New York, Tom returned as the company’s chief operator, then hired some years later aged twenty-five by Bell Telephone.  Bruce Deachman writes about this in an anecdote that tells us much about Tom:  “This latter development was not without some irony: In 1878, Ahearn, perhaps unaware of the misdeed he was committing, infringed on Alexander Graham Bell’s patent when, after reading an article in Scientific American, made the first successful long-distance telephone call from Ottawa using handmade sets he’d built from cigar boxes to place a call to Pembroke. Ahearn later sold the boxes for $16 to settle an outstanding hotel bill.”[2]

Tom knew the practical end of electricity but when he realised he was undercharging for his installation work he knew he needed a business partner.  He turned to his childhood friend Warren Soper and in 1881 they formed Ahearn & Soper Telegraphy and Electric Light Contractors.  IN 1882, their Ottawa Electric Light Company installed sixty-five street lights, Thomas working him with two Irish laborers draping the lines as they went along. The lights were powered by Canada’s first hydro-electric power from a wheel and generator at Chaudiere Falls. They won a contract with the Canadian Pacific Railway to install telegraph lines and began building a local business empire. “The following year the young men were awarded a contract to introduce electric lights into the House of Commons. The lights were switched on in January 1884, a full year earlier than at the Capitol in Washington, DC.” [3]   It would prove to be a life-long partnership that created modern Ottawa and earned them the title the Edisons of Canada. 

Ahearn is most famous for the invention of the electric oven and stove. “On 17 January, 1884, he cooked the first dinner with teh appliance in Ottawa’s Windsor Hotel before a collection of VIP journalists. The oven was over 6 feet [2 metres] in height and width and in the words of the Ottawa Citizen, ‘It was hot enough to roast an ox.’ The dinner consisted of Saginaw trout, potato croquettes, sugar-crusted ham, lamb cutlets, stuffed loin of veal, strawberry puffs chocolate cake, and apple pie.” [Sweeny, pp 351-2]

The year 1884 was also significant for Thomas personally. On 25 June, he married Lilias MacKey Fleck. In May 1886, Lilias gave birth to their son, Frank. Two years later, she gave birth their daughter but tragedy truck and Lilias died in childbirth. Grief-stricken, Thomas named his daughter Lilias. Lilias’s fate in childbirth was one of the great dangers that women had faced and continue to face. She would not see her children grow, nor her daughter Lilias marry the publisher Harry Stevenson Southam, one of the resident elite families of old Ottawa. Frank would call his daughter after her, an Irish tradition.

Ahearn and Soper literally electrified the city and brought lighting and phones to the Parliament, factory floors, the streets and homes.  In 1887 they used thousands of light bulbs to decorate Parliament in celebration of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. In 1891, Thomas Keefer transferred the rail charter to Ahearn and Soper. Keefer was the son-in-law of the builder of the Rideau Canal and founder of Bytown, Thomas Mackay. Keefer had developed the Rockcliffe neighbourhood and used horse-draw railcars to connect it to the town centre. With the charter in hand, Ahearn and Soper introduced electric trams, the new lines literally generating Ottawa’s suburbs as houses sprung up along them.  Ever inventive, Ahearn installed electric heaters in them. The tramline went first from Bank Street to Landowne, spawning the Glebe neighbourhood as the local farmer sold lots for housing.  Ahearn and Sopper bought the land adjacent to planned lines the next time. To ensure his streetcars did a good business at the weekend, Ahearn built amusement parks at Rockcliffe with, of course, electric merry-go-rounds.  He helped encourage the first skiing in the region on the scenic slopes there overlooking the Ottawa River.

Ahearn combined many traits, from creativity and constant tinkering with new devices, building networks of people to advance his projects, and thinking big about how to develop Ottawa. “However, it was his ability to find solutions to particular technological obstacles impeding the progress of large systems that gave his companies an edge over the competition. He was always innovating, interconnecting his machinery in new ways, and adapting inventions to his needs. He was also a master of promotion. On 29 Aug. 1892 he invited members of the Ottawa elite to an “electric” banquet. An entire meal was cooked in a powerhouse on electrical appliances that he had designed and constructed. The food was delivered to the dining room of the Windsor hotel by streetcar.”[4]

Thanks to Ahearn and Soper, Ottawa was first in all these things, ahead of Montreal and Toronto. “By 1900, it was reported there were 100,000 incandescent light bulbs burning in the city, more per capita than anywhere else in the world.” [5]  Ahearn drove the first car in Ottawa, notably an electric one using batteries.  He was forever inventing and held almost thirty patents in Canada and the US.  He applied his technical genius to make ovens[6], fridges, water bottle warmers, streetcar heating systems, insulators, battery jars, arc-light carbons, motor brushes, recording machines for music, telephones and telegraphs systems.

Ahearn was a close supporter of both Wilfred Laurier and Mackenzie King, the latter appointing him to the new Federal District Commission tasked with the development of the city’s parks and roads in 1927. Thanks to Ahearn we have the Queen Elizabeth Driveway and the Champlain Bridge. A year later, the Prime Minister appointed Ahearn to the Privy Council. 

Tom Ahearn died in 1938.  Anna Adamek sums up his life in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography thus:

“Thomas Ahearn’s career was truly remarkable. Although he was born in a poor working-class family, he became one of Ottawa’s richest and most influential entrepreneurs. His outstanding technical expertise, but also his intuition, allowed him to compete successfully with members of the city’s business elites and build powerful political alliances. Through the companies he founded and the institutions he led, Ahearn realized his vision of Ottawa as a modern, industrialized capital and greatly contributed to its transformation in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.”

Deachman again: “Tom, as he was known his entire life, grew up in lockstep with the new city, and it’s impossible to imagine what Ottawa might look like today without his influence. Along with his business partner, Warren Young Soper, Ahearn touched the lives of everyone in Ottawa, through transportation, electricity, beautification and leisure and entertainment. The pair’s interconnected business enterprises very much shaped how and where the city grew, as its population soared from just over 10,000 when Ahearn took in his first breath, to about 150,000 when he exhaled his last.”

We can look forward to a full treatment of Ahearn’s life when a new biography of Ahearn and Soper is published by Laura Ott.  Ott has said that Ahearn and Soper are “among the most unrecognized people for the type of impact they had on the city.”

Tom’s son Frank built a memorial to his father and you can see it now in the Glebe, at the corner of Bank and Holmwood.  As well as an image of his father, the memorial was combined with a drinking fountain, a wonderful symbol of the utility that Tom brought to the life of his beloved city of Ottawa.

So we are lost for choice when it comes to putting places on the Bytown-Ottawa Irish Heritage trail marking Tom Ahearn’s impact on the city.

Up next, we look at the remarkable life of his son Frank in the continuing saga of the fabulous Ahearns.

Eamonn McKee

Ottawa

5 December 2022


[1] Dictionary of Canadian Biography (DCB), entry by Anna Adamnek.

[2] Capital Builders: Thomas Ahearn and Warren Soper, the ‘Edisons of Canada’,  Ottawa Citizen, 4 April 2019.

[3] DCB.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Canada Post issued a commemorative stamp in 2011 featuring Ahearn’s electric oven.  The oven had won him the gold medal at the Central Canada Exhibition in 1892 and featured in the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893. Ibid, Ottawa Citizen.

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