Skip to Menu


(choose from the list below)

Main article


ELECTRICITY availability at reasonable prices made automated heating possible.

Before automatic central heating:
The electrification of Canada

1. View of the control room at Sir Adam Beck 1 Power Station

1. The control room at Sir Adam Beck 1 Power
Station in 1933. Click the image for more

The electrification of Canada’s towns, cities and countryside, largely in the first half of the 20th century, would be a significant marker of modern times. It enabled much — heat, light, water for Canadian homes, along with an amazing array of labour saving appliances, as well as automatic central heating. The home delivery of electrical energy would become an essential ingredient in Canada’s modernity.

Since the early years of the 20th century, Canada has become ever increasingly dependent on large sources of energy. The Canadian experience follows a trend that started with the industrial revolution in Europe in 1700s. In fact the “industrial revolution,” as Europeans and North Americans came to know it, was premised on society’s ability to harness large-scale, previously unheard of energy sources, including water and steam power, oil, and, much later, electrical energy.

In fact, in the early years of the 20th century a second industrial revolution of sorts took place, an “electrical revolution.” Unlike other energy sources, electrical energy could be transported by wires and moved into homes, businesses, and industries. In Canada the seemingly endless market demand for electrical energy would spur extensive investment in the development of electrical generation and distribution, involving both private and public sector interests.

Thomas Edison, generally recognized as the inventor of the electric light, was also a pioneer in the design and development of electrical utilities in North America. In Canada much early work in urban electrification, mirrored Edison’s ground-breaking efforts. Initially generating capacity was typically developed locally, using coal- and wood-fired steam boilers and steam engines, as well as water wheels [hydro generation], where water falls existed.

The widespread use of electrical energy would, however, have to await the massing of the private and public sector capital, as well as the engineering know-how required for the construction of large generating facilities and transmission networks. In 1896 George Westinghouse pioneered the first, high voltage, alternating current transmission line, from Niagara Falls to Buffalo. Its success triggered a flood of interest in electrification. Looking for new economies of scale, small local generating facilities were bought up and consolidated in a frenzy of entrepreneurial activity.

Engineering knowhow could barely keep pace. An explosion of knowledge in theory and practice followed. The text books were written on the fly. McGraw Hill’s definitive series on alternating current generation and transmission was first published in 1922, with extensive re-writing in 1928 and 1934. The classic John Wiley electrical engineering handbook on electrical power was first published in 1914, rewritten in 1922 and 1936. The advances in scientific, engineering, and construction knowhow, on which electrification proceeded, were of startling proportion.

In the first half of the 20th century the development of hydro generating stations and electrical utilities would constitute the megaprojects of the period, associated with Canada’s great rivers and waterfalls. Soon the Canadian landscape would be forever altered, punctuated with wooden poles and wires strung endlessly across the land and along the public thoroughfares of towns and cities. While the electrification of Canada’s urban centres proceeded rapidly, rural areas, villages, and farms lagged well behind. Many were not electrified until after the Second World War.

Many areas in Canada experienced a period of rapid post–Second World War growth in the development of electrical generating and distribution capacity. It was a period in which the supply of electricity seemed inexhaustible, and there was a rush to build market demand, including the promotion of electrical appliances of all sorts, as well as electrical home heating.

The promotion went on under such banners as “clean heat” and “live better electrically.” Public concern for global warming, pollution, and energy conservation was still several decades in the future.

Section Gallery

2. Inside shot of the Niagara Falls Power Company’s Power House No. 13. View of Ontario Power Generation’s Sir Adam Beck Power Station

Factually Speaking

Did you know that way back in 1883, a steam-driven generating plant powered lamps in Canada's Parliament Buildings.

“What a Difference Since the Hydro Came”

1. Engraving of an electric light bulb designed by W.E. Sawyer and Albon Man

1. An electric light bulb from
Thomas Edison's time. Click
the image for more information.

Electrification would change much, socially culturally as well as economically. The performing and visual arts often capture the essence of change, providing a kind of mirror in which we see ourselves reflected.

Canadian songs of the 19th and early 20th century were written about daily experience typically brief, simple, meant to be entertaining. Written in a popular style, for music lovers coast to coast, they would be part of Canada’s “parlour” song tradition. In the early 20th century Canadian parlour song writing was, not surprisingly, profoundly influenced by the technology of the times, the radio, the gramophone and electrification.

“Oh! What a Difference Since the Hydro Came,” was written in 1912, and published in London, Ontario, by Claud Graves, to celebrate the introduction of electric street lighting. The clever lyrics describe a strolling lover who “darsent try to kiss her, the hydro is to blame”:


But! Oh! What a diff’rence since the Hydro came,
Cosy little corners don’t look just the same.
Ev’rywhere a light, now is shining bright,
Oh! Oh! Oh! Can’t tell day from night.
And when you go a’strolling with your lady love,
Don’t forget the Hydro shining bright above.
You darsent try to kiss her,
The Hydro is to blame.
Ho! Ho! What a diff’rence since the Hydro came.

Now all lovers true, don’t know what to do,
Seems as tho’ their spooning days have ended.
Cosy corners of the past no longer seem a lark,
For there’s no chance of spooning in the dark.
It is strange but true, ev’ryone feels blue,
And their hearts will never be contented.
Hydro light’s to blame and it just seems a shame;
Think of joys you miss, there used to be a chance to kiss.

Article Sources

Before Automatic Central Heating: The Electrification of Canada

  • Jan Carr, “A Rational Framework for Electrical Policy,” The Evolution of Electricity, Engineering Dimensions, The Journal of Policy Engagement, Vol. 2, No. 1, The Association of Professional Engineers of Ontario, March 2010.
  • Electricity Transmission: A Primer, via (accessed Nov 25, 2010).
  • Chester Dawes, A Course in Electrical Engineering, Volume II, Alternating Current (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1934).
  • Harold Pender and William Arthur Mar. Electrical engineers' handbook, 3rd ed. (New York: Wiley, 1936).

“What a Difference Since the Hydro Came”

  • “Oh! What a Difference Since the Hydro Came”, Mary Lou Fallis, Primadonna on a Moose, Introduction by Dr. Fredrick A. Hall, School of Art, Drama and Music, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, CD, Opening Days Recordings, 1997

SIDEBAR: More Electricity

  • Research from the archives of the HVACR Heritage Centre Canada.
  • Timeline of United States inventions (before 1890), via
  • “Centre for Energy™: History.” Centre for Energy™: About Energy. (accessed June 20, 2011).

Factually Speaking

  • Did you know that ...

Image Credits

Before automatic central heating: The electrification of Canada

  • Achim Hering (Own work) CC-BY-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons [detail].
  • Via
  • Antony Pranata - CC Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic, via

“What a difference since the hydro came”

  • Franklin Leonard Pope, Evolution of the Electric Incandescent Lamp (Elizabeth, NJ: Cook and Hall, Printers, 1889), via