Nature’s electric lightshow
Thomas Alva Edison
Alberta Legislature Building decorated with lights, 1912
  • Spear points from the Clovis phase found in present-day Alberta.<br/>Source: Historical Resources Management Branch, Archaeological Survey

    Clovis phase spear points used in present-day Alberta.

    Clovis phase spear points represent the oldest hunting technology in Alberta, and indeed all of North America. These fluted, jagged stone points would be attached to a bone or wooden shaft and used to hunt enormous prey such as mammoths and mastodons.
    Source: Historical Resources Management Branch, Archaeological Survey

  • Diagram of an atlatl (spear-thrower)<br/>Source: Courtesy of Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump

    Atlatl (spear-thrower) technology emerges in present-day Alberta.

    Atlatls were used by early hunter’s to increase the velocity of their projectile weapons. Spears or darts thrown with an atlatl could deliver devastating wounds to an animal, allowing the hunter to kill the animal from a safe distance.
    Source: Courtesy of Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump

  • Representation of an early hunter drawing a bow<br/>Source: Courtesy of Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump

    Bow and arrow technology reaches present-day Alberta.

    Bow and arrow technology in North America appears to have developed first in the Arctic before spreading south throughout the continent. The bow and arrow was ideally suited for use in the wide open spaces of the Great Plains, and was widely adopted across the region.
    Source: Courtesy of Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump

  • Petroglyph of a mounted hunter chasing a bison, Milk River<br/>Source: Royal Alberta Museum

    The ‘Horse Revolution’ begins in present-day Alberta.

    Horses were brought to North America by Spanish colonists in the sixteenth century. From the Spanish colony of New Mexico, horses spread across North America, reaching present-day Alberta in the 1730s. The adoption of the horse had a significant impact on the hunting/transportation patterns of Plains First Nations peoples.
    Source: Royal Alberta Museum

  • Swimmers Enjoying the Banff Hot Springs, ca. 1935<br/>Source: Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies, v263-na-3562

    Rocky Mountains National Park is established by the Canadian government.

    One of the main attractions of the new park was the site’s natural hot springs. The luxurious Banff Springs Hotel, built by the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1888, pumped water from the hot springs into its swimming pools and treatment rooms. Tourists flocked to the site to take advantage of the water’s supposed therapeutic healing powers.
    Source: Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies, v263-na-3562

  • Calgary Water Power Company hydroelectric plant, n.d.<br/>Source: Glenbow Archives, NA-4477-44

    The Calgary Water Power Company opens Alberta’s first hydroelectric plant.

    The company was owned by entrepreneur Peter Prince, who also ran the Eau Claire & Bow River Lumber Company. From 1894 to 1905, the company was the major electricity provider for the city of Calgary.
    Source: Glenbow Archives, NA-4477-44

  • The city power plant in Edmonton, 1912<br/>Source: Glenbow Archives, NC-6-271

    The City of Edmonton purchases the Edmonton Electric Lighting Company.

    The decision in favour of public ownership was made after repeated disruptions in service from the privately-owned utility. Edmonton was the first major urban centre in Canada to own its own electricity utility.
    Source: Glenbow Archives, NC-6-271

  • Changing the name from Calgary Power to TransAlta, 1981<br/>Source: Photo courtesy of TransAlta

    The Calgary Power Company is formed.

    The founder of the company, Max Aitken, was initially drawn to the region by its vast hydroelectricity potential. The company would develop into Canada’s largest investor-owned utility. In 1981, the company changed its name to TransAlta Utilities Corporation, in order to better reflect its provincial reach.
    Source: Photo courtesy of TransAlta

  • Calgary Power’s power house at Horseshoe Falls on the Bow River, ca. 1912<br/>Source: Glenbow Archives NA-3544-28

    Alberta’s First hydroelectric dam opens at Horseshoe Falls.

    Owned and operated by Calgary Power, the Horseshoe Falls Dam was the first of two such facilities built on the Bow River system prior to the First World War. A second hydroelectric dam began operations at Kananaskis Falls in 1913.
    Source: Glenbow Archives NA-3544-28

  • Ghost Hydroelectric Dam, 1935<br/>Source: Glenbow Archives, NA-5663-44

    The Ghost Hydroelectric Dam begins operations

    This massive facility was the largest hydroelectric dam in Alberta at the time it was built. The Ghost Power Plant more than doubled the amount of electricity generated by Calgary Power, which was already the province’s main energy supplier.
    Source: Glenbow Archives, NA-5663-44

  • Rural electrification crew at work near Irma, 1951<br/>Source: Glenbow Archives, NA-4160-20

    The first Rural Electrification Association (REA) in Alberta is established in Springbank.

    Over the next two decades, a total of 416 REAs would be established across the province. These organizations would play a crucial role in the spread of electricity to rural Alberta.
    Source: Glenbow Archives, NA-4160-20

  • CCF Advertisement in the People’s Weekly, August 14, 1948, urging people to support public utility ownership<br/>Source: Image courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces, a digital initiative of the University of Alberta Libraries

    Voters of Alberta narrowly reject proposal for public ownership of electricity utilities.

    The 1948 provincial election included a plebiscite concerning ownership of electricity utilities in Alberta. Rural areas largely voted in favour of public ownership, while urban voters (particularly in southern Alberta) supported a continuation of private ownership. In the end, the vote was extremely close, with public ownership defeated by a mere 151 votes.
    Source: Image courtesy of Peel’ Prairie Provinces, a digital initiative of the University of Alberta Libraries

  • Five of the turbines installed at Cowley Ridge Wind Farm<br/>Source: Photo courtesy of TransAlta

    Cowley Ridge Wind Farm begins operations near Pincher Creek.

    Cowley Ridge was Canada’s first commercial wind farm. A total of fifty-two wind turbines were installed in 1993-94. In 2000, the project was expanded with the addition of fifteen new (and much more powerful) turbines.
    Source: Photo courtesy of TransAlta

  • Aerial view of Drake Landing Solar Community<br/>Source: Wikimedia Commons/CA-BY-SA-3.0

    Drake Landing Solar Community opens near Okotoks, Alberta.

    Drake Landing is North American’s first fully integrated solar community. This award-winning initiative uses solar heating technology to provide the community with the majority of its space heating and hot water needs.
    Source: Wikimedia Commons/CA-BY-SA-3.0

  • AAdvanced Energy Research Facility, Edmonton, 2011LT<br/>Source: Photo Courtesy of Enerkem

    The City of Edmonton announces the launch of the ‘waste-to-biofuels’ project.

    The waste-to-biofuels project will convert garbage into biofuel by harvesting carbon from the waste material. The project includes an Advanced Energy Research Facility, which opened in 2012.
    Source: Photo Courtesy of Enerkem

Play Timeline

Electricity through the Eighteenth Century

Though humans would not fully understand the nature of electricity until the nineteenth century, the properties of electricity were detected much sooner. One of the earliest written sources to comment on electricity comes from Thales of Miletus, a Greek mathematician and philosopher. Around 600 BCE, Thales recognized that amber, when rubbed with cloth, would attract very small, light objects like feathers. Thales had discovered how to charge amber with static electricity; indeed, the word “electron” is derived from the Greek word for “amber” [electron].

Thales’s discovery was the most significant advance in the understanding of electricity for many hundreds of years. People from around the world made note of naturally occurring electrical phenomena—lightning storms and electric eels, for example—but few made significant contributions to better understanding electricity. The scientific effort to understand electricity resumed in the early seventeenth century with the personal doctor of Queen Elizabeth I of England, William Gilbert, who experimented with a wide range of materials to determine which of them

would generate an electrical charge when rubbed. He also made many observations regarding the impact of fluids and climate on the capacity of certain materials to generate charges. This knowledge helped pave the way for the development of electrostatic machines—hand-cranked devices that used friction to generate short bursts of electricity. Such devices attracted a great deal of attention and curiosity, and were used on more than one occasion by wealthy pranksters to deliver small shocks to unsuspecting guests.

In 1746, Dutch scientist Pieter van Musschenbroek invented the Leyden Jar—a water-filled glass container, wrapped inside and out with wires, and connected to an electrostatic machine. The Leyden Jar represented a major advance forward in the science of electricity because it was capable of retaining an electric charge for several days. Though a relatively primitive device, the Leyden Jar was a major advance forward in attempting to solve one of the most fundamental challenges involved in harnessing electricity for useful applications—storage.

Around the time van Musschenbroek was developing the Leyden Jar, another major figure was making his own contributions to the study of electricity: Benjamin Franklin. Franklin is perhaps the most famous North American associated with the early study of electricity because of his famous (and ill-advised) kite experiment. There was significant debate among scientists regarding the nature of lightning (whether it was the same as other forms of electricity, or something distinct). Franklin sought with the experiment to capture an electrical charge from the storm, which he theorized would travel down the wet kite string into a Leyden Jar (while he would hold a dry kite string and remain safe). According to his own account, Franklin’s experiment was a success, as the jar captured a modest charge. Fortunately for Franklin, the kite did not sustain a direct hit—others who followed in Franklin’s footsteps and conducted their own version of this dangerous experiment were not so lucky! Franklin used his insights into the nature

of lightning to develop one of his most important inventions, the lightning rod, which was designed to protect buildings from the threat of lightning strikes.

By the turn of the nineteenth century, tremendous advances had been made in the understanding of electricity. Scientists had developed a means of generating it on a small scale though electrostatic machines, and had also invented a means to store the charge for future use. Despite these advances, there were still significant limitations on the practical application of electricity. Leyden Jars, for example, could store electricity for only a few days and could release the stored power in only a short burst rather than in a steady current. Electrostatic machines were useful for studying electricity and entertaining people, but they could not generate sufficient electricity for useful applications. The major breakthroughs that paved the way for the large-scale, industrial use of electricity came with the discovery of electromagnetism.

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