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

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The “Current Wars”

In the late nineteenth century, a nasty, vicious publicity war took place between advocates of two different types of electricity distribution—alternating current (AC) and direct current (DC). The DC system was simple and generally safer than the AC system, as it transmitted lower voltages of electricity across its power lines. The huge (and ultimately) fatal drawback of the DC system was its inability to transmit electricity over significant distances. Too much power was simply lost by the transmission of DC electricity over the power lines. Thus, DC power plants could provide electricity only to customers over a relatively short distance (less than a mile). By contrast, AC systems retained much more of their power when transmitting over greater distances, greatly increasing the service range of an AC power plant. In addition, AC plants could expand their capacity with relative ease, something that could not be done with DC plants. The biggest drawback of the AC system was safety; the system transmitted its electricity at much higher voltages across its power lines. Though hardly a daily occurrence, instances of electrocution caught the attention of the news media and generated terrible publicity.

It was this issue of public safety that drove the public relations campaign during the “current wars,” and the man who led the attack on AC power was the internationally renowned inventor Thomas Edison. Throughout the process of developing the incandescent light bulb, Edison was determined to focus not just on efficiency and cost-effectiveness, but also on safety. Edison was extremely concerned about the potential safety risk posed by high-voltage electrical wires hanging over city streets. Thus, he built his first power plant in 1882 to provide relatively low-voltage DC electricity. At the time of Edison’s invention, AC power was in relative infancy, but by 1884, AC systems were being tested for street lighting in Europe. This technology caught the attention of George Westinghouse, a wealthy businessman from Pittsburgh who believed that AC power had tremendous potential for electricity distribution in the United States. In 1886, Westinghouse opened a commercial power plant in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, the first of its kind in the United States to use the AC system. This was a direct challenge to the supremacy of Edison’s DC system, and the “current wars” were underway.

Edison focused his anti-AC campaign on the issue of safety, partly out of sincere conviction, but also because he knew that this issue stood the best chance of resonating with the public. He was correct, but the result was one of the most disturbing publicity campaigns in history. In order to buttress his attacks on AC power, Edison secretly hired a man named Harold Brown to hold demonstrations and publicize the dangers of AC power. Brown’s most notorious series of demonstrations involved the killing of stray animals: to prove that DC power was safer than AC power, the animal would be administered a shock using the first system, and fatally electrocuted using the second. This campaign was taken one gruesome step further in the late 1880s when Edison was consulted by the State of New York regarding how to execute criminals more humanely. Though an opponent of capital punishment in principle, Edison recognized an opportunity to further

discredit his opponent, and he advised the construction of an electric chair running on AC power. Edison hoped that the use of the electric chair would further anchor the association between AC power and danger in the public mind; indeed, he went so far as to try and introduce the term “Westinghoused” into common usage to describe executions using the electric chair.

Edison, however, was fighting a losing battle. Refinements in the AC system, particularly the use of transformers to regulate the flow of electricity over its power lines, made the system safer, and the DC system simply could not compete with the higher overall efficiency of the AC system. Because the AC system could transmit power over great distances with little power loss, plants could be built far away from customers, paving the way for new sources of power (such as hydro) to generate electricity. By the early twentieth century, the AC system was completely dominant.

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