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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In a strictly technical sense, electricity is simply the energy that is produced by the movement of electrons from one point to another. All matter is comprised of atoms, which include protons (which are positively charged), electrons (which are negatively charged) and neutrons (which have no charge). Protons and neutrons are bound tightly together at the nucleus of the atom, while the electrons orbit around them. Some materials are comprised of atoms with electrons that remain close to their nuclei; such materials, where electrons do not travel easily between atoms, are known as insulators. Other materials, like copper, are known as conductors—electrons can be induced by a magnetic force to move freely through the material. The energy that is produced by this movement of electrons through a conductor is electricity. Electric currents can be either direct (in which the electrons flow in one direction) or alternating (in which the electrons periodically and rapidly reverse their direction).

This definition, however, fails to capture the sheer wonder that electricity inspired in people for hundreds of years. Electricity manifests in nature in forms that range from awe-inspiring (lightning storms) to mundane (static electricity shocks) to bizarre (electric eels). Electricity has a mystical quality that

attracted a sense of reverence among those who first studied it and caused it to be associated with divine power. The quest to unlock its power attracted the likes of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Edison. The discovery of how to generate, transmit and store electrical power in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries revolutionized human communication, transportation, industrial production and domestic life.

On a somewhat smaller scale, the history of electricity in Alberta reflects many of the themes that are most relevant in the province’s modern history. The rapid growth of electricity in Alberta was a product of the enormous economic and settlement boom of the years leading up to the First World War. The subsequent expansion of hydroelectric power created enormous tension between advocates of modern economic development and supporters of wilderness conservation, as the province’s hydro projects encroached on land that was originally set aside for national parks. Controversy over public versus private ownership of utilities brought to the surface debates about the respective roles of private enterprise and government in the delivery of essential services to the people, a debate that remains relevant to this day.

In this Section

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.

The Discovery of Electromagnetism

The relationship between electricity and magnetism was long suspected, if not fully understood.

The Invention of Electric Lighting

As scientists’ understanding of electricity and its applications grew, the most visible impact on human society was in urban lighting.

The Early History of Electricity in Alberta

Alberta was a relative latecomer to electricity in North America.

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