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Turning on the Lights in Parliament

Anna Adamek, Assistant Curator, Curatorial Services

Centre Block

Every December the Parliament Buildings are decorated with hundreds of colourful electric Christmas lights. The residents of Ottawa wait in anticipation for the official switching-on of the lights and visitors come to the city to admire the holiday illumination.

Yet few people realize that, when it was electrified in 1883, the Parliament Building was one of the first government buildings in the world to be furnished with incandescent lighting. In this very early stage of electrification, engineers employed by the Dominion Government and the Public Works officials were among the few professionals familiar with the wonders of the electric light. In 1882, several politicians from Ottawa visited the Canada Cotton Company to tour the first electrified plant in Canada. The guests were so impressed that the Ministry of Public Works decided to proceed immediately with the construction of two electric plants in the Parliament Buildings, one for the Senate and second for the House of Commons.

On November 1st, 1883, a Pittsburgh native, Henry Byllesby from the Edison Electric Light Company received the contract for the illumination of the Senate. The United States Electric Company, represented in Ottawa by two local young telegraphers from Lebreton Flats, Thomas Ahearn and Warren Y. Soper, was granted the rights to install a small power plant in the basement of the House of Commons. Each wing was furnished with one hundred and fifty lights rated at 16 candlepower each. The lights were powered by Corliss high-speed engines made by Armington & Sims from Providence, R..I. and DC generators built by Kelly Works from Hamilton. Since it was 1883, very few Canadian companies were adept at producing small electric parts and accessories so the sockets for the lamp bulbs were made In the Canada Clock Company's shops in Hamilton.

Parliament buildings illuminated for the visit of Duke of York, 1901.

With a short, two month deadline, neither Byllesby nor Ahearn and Soper had enough time to adapt and refine their technical designs to the actual requirements of the Parliament Building. The entire system was assembled quickly, and both the machinery and lamps were of rather poor quality. Just before the opening of the plants in Parliament, J. R. Arnoldi, the Mechanical Engineer of the Dominion Government and Sir Hector Langevin from the Ministry of Public Works came to inspect the power room, set up in the basement of the Senate. They asked for a demonstration of the unit and Byllesby switched on the lights in the Senate Speaker's dining room. The fireworks of sparks flew from the circuit and caught a highly flammable rubber and silk insulation, which burst into flames. According to Byllesby, Langevin and Arnoldi treated the matter as something of no consequence, The fire was put out and Byllesby was told to quickly make the necessary repairs.

The illumination of the Parliament Buildings was a matter of prestige and the project had to be completed on time. And so it was. The electric lights were officially switched-on for the first time in the Parliament Building for the return of the 5th Parliament on the 17th of January 1884.

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