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Leading Lights: A History of Modern Lighting in Canada, 1860-1940

Fri, March 31, 10:30am to 12:00pm, The Drake Hotel, Georgian


This paper provides a preliminary reconnaissance of the emergence of modern lighting in Canada, situating its history within the country’s larger and idiosyncratic transition from the organic to the mineral energy regime, and within the larger contours of lighting across the Empire. Since pre-industrial times, Canadians have been among the world’s highest energy consumers per capita, but were much later than other industrializing countries in making the transition from the organic to the mineral regime. Both trends have been explained by environmental factors: the country’s cold environment, its dispersed rural settlement patterns, its abundance of organic energy (particularly wood) and the absence of a Canadian source of cheap coal in the country’s urban and industrial heartland. This paper argues that the history of lighting reveals both the complexity and variability of the nation’s energy transition. Comparisons with Britain and India help to highlight some of the key environmental and political factors that placed locally available Canadian petroleum-based illuminating oil in rural homes from the 1860s, and help to explain how state-owned hydroelectricity was lighting most urban homes by 1920. Modern artificial lighting, though in very different forms in rural and urban homes, comprised an exception, therefore, within Canada’s larger and late-modernizing trend, indeed leading the country’s transition to the modern energy regime.