Here's an August Entry From James Powell's Blog:


Lights Out!

14 August 2003

It was a typical mid-August summer day in the nation’s capital—hot and muggy. Earlier that Thursday, the thermometer had topped 31 degrees Celsius. By mid-afternoon, the usual early rush hour of public servants was in full swing, with cars pouring out of the city, many heading north towards cottage country in the Gatineau hills to get some relief from the heat and humidity. But the evening was going to be anything but normal. Without warning at 4:11pm, street lights failed, air conditioners stopped, and computers went dark across Ottawa.

It took a while for the enormity of the situation to be fully appreciated. Electric power had failed across eight U.S. states and much of Ontario, reminiscent of the blackout that had plunged much of the U.S. North Eastern seaboard and Ontario into darkness in 1965. In the course of a few minutes, some one hundred electrical generating plants, including 22 nuclear power plants, shut down. More than 50 million people were left without power living in an area of roughly 240,000 square kilometres.

Less than two years following the 9/11 attacks in the United States, people’s first thoughts were of terrorism. While this possibility was quickly ruled out, politicians on both sides of the international border were quick to lay blame on others. Prime Minister Chrétien’s office suggested that a lightening strike at an upstate New York power station was responsible for the cascading failure across the international electrical grid. New York power authorities denied this, claiming that the problem originated outside of the United States, i.e. Canada. New York Governor Pataki also pointed the finger at Canada, while Canadian Defence Minister John McCallum blamed a failure at a Pennsylvania nuclear power plan. None were right.

The following year, the inelegantly named U.S.-Canada Power System Outage Task Force concluded that the cascading failure originated in Ohio. High temperatures and a corresponding high demand for power had caused overloaded transmission wires to heat up and sag, touching unpruned trees. This in turn caused a generating plant in Eastlake, Ohio to shut down, putting an intolerable strain onto other transmission lines, which in turn tripped breakers shutting down power elsewhere as successive plants were overloaded. The outage could have been easily managed and the resulting blackout contained locally had there not been a computer software bug in the alarm system at FirstEnergy Corporation, the responsible Ohio-based power authority, that did not go off in time to warn system operators.

While the immediate cause of the blackout was high tension wires touching trees in Ohio, the Task Force highlighted a number of systemic failures which contributed to the power grid failure. Importantly, the Task Force identified shortcomings at FirstEnergy Corporation. These included a lack of understanding about the deteriorating conditions of its system, and a failure to maintain adequately its transmission right-of-ways. A number of minor violations of existing regulations were also noted. More generally, the Task Force concluded that the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC), the not-for-profit agency tasked with overseeing North American power production, did not have the authority to develop or require compliance of strong reliability standards by member utilities. In the absence of such reliability standards, no financial penalty was levied on FirstEnergy for the power blackout.

Back in Ottawa, life carried on more or less as normal that evening. With street lights dead, all intersections became four-way stops. Rush-hour traffic moved, albeit slowly, with gridlock avoided in some cases by pedestrians who took over traffic control. Despite the muggy heat and fraying tempers, the commute home was described as “surprisingly civil” by a police official. Long delays in OC Transpo service led bus riders to hoof it; many receiving rides from passing private cars. With all flights at the MacDonald-Cartier International airport grounded, stranded passengers either dossed down at the terminal or found rooms in nearby hotels.

There were also some serious problems that night. There were apparently 22 cases of looting in the city, as well as an armed robbery at a Sparks Street jewellery store. There were also three fires, one of which claimed the life of a teenaged boy. Restaurants were also negatively affected by the loss of refrigeration; some gave away melting ice cream to passersby. On the upside, the blackout provided the perfect excuse for impromptu street parties. As well, the clear sky that night was a great opportunity to view the stars, undimmed by light pollution—as long as you looked south. The lights of Hull and Gatineau remained on as Quebec’s power grid was unaffected by the black-out. They provided a surreal backdrop to Mayor Bob Chiarelli’s televised address to the city in offices in front of Parliament Hill to explain why the city was in darkness.

By the next morning, the lights began to slowly come back on. The state of emergency announced the previous night by Ontario’s premier, Ernie Eaves, was eased. Within 24-48 hours, power had been largely restored. But the system remained unstable and unbalanced; you can’t restart power plants with a flip of a switch. Government offices and many businesses remained closed for up to week before the situation returned to normal. Besides holidays for unessential staff, the blackout provided a perfect test of backup systems that had been established following the September 2001 terrorist attacks. In total, it is estimated that the blackout cost Ontario 18.9 million in lost employment hours, with manufacturing shipments falling $2.3 billion.

Could it happen again? On the positive side, there have been major improvements to the reliability of the international grid since 2003. Significant investments have been made on both sides of the border which have made the grid more robust. As well, the NERC has established and now enforces reliability standards with electricity producers, and has the power to levy significant fines in the event of non-compliance. Grid operators also employ simulators to model a wide range of possible scenarios, and how to respond to various catastrophic situations. The development of smart grids and distributed power production by lots of small producers may have also reduced the risk of major blackouts. However, it is impossible to plan for all eventualities. Human error, computer viruses and terrorism remain risks. So, keep that flashlight handy.

Sources:

CBC News, 2013. “Ottawa reflects on decade after massive blackout,” 14 August .

——————, 2013. “Blackout ten years on: How smart grids help blackout-proof the power game,” 14 August 2013.

NERC, 2013. NERC Board Approves 2014 Budget, ESCC Charter and Adopts 3 Reliability Standards, 16 August 2013:.

The Ottawa Citizen, 2013. “In Blacked out Ottawa, life went on (almost) as usual,” 14 August.

The Toronto Star, 2013. “Blackout 2003: How Ontario went Dark,” 14 August.

U.S.-Canada Power System Power Outage Task Force, 2004. Final Report on the August 14, 2003 Blackout in the United States and Canada: Causes and Recommendations, April.

Wikipedia: Northeast Blackout of 2003.

Story written by James Powell, the author of the blog Today in Ottawa's History
Retired from the Bank of Canada, James is the author or co-author of three books dealing with some aspect of Canadian history. These comprise: A History of the Canadian Dollar, 2005, Bank of Canada, The Bank of Canada of James Elliott Coyne: Challenges, Confrontation and Change,” 2009, Queen’s University Press, and with Jill Moxley, Faking It! A History of Counterfeiting in Canada, 2013, General Store Publishing House, Renfrew, Ontario. James is a Director of The Historical Society of Ottawa.

And One More August Entry from James Powell's Blog:



An Electric Banquet

 

29 August 1892

 

During the late nineteenth century, electricity was the cutting-edge, new technology, and Ottawa was Canada’s high-tech capital, thanks to two factors—the inventive skills of Thomas Ahearn, the Ottawa-born technological genius and entrepreneur, and the power-generating ability of the Chaudière Falls. Ahearn and his partner, Warren Soper, were responsible for lighting Ottawa’s streets with electric lights years ahead of other Canadian cities, and for providing Canada’s Parliament with indoor, electric lighting long before the U.S. Congress could boast such amenities. Ahearn and Soper also built and operated Ottawa’s electrified urban transit system, the Ottawa Electric Street Railway, whose carriages were electrically heated using one of Ahearn’s patented devices. Confounding the “experts,” Ottawa’s electric trams operated through the winter owing to yet another Ahearn invention, an electric snow plough. Ottawa was a great testing ground for electrical devices due to its proximity to the Chaudière Falls, the source of relatively inexpensive hydro power which was exploited by another Ahearn and Soper company, the Chaudière Electric Light and Power Company.

In August 1892, the Canadian Patent Office issued three patents to Thomas Ahearn. Sandwiched between his electric water bottle and his electric flat iron, was patent no. 39,916 for the electric oven. It was described as “An oven having in its hearth inclosed (sic) pits in which electric heaters are placed.” Just like modern ovens, the interior of Ahearn’s oven was lit by incandescent lamps that allowed a person to monitor whatever was being cooked through a glass window.

While some accounts suggest that the Carpenter Electric Heating Company of Philadelphia had invented the electric oven a year before Ahearn was granted his patent in Canada, there is no doubt that the first dinner entirely cooked using electricity took place in Ottawa on 29 August 1892 at the Windsor House hotel. According to a bemused Ottawa Journal journalist, “a complete repast, comprising a number of courses” was cooked “by the agency of chained lightning.” The hotel proudly proclaimed on its menu that “Every item … has been cooked by the electric heating appliance invented and patented by Mr T. Ahearn of Ahearn & Soper of this city and is the first instance in the history of the world of an entire meal being cooked by electricity.” Even the soup, sauces, and after-dinner coffee and tea were prepared using Ahearn’s electric heaters.

The dinner, or more accurately the feast of some thirty different items, consisted of:

Soup

Consommé Royal

Fish

Saginaw Trout with Potatoes, Croquettes, Sauce Tartar

Boiled

Sugar-Cured Ham, Champagne Sauce,

Spring Chickens with Parsley Sauce

Beef Tongue, Sauce Piquant

Roasts

Sirloin of Beef and Horse Radish

Turkey with Cranberry Sauce

Stuffed Loin of Veal, Lemon Sauce

Entrées

Larded Sweetbreads with Mushrooms

Lamb Cutlets with Green Peas, and Strawberry Puffs

Vegetables

Potatoes, Plain and Mashed

Green Corn, Escalloped Tomatoes

Vegetable Marrow

Pudding and Pastry

Apple Soufflés, Wine Sauce

Apple Pie, Black Current Tarts, Chocolate Cake

Coconut Drops, Vanilla Ice Cream, Maraschino Jelly

Fruits

Apples, Raisins, English Walnuts,

Almonds, Watermelon, Grapes

Black Tea, Green Tea, Coffee

Cheese, Biscuits

One hundred guests were invited by the hotel’s proprietor, Mr Daniels, to enjoy the banquet. The guest list included Ottawa’s Mayor Olivier Durocher, Warren Soper, as well as the presidents of the Ottawa Electric Railway and the Chaudière Electric Light and Power Companies. Also in attendance were numerous newspaper reporters that ensured widespread publicity. The meal was prepared at the electric tram sheds owned by Ahearn and Soper, and rushed by a special carriage to the hotel located several blocks away. The meal included a twenty-one pound roast of beef, a thirteen pound roast of veal, and three big turkeys that were cooked simultaneously in the cavernous Ahearn oven; apparently, the oven could accommodate twice that amount.

After the meal, which was acclaimed as a huge success, with everything “cooked to perfection,” the guests boarded another special tram and taken to view the oven at the tram sheds. There, Thomas Ahearn, who had stayed back to supervise his oven’s operation, provided an explanatory lecture. The arched brick oven was six feet wide with two Ahearn electric heaters installed in the bottom, powered by electricity generated by the Chaudière Electric Light and Power Company. The “current consumed by the two [heaters] was 43 amperes at 50 volts.” The inside of the oven measured four feet by four feet. Peepholes, covered with heavy plate glass, permitted the chefs to observe the progress of the cooking without having to open the door. A major selling feature was the even cooking of the oven—“no scorching in one part and half-done-ness in another part” said the Evening Journal. As a vote of confidence in the new electric oven, Mr Daniels, the owner of the Windsor House hotel, ordered one of Ahearn’s newly patented ovens to be installed in the hotel’s kitchen.


A few weeks later, there was another, even larger scale, demonstration of Ahearn’s Electric Cooking Oven at the Central Canada Exhibition held in Ottawa. As part of a display of Ahearn electrical products, including electric home heaters, coffee boilers, and special restaurant heaters, a local baker, Mr R.E. Jamieson, used the oven to bake buns, twelve pans at a time, that he sold to the crowds at twenty-five cents each. This was an extraordinary price. A multi-course meal at the Café Parisien on Metcalfe Street could be had for only forty cents. The Electrical Engineer, a New York-based electrical trade journal, quipped that the expression “‘Went off like hot cakes’ now reads in Ottawa ‘went off like electric cakes.’”

The Ahearn oven that the baker used was slightly different from the one used for the Windsor House banquet, having three heating elements instead of two. The extra element was needed to provide additional heat to offset heat loss through the frequent opening of the door in the cooking of multiple rounds of buns. The oven was also equipped with a pyrometer, turn-off switches, interior lights, and a clock. The oven was the hit of the Fair. Thomas Ahearn was awarded a special gold medal for his display of electrical devices.

While Thomas Ahearn and Warren Soper were successful entrepreneurs, making fortunes from their electrically-based, business empire, the Ahearn electric oven proved to be a dud. It was too bulky to be easily used as a household appliance. As well, few homes or businesses were wired for electricity. Even where electricity was available, electric ovens, being energy gluttons, were expensive to operate, and were not initially competitive with the more familiar wood, coal, or gas ovens. It wasn’t until the 1930s that electric ovens became widely accepted.

Sources:

Canadian Patent Office Record and Registrar of Copyrights and Trade Marks, 1893. No, 39,916, Electric Oven, Four Électrique. Vol. 20, Ottawa: Government Printing Bureau.

Daily (The) Citizen, 1892. “Café Parisien,” 8 October.

Electricity, 1893. An Electric Banquet, 14 September, 1892, Volume 3, July 20, 1892 to January 11, 1893.

Electrical (The) Engineer, 1892. Electric Cooking At Ottawa, Can., Volume 14, July-December.

Electrical Review, 1893. A Course Dinner Cooked By Electricity, Volume 21-23, August 27, 1892 to February 18, 1893.

Evening (The) Journal, 1892. “An Electric Banquet,” 30 August.

Innovateus, 2013. Electric Stove.

Library and Archives Canada, 2006. Made in Canada, Patents of Invention and the Story of Canadian Innovation, Thomas Ahearn.

Mayer, Roy. 1997. Inventing Canada: One Hundred Years of Innovation, Vancouver: Raincoast Books.

National Academy of Engineering, 2015. Great Engineering Achievements of the 20th Century.

Images:

Patent No. 39,916, Ahearn Electric Oven, The Canadian Patent Office Record And Registrar of Copyrights and Trade Marks, Vol. 20, Ottawa: Government Printing Bureau, 1893.

Thomas Ahearn’s Oven in Operation, Canada Central Fair, Ottawa, October 1892, The Electrical Engineer, “Electric Cooking at Ottawa, Can.,” Volume 14, July-December, author unknown

Story written by James Powell, the author of the blog Today in Ottawa's History
Retired from the Bank of Canada, James is the author or co-author of three books dealing with some aspect of Canadian history. These comprise: A History of the Canadian Dollar, 2005, Bank of Canada, The Bank of Canada of James Elliott Coyne: Challenges, Confrontation and Change,” 2009, Queen’s University Press, and with Jill Moxley, Faking It! A History of Counterfeiting in Canada, 2013, General Store Publishing House, Renfrew, Ontario. James is a Director of The Historical Society of Ottawa.