The Ahern Family - Thomas Ahearn

Thomas Ahearn
the Canadian Edison

Thomas Ahearn in 1903
Thomas Ahearn in 1903
Thomas Ahearn, Privy Councilor (June 24, 1855 — June 28, 1938) was a Canadian inventor and businessman. He was born in the Lebreton Flats area of Ottawa in 1855. He began work as a telegraph operator with the J.R. Booth Company, later becoming a manager in several early telephone companies in Ottawa, including the Bell Telephone Company office in Ottawa.

In 1882, he founded the firm of Ahearn & Soper, electrical contractors, with Warren Soper. In the same year, Ahearn set up telephone service for Parliament Hill and government offices. Ahearn and Soper set up thousands of electric lights on the Parliament Buildings for Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee in 1887.

Ahearn invented the electric cooking range in 1882, and, in 1892, was the first person to prepare a meal on an electric stove which he delivered to the Windsor Hotel in Ottawa. He was founder and president of the Ottawa Electric Railway Company, which provided electric streetcar service in the town and had the first streetcars with electric heaters. This private operation was later taken over by OC Transpo. He was chairman of the Federal District Commission, the predecessor to the National Capital Commission.

Ahearn personally funded most of the construction costs for the Champlain Bridge across the Ottawa River. He helped found a number of early Ottawa companies including the Ottawa Electric Company, which introduced electric streetlights to Ottawa and was the predecessor to Hydro Ottawa, the Ottawa Gas Company and the Ottawa Car Manufacturing Company, which manufactured streetcars. His son Frank would become the owner of the Ottawa Auditorium and the Ottawa Senators professional ice hockey team.

In 1927, Ahearn set up radio facilities across Canada to broadcast the Diamond Jubilee celebration of Canadian Confederation from the Ottawa Auditorium. He was named to the Queen's Privy Council for Canada in 1928. He is interred in Beechwood Cemetery. — From Wikipedia

Patent Drawing for Electric Hot Water Bottle

U. S. Patents of Thomas Ahearn
16 Jan 191718 May 1920resetting device for phonographs
3 July 188330 Oct. 1883electric time detector
4 Apr. 189227 Sep. 1892electric heater
9 Apr. 189223 Aug. 1892electric water heater
8 Sep. 189231 Jan. 1893electric warming bottle
16 Jan. 191718 Dec. 1917resetting device for sound machines
27 May 19184 Nov. 1919drive mech. for disk talking machines
25 Feb. 19196 Dec. 1921driving mech. for talking machines
30 Jul, 192012 Sep. 1922phonograph needle buffer

Thomas Ahearn
In 1877, Ottawa's Thomas Ahearn devised a rudimentary telephone system based upon an article in Scientific American about Alexander Graham Bell's pioneering efforts. Ahearn used two homemade cigar boxes, magnets and wire and, using existing telegraph lines, rigged up a routing from Pembroke to Ottawa. This was Ottawa's first long-distance telephone call. Ahearn was threatened with legal action for his unauthorized use of Bell's patented technique, but instead was appointed manager of Bell Telegraphone Company's first Ottawa office. (He sold the cigar boxes to settle a $16 hotel bill). The man who would come to be known as "the Edison of Canada" was born on June 24, 1855, in Lebreton Flats. Innately inventive, young Ahearn approached the Montreal Telegraph Company branch office and offered to deliver messages for nothing in exchange for a chance to learn the telegraph instruments. Within six months, he was made an operator-messenger for eight dollars a month. Soon after, he went to New York to work at the headquarters of Western Union. He returned to Ottawa after a couple of years as an inspector for the CPR Telegraph System. He served in the House of Commons telegraph office, where he made friends with MPs and press gallery members. He learned about the electrical aspects of telegraphy and became the one to turn to when things needed fixing, gaining the nickname "Electricity Ahearn."

Following his 1877 long-distance telephone call, Ahearn teamed up with Warren Y. Soper to open a store at 66 Sparks Street in 1881. The pair formed Ahearn and Soper, Electrical Contractors (A&S), and became representatives of the Westinghouse Company of Chicago. Ahearn and Soper built long-distance lines to Pembroke, Montreal and Quebec for the Bell Telephone Company. In 1882, Ahearn and Soper established the Ottawa Electric Company, which installed 165 arc street lamps introducing electric light to Ottawa. They built a simple power station that allowed the service to be expanded citywide. For Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee in 1897, Ahearn and Soper were contracted to illuminate the Parliament Buildings with thousands of electric lights. On Christmas Eve, later that year, they decorated a streetcar with electric lights and each took a shift, dressed as Santa Claus, to throw candy, nuts, apples and oranges to the crowds of children who followed the gaily-festooned car throughout its route. The electric streetcar, introduced in the United States in the late 1880s, was not seriously considered in Ottawa because of its winter weather. Ahearn, with Soper, wanting to move public transportation from the horse-drawn streetcar, set up the Ottawa Electric Railway on Feb. 13, 1891. On June 29, the first tram cars pulled out, with Ahearn aboard as motorman of the first car. The first 10 cars in the service were made by a St. Catharines firm. A&S formed the Ottawa Car Company to manufacture their own cars, and the company later supplied them to cities all across the country. In winter, Ahearn warmed the cars by running electrically-heated water under the floors, the first electrically-heated cars on the continent; he invented a rotating brush cleaner to clear the tracks in winter. He argued for controversial Sunday service; it was established in 1900. The Ottawa Car Company sold street cars all across Canada until the late 1940s. It made airframes for the war effort, and would be privately run until 1948, when it was bought by the city as the genesis of OC Transpo.

Ahearn, on Aug. 29, 1892, was the first in the world to cook a meal electrically, for a dinner at the Windsor Hotel at Metcalfe and Queen streets. His workshop served as the kitchen for the banquet, whose offerings ranged from "Saginaw Trout with Potato Croquettes and Sauce Tartare" to "Strawberry Puffs." The Ottawa Journal called it "cooking by the agency of chained lightning." In 1899, Ahearn was the first person to drive an electric automobile in Ottawa. In 1927, Ahearn, with Prime Minister Mackenzie King and Justice Minister Ernest Lapointe, made the first transatlantic telephone call to Britain. The prime minister appointed Ahearn chairman of the Broadcasting Committee for the Diamond Jubilee of Confederation to produce a coast-to-coast radio broadcast of the festivities on Parliament Hill. Ahearn built the 32,000 kilometres of wire needed to connect the country from east to west. Governor-General Lord Willingdon said this "had done more to create a national spirit in Canada than any other movement." The prime minister named Ahearn to the Privy Council in 1928. Meanwhile, he had been named chairman of the Federal District Commission (FDC), forerunner of the National Capital Commission. His achievements in this role were staggering. He is responsible for developing much of the city's Parkway system. Frustrated by bureaucratic heel-dragging, Ahearn personally funded much of the cost of the Champlain Bridge. Ahearn once said that his "one ambition was to see the Capital of Canada become the greatest and most beautiful city on the continent." Donald Blair, an engineer with the FDC, said in 1932 that Ahearn's five-year tenure was "the most progressive and constructive period in the history of that body."

Thomas Ahearn died in Ottawa on June 28, 1938. He had been the president of nine major firms and utilities, the holder of six directorships, chairman of two key public offices and patent-holder of 11 Canadian inventions. He deserves to be remembered everywhere, but especially here in Ottawa: every time we turn on the light, the heat or the taps, use a stove or an electric iron, lift the phone or take a bus, we are all beholden to this man.

Ottawa Citizen 20 September 1999

Ottawa Citizen, 15 June 1950

Ottawa's famed son largely forgotten by history
A monument erected to the "Thomas Edison of Canada'" at Lansdowne Park has been in a state of neglect for some years. That's about to change, reports Joanne Chianello.
When Kelly Ahearn Ray, left, was a child, her mother, Mary Ahearn, and her father would bring her to Lansdowne Park, where she'd drink from the fountain erected as a memorial to their ancestor, Thomas Ahearn. Kelly says she didn't then know how important he was.

When Kelly Ahearn Ray was little, her parents would take her and her two big brothers to Lansdowne Park. They would run around and get their kites stuck on the Aberdeen Pavilion, or the Cow Castle as they referred to it then. A Sunday afternoon at Lansdowne was never complete without a stop by the fountain. Not just any drinking fountain, mind, but the one dedicated to Thomas Ahearn. "My mom would be very proud and tell us how were related to him," Kelly says. "I would just get a drink from the fountain, but I didn't realize how important he was." During the past two decades, the fountain has been neglected and no one has been able to drink from it for many years, although over that time Kelly has learned about the enduring contribution of her great-great-great uncle. The same cannot be said for the rest of Ottawa.

Sometimes referred to as the "Thomas Edison of Canada," Ahearn was one of the country's leading industrialists, bringing a wide range of electrical projects to Ottawa as well as cities across Canada. He is probably the capital's most famous inventor, if one can be famous, but largely forgotten. Now that Lansdowne is being redeveloped, some want to see Ahearn afforded the respect his memory deserves, especially Kelly's mother, Thomas' great-great grandniece, Mary Ahearn. "I'd certainly like to see someplace — and I hope it's here — that recognizes him for the contribution he made to the city," Mary says as she stands by the fountain in the Lansdowne parking lot, directly across from the Urbandale Centre, right up against a fence. "It's sort of a nice piece," she says of the copper bas-relief profile of her ancestor. "But it's certainly not in a place where people would gather."

Born in 1855 in Lebreton Flats to Irish immigrant parents, young Thomas, like many an Ottawa entrepreneur to follow, was obsessed with new technology. As a teenager, he fled to New York City, where he worked as a messenger boy with Western Union to learn how to operate a telegraph. His two-year adventure served only to feed his imagination and ambition. Although largely self-taught — historian Valerie Knowles writes that, at age 24, he "devised a primitive telephone system based upon a Scientific American article" — Ahearn helped transform Ottawa into a modern city. Even a passing glance at his list of accomplishments leads one to wonder how Thomas Ahearn can be anything but a household name. By the time he died, he had 11 Canadian patents, including one for the electric flat iron and the electric stove. In fact, in 1892, Ahearn threw an elaborate dinner at the Windsor Hotel, where everything was cooked by an electric appliance. Although dinner was served at the hotel, it was actually prepared at Lansdowne Park and was the first demonstration of "electric cooking" in Canada.

With his partner and boyhood friend, Warren Soper, Ahearn brought the first outdoor electric lighting to Ottawa's streets and later to businesses and homes. They constructed and equipped long-distance lines from Pembroke to Quebec City, via Ottawa and Montreal, and installed telegram lines for the CPR from the Atlantic to the Pacific. However, perhaps Ahearn's most enduring legacy was the Ottawa Electric Railway Co. The city's first streetcar rumbled from the company's garage on Albert Street to the Lansdowne Park exhibitions grounds on June 25, 1891. Driving it was none other than Ahearn himself. The O.E.R. would eventually be sold to the city, forming the basis of the city's public transit system.

Ahearn contributed to the cultural life of the city, was the first chairman of the predecessor of the National Capital Commission, sat on boards for national companies and local hospitals. When he realized that the Champlain Bridge project only had enough money to get to Ward Island, Ahearn took it upon himself to finance it all the way to Quebec.

In the 1949, his son Frank — who owned the Ottawa Senators when they won the Stanley Cup — asked the city to accept a memorial drinking fountain dedicated to his father, who had died in 1938. Frank Ahearn likely wanted citizens to remember his father's connection to Lansdowne Park. Perhaps his family thought a water fountain was a useful public service. Considering Thomas Ahearn's stature at the time, and his family's enormous wealth, the memorial's modesty seems curious. Today it's almost unknown to citizens of the city he helped build. Even those intimately connected with the Lansdowne redevelopment project were taken by surprise when told of the historic fountain, but they were quick to realize its significance. "This is not a very dignified way to remember Mr. Ahearn," says Councillor Peter Hume, who is the lead politician on the Lansdowne project and involved in judging the upcoming designs for the urban park portion. Because he has toured the site so often, Hume thinks he has probably seen it "but never twigged to its history. "The way this project originally evolved hasn't given a lot of prominence to the cultural and historical importance of Lansdowne Park." That has changed, he says. The design team will be considering commissioning a statue, naming a square or in some other "more fitting way" recognize Ahearn. "This is a great way to infuse the history back into Lansdowne."

Ottawa Citizen 10 May 2010

Thomas Ahern in 1938 Hon. T. Ahearn Dies, Aged 83
Ottawa, June 28, (CP) — Hon Thomas Ahearn, 83, pioneer Ottawa business man and industrialist, died at his home here today. After enjoying robust health most of his life, Mr. Ahearn took ill about a year ago and has been ailing since. Originally a telegraph operator, he entered the field of electrical utilities and eventually formed through mergers the Ottawa Light, Heat and Power company, of which he was president. In 1928, he was made a member of the privy council.
Winnipeg Free Press 29 June 1938

Thomas Ahearn
OTTAWA, Ont., June 28 (Canadian Press). — Thomas Ahearn, Ottawa business man and industrialist, died at his home today. He was 83 years old and had been ill for a year. Mr. Ahearn rose from a position as telegrapher to leadership in Ottawa utilities and finance. He was sworn of the Privy Council on Jan. 10, 1928, in recognition of his service as chairman of the Federal District Commission in beautifying the city of Ottawa. Forty-eight years ago he demonstrated the application of electricity to heating and in 1892 an electrical heating system of his invention was installed in Ottawa street cars. This system subsequently had wide commercial use.

Born in Ottawa, the son of John and Honora Power Ahearn, both of Irish stock, he began work at the age of 15 in Ottawa and became an expert telegrapher. He pioneered in the telephone field in Ottawa, taking charge of the telephone branch on the Montreal Telegraph Company there in 1878, and two years later becoming local manager of the Bell Telephone Company. In 1882 he entered into partnership with Warren Y. Soper under the firm name of Ahearn & Soper, electrical engineers and contractors. They constructed and equipped some of the largest electrical works in Canada.

In his thirties Mr. Ahearn organized many electrical companies. He was a founder in 1887 of the Chaudiere Electric Light and Power Company, merged in the Ottawa Electric Company in 1893, and, with the Ottawa Gas Company, absorbed by the Ottawa Light, Heat and Power Company, of which Mr. Ahearn became president. He was also a founder in 1890 and president of the Ottawa Electric Railway Company, the pioneer venture of its kind in Canada, which solved the problem of operating in Canada an electric service on wheels throughout the Winter. As chairman of the Federal District Commission, Mr. Ahearn's duties included the expropriation of land, the razing and erecting of buildings, the planning of driveways, the construction of bridges and the establishment of parks. The project for the beautification of Ottawa, toward which the Dominion Government contributed large annual grants, was under his direction. On Jan. 9, 1927, when the wireless telephone connected Ottawa with the Bridgewater, Somerset, England, more than 3,500 miles away, Mr. Ahearn spoke across the water with R. N. Vyvian, engineer in chief of the Marconi Company's long-distance station at Bridgewater. In the same year he served as chairman of the committee in charge of Canadian Jubilee broadcasts.

Mr. Ahern was president of the Ottawa Car Manufacturing Company, Ottawa Traction Company, Ottawa Electric Company, Ottawa Gas Company, Ottawa Investment Company and Ottawa Land Association. He was a director of the Bank of Montreal, the Bell Telephone Company of Canada, Canadian Westinghouse Company, Ltd., Northern Electric Company, Guarantee Company of North America, Royal Trust Company and Montreal Telegraph Company. He was a member of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, Old Time Telegraphers Association and Pioneer Telephone Association. His clubs included the Rideau, Ottawa Golf, Ottawa Country, Laurentian and Mount Royal.

Mr. Ahearn married in Ottawa in 1884 Miss Lilias Mackey, who is dead. A son and daughter were born to them: Thomas Franklin Ahearn, M. P., president of Rowatt-Ahearn Ltd., insurance brokers, and Mrs. Lilias Southam, wife of H. S. Southam, a publisher. Surviving also is his second wife, the former Miss Margaret Howitt.
New York Times 29 June 1938

   The Hon. Thomas Ahearn, P.C., whose death in Ottowa yesterday at the age of 83, is announced, was a pioneer of electrical engineering and had been for many years a very prominent figure in Canadian business life.

   Born in Ottawa on June 24, 1855, he was the youngest son of six children of John and Honora Ahearn, Irish immigrants who had arrived in Canada from Waterford a few years before. After being educated at a local elementary school and the Ottawa Collegiate he went to work at the age of 15 as a messenger boy for the Montreal Telegraph Company. Learning telegraphy, he became an expert operator and worked in the telegraph office maintained by the Western Union Company in the House of Commons at Ottawa. Then he went to New York. where he was the “star” telegraphist in the company's head office for some years. He returned to Ottawa to become manager of a telephone company which had been formed, but after a few years he resigned that post and formed a partnership with another telegraphist, the late Mr. Warren Y. Soper, in the business of selling electrical equipment and building telegraph lines. Obtaining the contracts for the C.P.R.'s telegraphic equipment, the firm propspered steadily.

   Mr. Ahearn was one of the first Canadians to be convinced of the possibilities of the utilization of electric power for lighting, transportation, and other purposes, and in 1887 the firm of Ahearn and Soper with some local associates formed the Chaudiere Electric Light and Power Company which was the parent of the existing Ottawa Light, Heat and Power Company. Four years later the same group formed the Ottawa Electric Street Railway which provides the capital with its street car service. He solved the problem of operating in Canada an electric service on wheels through the winter. Later, in 1895, Mr. Ahearn was responsible for the formation of the Ottawa Car Manufacturing Company, which became one of the largest manufacturers of street cars in Canada. He was the directing spirit of these allied enterprises and he brought to their management tireless industry and great business acumen with the result that he became a very rich man and made fortunes for several of his associates. His business absorbed most of his energies, but he found time after 1926 to serve as chairman of the Ottawa Improvement Commission, a body subsidized by the Federal Government and charged with the beautification and town planning of Ottawa.

   In politics he was a strong Liberal, and an intimate friend of the late Sir Wilfrid Laurier, but he refused repeated invitations to stand for Ottawa. He was the leading figure in the business world of Eastern Ontario and apart from his local interests was a director of the Bank of Montreal, the Royal Trust Company, the Bell Telephone Company, and other corporations. Mr. Ahearn was an ardent pioneer of motoring, and he was also in his later years a great traveller, having crossed the Atlantic about 40 times. In 1928 he was made a Canadian Privy Councillor. He was twice married. His son, Mr. Thomas Franklin Ahearn is one of the two Liberal members of Parliament for Ottawa ; and his daughter Lilias married Mr. H. S. Southam, of the Southam Publishing Company. Both his son and daughter were born of his first marriage.

The Times 29 June 1938

More on Thomas Ahearn:
Thomas "Electricity" Ahearn
The Ottawa Electric Railway
Ahearn & Soper Company History
From Cigar Boxes to Streetcars
Ottawa Library Collection
National Archives of Canada

Return to The Ahern Family HomePage

This page copyright © 2001-2013 by Dennis Ahern.

visitors have accessed this page since April 4, 2001.
This page was last updated 27 June 2013.