There are many things in the 21st century that we take for granted but maybe none more so then electricity. Our world is run by it from phone batteries to the lights on the street and in our house. But of course this was not always the case and electricity is a fairly recent phenomenon in the scheme of things.
Experiments in electricity had hinted at its potential since the early 1800s, with the telegraph being invented in the 1830s and electric dynamos powering electric arc lights from the 1870s. These were so bright however that they had no practical application indoors and were used to light up buildings for special occasions. Arc lights had also been used by the builders of the Sydney Garden Palace in 1878 to allow them to work at night.
An exhibition at the Sydney Town Hall in February 1882 of Thomas Edison’s electric filament lamp, with the strength of eight candles, excited the public and soon enough individual buildings were being lit. The first Redfern railway station installed its own generators the same year-Sydney’s first public building permanently lit by electricity. The GPO followed, replacing its gas lights throughout. Shops and arcades also began installing their own generators, attracting shoppers and curious passers-by.
Still the city streets remained illuminated by gas lamps, the same dull light that had been a marvel in the 1830s. Gas was cheap and with the states coal reserve, easy to make and plentiful. But gas was also supplied by one company, AGL and this was to be its eventual downfall.
In 1888 the breakthrough came, but not in Sydney. Tamworth and then Young built their own municipal power stations and lit the streets and homes of their towns. County cousins coming to the big smoke were amazed to find the nights dark when theirs were fully lit!
AGL, seeing the threat changed the price structure of the gas supply and investigated the possibility of supplying electricity as well. This was too much for Redfern Council who in 1892 opened their own electricity power station, the first in Sydney. The power station gave the Council independence from the gas company and made Redfern the brightest place in Sydney. The power flowed out to the new electric street lamps, into houses and down into the factories in neighbouring Waterloo and Alexandria.
From the mid 1890s the trams were powered by electricity and Sydney finally followed in 1904 with the opening of Pyrmont Power Station, built on the site of the casino. Finally the nation’s largest city had caught up. Power stations soon sprang up all over the place. To feed the power through the suburbs substations were built, often reflecting the style of the surrounding buildings. Check this out next time you see and old substation.
Electricity was a novelty for a good while; hotels advertised that every room had electric lights up till the 1920s.
Possibly one of the strangest applications was put to use by an enterprising operator at the Sydney markets (Paddy’s Markets).
Playing on both the wonder of the new idea and the inbreed macho of the Aussie male, a battery was set up attached to a dial showing the voltage and two handles to grip. For a penny you could grab the handles and have yourself zapped, holding on for as long as you could. To impress your mates or your girl you could electrocute yourself-and they did.