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Power for the People: A history of electricity in Sydney

By Sandra Jobson - posted Wednesday, 25 August 2004


Thursday, July 8, marked the 100th anniversary of public electricity in Sydney, when the electric streetlights of the inner city were turned on for the first time.

Let me recreate that scene, because it illustrates what a difference electricity was to make to our lives.

All over Sydney that morning of July 8, 1904, people were waking up, lighting bedroom oil lamps, and stirring last night's coal grate to spark up some hopefully latent warmth.

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In those households which didn't have the new-fangled gas water-heaters in their bathrooms, water would be put on to heat in kettles over gas cookers or fuel stoves, partly for the morning wash, partly for the breakfast tea and porridge.

Then the working adults would set off to the local stop or station to catch the steam train or the new electric tram into work in the city or nearby suburbs.

The housewives would begin their arduous day, packing children off to school, lighting gas or chip-burning "coppers" to start boiling up the washing, cleaning grates, and getting in the day's coal or wood; then thinking about what provisions were needed from the corner store for the evening's meal.

By mid-afternoon that day a full-scale gale was blowing.

Due to the inclement conditions, few turned up at a ceremony at the new building in Pyrmont, under the tall brick chimney from which smoke had been wisping for most of the dingy afternoon. The party consisted of the Lord Mayor and his group, aldermen of the City Council, the Town Clerk, some senior officials and some engineers.

At 5pm sharp, the Lord Mayor, the Right Worshipful Samuel E. Lees, pulled the lever that released the steam from the station's boilers and set the generators in motion. Then the Lady Mayoress, Mrs Lees, turned a golden key that switched on the electric current.

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And so, much to everyone's surprise, the lights first came on all over what is now the CBD. People scurrying through the rain at first thought it was a particularly bright flash of lightning. But it stayed on.

Sydney would never be the same again.
 
Although July 8 was the 100th anniversary of electric street lighting in Sydney, in fact man-made electricity first came to our shores 134 years before, in 1770, aboard Captain Cook's Endeavour.

After Joseph Banks and Solander had bidden farewell to the maidens of Tahiti, they entertained themselves by experimenting with electricity as the Endeavour crossed the Tasman. Using Leyden jars, which were primitive batteries, they created a weak electric current. The canvas floor-covering of their cabin happened to be an ideal conductor of electricity, as it was sluiced down and cleaned daily with salt water.

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This is an edited extract of a talk delivered to the Union Club, Sydney, on July 13, 2004.



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About the Author

Sandra Jobson studied history at the University of Sydney. After graduating she became a journalist and was a reporter, feature writer and columnist for the Sydney Morning Herald and later, the Australian. She went to England and wrote the first biography of Lady Ottoline Morrell (Chatto & Windus). She is the author of six other published books and one unpublished book, Power for the People: a History of Electricity in Sydney. She now helps run an internet company.

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