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"System of Warming Cars by Means of Electrically Heated Water." Patent no. 39507, filed by Thomas Ahearn, 1892


Patent no. 39507. Filing year 1892.

"System of Warming Cars by Means of Electrically Heated Water," Thomas Ahearn.

They laughed when Thomas Ahearn said he'd bring the electric railway to Ottawa. The first electric railway had impressed the citizens of Richmond, Virginia, in 1888, but few thought the new technology could be adapted to the National Capital's considerably harsher climate. In 1890, some American investors had tried to interest Ottawa in an electric railway, but the deal fell through. Following this, Ahearn -- an Ottawa native, former telegraph office manager and electricity enthusiast -- with his business partner, Warren Soper, managed to convince the city, after much deliberation, to let them form a local company to develop and operate a railway.

Despite having been given the go-ahead, Ahearn found financial backing hard to come by. At the time, electricity was an impressive technology but hadn't yet been adopted on a large scale. By 1890, a debate still raged over which source of light -- gas or electricity -- was the best option for street lighting. Electrical power generation was done on a local level, usually in the downtown core of major cities. It wasn't until the turn of the 20th century that large-scale generation and transmission technology -- particularly hydro-electric power -- had evolved to the point that electricity became sufficiently cheap and accessible for widespread adoption.

In 1890, therefore, an electric railway in Ottawa was a leap of faith in more ways than one. The city's public transportation before that time had consisted of a couple dozen horse-drawn streetcars and sleighs; in winter, a coal stove in the middle of the sleigh provided heat. At the time, people didn't associate electricity with heat, but by 1892, Ahearn had devised an electrical heating system that would silence the sceptics. A patent for an electric water heater was soon followed by the patent pictured here, "A System of Warming Cars By Means of Electrically Heated Water." The electrically heated water was circulated through pipes under the streetcar carriage, warming the compartment. (Ahearn is also credited with designing a rotating brush mounted on the front of streetcars to remove snow from the tracks, though no patent exists for this invention.)

The heated streetcars were a success, and the technology spread to emerging streetcar operations in cities across Canada. Ahearn and Soper's company, Ottawa Electric Railway, operated privately until 1948, when it was taken over by the city of Ottawa and eventually became OC Transpo, Ottawa's present-day transit service. Streetcars no longer run in the nation's capital, but the electric railway (heated, of course) could make a comeback in the city's planned transit expansion.

Ahearn's story doesn't end with heated streetcars, however. Citizens of Ottawa were equally impressed by his electric oven, also patented in 1892, and also featured in this exhibit. After a career running several successful companies, Ahearn was drafted into the public service. In 1927, he oversaw the construction of 20,000 miles of wire across Canada to provide the country's first coast-to-coast radio broadcast. For his efforts he was sworn in to the Privy Council, thus beginning his career as the Honourable Thomas Ahearn, PC.


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

Nostbakken, Janis, and Jack Humphrey. The Canadian Inventions Book: Innovations, Discoveries and Firsts. Toronto: Greey de Pencier Books, 1976.

"Ahearn and Soper: Innovative Thinkers Who Shaped Transit in Ottawa."OC Transpo.
(accessed October 10, 2005).

"CityScapes: Ottawa." Canadian Directories
(accessed October 10, 2005).