Go back to article: Making Material and Cultural Connections: the fluid meaning of ‘Living Electrically’ in Japan and Canada 1920–1960

Wiring homes: making material connections

If we look first to pre-war Japan, electrification could hardly be attributed to any strong national vision (Samuels, 1987). Although the government and private entrepreneurs shared the recognition that the country needed to exploit its hydropower potential, business interests with an eye to regional monopolisation of supply dictated hydropower development. The private sector played the predominant role in extending electricity service to the population. In 1934, 816 out of about 1,000 electricity supply undertakings were private companies (Kōei Denki Fukugen Undō-shi Henshū Iinkai, 1969). Outside of large cities, however, municipalities and local communities did act as important intermediaries in setting the level of electricity service due to their role in licensing utility companies, levying local taxes and enforcing safety regulations.

Figure 1

Black and white photograph of men erecting electricity pylons watched by a small crowd

Erecting utility poles, Nagano, c.1910. Chubu Electric Power Company, Nagano ni Dentō ga tsuite 80 Nen (Nagano: Chubu Denryoku, 1979). Courtesy of the Chubu Electric Power Company

The electrification of rural communities was often mediated by local authorities through village meetings and town councils. For instance, when the town of Namegawa in Toyama was connected to the electricity supply in 1909, the town authority managed to keep the electricity price relatively low by negotiating the tariff with the local supplier Toyama Denki Company, based on the right to levy a tax on utility poles (Namegewa Shi, 1985) (see Figure 1). Elsewhere rural communities determined the supply company they wished to connect to and used collective bargaining to obtain advantageous tariffs. If they failed to reach an agreement with the supplier, local authorities could choose to establish their own supply by setting up a municipal supply company or forming an electricity utilisation association (Nishino, 2013). In 1937 there were 111 municipal and 240 communal suppliers providing power that was generally between ten and twenty per cent cheaper than private supply. These collective arrangements brought electricity to users even where there was little prospect of profit (Nishino, 2008).

Pre-war Japan provides an interesting example of how utilities exerted control over material connections to households. Under many contractual arrangements domestic infrastructure and appliances, including home wiring and lamps, were deemed properties of the supply company. Customers were prohibited from modifying domestic wiring or using appliances other than those provided by their supplier. Most utilities provided electric bulbs to their customers, who were required to go to companies’ service stations to get replacements when lamps burnt out. Some urban supply undertakings like the Toho Electric Power Company in Nagoya lifted such restrictions in the early 1920s in order to promote electric heating, but this was the exception rather than the rule.

Other elements of supply contracts hindered the material diversification of electricity use. Domestic wiring in the majority of Japanese houses was initially designed to provide lighting only. The fixed-price contract, applying to around eighty per cent of electricity users (Kajima, 2013), assumed lighting would be the sole use of electricity and was based on the number of lamps and wall outlets and not the actual amount of electricity consumed. To use additional appliances one had to pay for the installation of extra wiring, a meter and appliance hire (Matsushita Denki Seisakusho, 1933). Japan’s electricity grid added a further complication in distinguishing night-only lighting supply, used by most domestic users, from all-day supply that was mainly connected to factories and offices. A seemingly simple task, such as installing an electric heater, often meant upgrading the household supply connection and getting a new contract for all-day supply. As well as being a cumbersome process, customers who signed multiple contracts for different rates and services struggled to anticipate monthly utility bills.

Electrification came to Canadian households slowly and more unevenly than in Japan due to a variety of different regional visions and public-private interests that influenced how material connections were made. Much initial activity to establish connections was to serve the interests of industrial customers but some utilities saw the appeal of serving domestic markets early on, either to balance load or to achieve social betterment (Klingender, 1994; Sandwell, 2015). Early patterns of grid extension reflected uneven population density and variable demand, generally only reaching areas where a minimum level of energy consumption or customers per mile of line could be guaranteed. In areas where people had access to central service, electricity power usage was generally low in the pre-war years, but there was striking regional variation. In 1931 the national average monthly consumption was 93 kilowatt hours (KWh) per household, but this ranged from 30 KWh in Prince Edward Island to 300 KWh in Manitoba (Sandwell, 2014). Given these complex provincial power contexts, we focus here on two regions – Ontario and British Columbia – to contrast connection policies. Both provinces relied heavily on hydropower but grids were extended under divergent political regimes – one founded on public power, the other dominated by private interests.

Ontario’s formative hydropower regime developed around a vision of public power as a means to overthrow private ownership and reduce dependence on foreign coal supplies (Nelles, 1974). Within such visions there was also a sense of the revolutionary potential of electricity in the home as part of a perceived need for diversified demand to support cheap power for all. Sir Adam Beck, chair of the HEPC of Ontario stated that his task in electrifying the province was to provide power for all citizens – the poor, the housewife, the farmer and the merchant. The beginnings of Ontario’s provincial public power regime were laudable in terms of social ambition but relatively modest in terms of the actual expansion of grids, especially to rural users. Electrification was accomplished initially by connecting urban centres and communities near to generating stations with gradual rollout to other districts punctuated by economic depression, materials shortages and war. Preferential rates were offered to domestic consumers to facilitate expansion and to push out private utility interests, as in Toronto in 1911 where domestic lighting was offered at forty per cent less cost than by privately owned competitors (Klingender, 1994). Despite these efforts, in 1921 only half of Ontario homes had electric lighting and it was only in 1941 that electricity access was almost universal in urban homes, while only 37 per cent of rural homes had electric service at this time (Sandwell, 2015).

Ontario’s equalising narrative of cheap power for all was difficult to translate into homogenous connections on the ground, largely due to variable supply costs and the rural connection problem. The guiding principle of ‘power at cost’ meant that customers would pay only for the service they received, but in reality pricing policies were complex. In an attempt to provide some clarity, Beck explained in a 1923 address that electricity rates generally related to distance from source: Toronto, being ninety miles from the Niagara generating station, had residential service costs of 2.7 cents per KWh, while in Hamilton, fifty miles from Niagara, it was only 1.9 cents for residential service. In reality the equalising rhetoric of power at cost translated into the same rates throughout designated electric service zones, with charges apportioned in relation to economical distances from distribution centres in cities and towns. In the countryside the differentiation of technical connections and rates was defined in relation to rural power districts and specified classes of consumers. Information for customers in Ontario’s rural power districts published in 1935 described the variable technical requirements for new connections for no less than 14 service classes of rural customers: including hamlet, farm and light-only (HEPC Ontario, 1935). Small hamlet service offered a two-wire service to residences with 20-amp fusing that limited appliances to a total of 1,320 watts, while the small farm service allowed for a three-wire service with a capacity for 35-amps enabling the use of lighting and power for a small motor or a range. Despite Ontario Hydro’s equalising public service ethos, service connections and rates varied greatly for urban and rural users during the entire pre-war period and many customers struggled to understand the rationale behind this differentiation. Advocates for rural users, such as the United Farmers, criticised the utility’s pricing policies, asking why some farmers paid as much as three times that of Toronto’s power users and why some adjacent rural districts seemed to have widely divergent and seemingly arbitrary pricing policies (The Globe, 1926).

Statistics relating to quality of electrical service for Canadian households paint a disparate picture between different types of users. Ontario’s connected farm families tended to use less electricity on average than their urban counterparts in the pre-war period but many urban households continued to use electricity for lighting resisting the barrage of promotional literature about wider applications as a means to diversify demand and reduce rates. In Hamilton, for example, during 1921 the utility offered citizens the opportunity to install an electric stove and hot water heater plus necessary wiring for a maximum expenditure of $200 along with easy payment terms. Though many households responded to this offer, citizens also raised concerns about the ability of the hydro system to meet the extra load that thousands of new stoves would generate suggesting that people needed to be convinced of service reliability before they purchased appliances and re-wired homes (The Globe, 1921). Rural users also continued to have doubts about electricity’s necessity given that existing appliances run on wood or coal were functional and versatile, as well as being relatively cheap and convenient compared to installing wiring and buying appliances.

Unlike Ontario, early hydro development in British Columbia from the 1920s–1940s was characterised by the diverse priorities of private electric utilities. Two initial developmental ‘pockets’ of electrified space emerged in the first decade of the twentieth century due to the intersection of suitable waterpower sites and demand centres (Taylor, 1965). In the eastern parts of the province, servicing the Kootenay region, central station hydro serviced mining operations with residential demand a secondary service. In the south-western region, including the expanding urban centres of Vancouver and Victoria, the British Columbia Electric Railway Company (BCER) saw the future in the integration of the utility business with the synergistic development of transportation, light, heat and power operations. This integration of services under control of one organisation shaped extension policies. When the company extended electric railways it connected communities close to lines with lighting services, while places further away were deemed uneconomic to serve.

Securing a connection did not always translate into quality of service or high usage for those living along radial extensions. Low voltages and intermittent service were common complaints that limited what people could do with electricity. In 1930, for example, a group of residents living in Saanich, 23 km from the city of Victoria, wrote to the utility to complain that they were dissatisfied with their lighting service due to the voltage being so low that lamps could not draw the required candlepower (B.C. Electric, 1930). As a consequence, lights were often out from 11.30pm to 6.40am, rendering then all but useless. Numerous complaint letters indicate that such problems persisted throughout the pre-war period and that for many BC residents their first encounters with electricity did not meet even basic expectations. The householders in Saanich and other connected places had to wait until much later for a dependable service. It was only in 1945 that the BCER promised the construction of a new interconnected and dependable power system that would enable those on the Saanich peninsula ‘to buy all the service they wanted for a few pennies a day’ (B.C. Electric, 1945). Another promotional poster from the same year featured a labouring Reddy Kilowatt dragging all manner of new household appliances with the caption ‘They’re on the Way’.

When Canadian and Japanese homes were first electrified, applications were rudimentary, being restricted to simple lighting arrangements often with a single overhead socket. As other devices were brought into use the configuration of material interfaces became increasingly more complex and to some extent dictated the pace of social change by limiting which appliances could be attached. Overcoming such obstacles was also of importance to electricity developers, as appliances were perceived as the key to expanding modern ways of life. 

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/180904/002