WRIGHT, JOHN JOSEPH, electrical engineer; b. 11 Dec. 1847 in Great Yarmouth, England, son of James Wright, a Methodist minister, and Matilda Whittaker; m. 22 June 1874 Jessie Firstbrook in Toronto, and they had six daughters and two sons; d. 1 Feb. 1922 in Newcastle, Ont.
Educated at Shireland Hall in Birmingham, John J. Wright arrived in Toronto in 1870 as a millwright – he later called himself a machinist. In 1874 he married Jessie Firstbrook; her father was a lumber dealer and box maker and some of her brothers were machinists. When Wright went to Philadelphia in 1876, ostensibly to visit the centennial exhibition, he attended lectures on electricity by Elihu Thomson and Edwin James Houston, teachers at the Central High School there and partners in electrical experimentation. He apparently impressed them and entered their employ; he worked on generators and in 1879 helped install North America’s first electric-arc street lamp.
Following his return to Toronto in early 1881, Wright, in a back room at the Firstbrook factory, built a trial generator; it powered arc lamps that he had designed and installed in some downtown businesses. Such experimental ventures prompted city council to establish a committee in October 1881 to study the benefits of electric street lighting, but no contracts ensued. One of a number of early electrical entrepreneurs vying for opportunities, in the summer of 1882 Wright opened Toronto’s first commercial power station using generators provided by Thomson and Houston and driven by surplus steam from a nearby printing plant. Distribution wires were strung across the rooftops, and in 1884 Wright applied to use the poles of the newly organized Toronto Electric Light Company Limited. Since illumination was required only at night, he sold electric motors to stimulate daytime demand.
In 1883 the Toronto Industrial Exhibition had decided to install an electric railway for demonstration purposes. The directors intended to buy equipment from a Chicago source but, since the price was too high, they settled for an experimental engine built by Thomas Alva Edison and owned by Wright. It proved unable to move any cars. The exhibition tried again in 1884. This time Wright, working for Charles Joseph Van Depoele, a leading American proponent of electric traction, motorized a Grand Trunk flatcar, which performed perfectly. Although newspaper accounts in 1883 and 1884 make no mention of Wright’s involvement, he is credited by some with constructing the first electric railway in Canada.
In September 1884 the Globe identified him as head of the J. J. Wright Electric Light Company. The city directory of 1885 described him simply as an electrician. His private operations ended in 1886 when he became superintendent (later manager) of the Toronto Electric Light Company, which had acquired a municipal street-light franchise in 1884. Contested by Consumers’ Gas and the Toronto Railway Company, the renewal of the franchise in 1894 was tainted with the hint of scandal. The chair of the city’s fire and light committee, Alderman William T. Stewart, supposedly suggested that Wright provide $13,000 for distribution to council members. Stewart was tried but the charge was not proved.
Wright’s involvement with electrical application illustrates the challenge of working in a field of rapid technological and corporate change. He testified before the Ontario legislature’s private bills committee in 1902 that long-distance transmission was impractical and that, in Toronto, steam-driven generating plants were more economical. Although the city received its first electricity from Niagara Falls in 1906, he was still arguing in 1908 that high-voltage lines posed a “grave danger” to farm buildings. Other electrical engineers, such as Robert Alexander Ross of Montreal, disagreed. Whatever the limits of Wright’s know-how, his managerial skills remained valuable, and he stayed with Toronto Electric Light after it became linked in 1908 to William Mackenzie’s large holding company, the Toronto Power Company Limited. In 1910 he was made second vice-president and general consultant. By 1914 he was a consulting engineer with no connection.
A member of the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, Wright was the first president of the Canadian Electrical Association in 1891–93. He held the office again in 1904, and served on the managing committee of the association until its affiliation in 1911 with the National Electric Light Association in the United States, a step he did not support. In appearance this genial electrical pioneer was a stocky man with a large moustache. An enthusiast “of all kinds of aquatic sports,” he belonged to the Royal Canadian Yacht Club and spent many a weekend “speeding” across Lake Ontario, “the central figure of a jolly party.” He retired from the electrical industry about 1915, settled in Niagara-on-the-Lake, and moved to Newcastle in 1921. He died the following year and was buried in Mount Pleasant Cemetery in Toronto.
AO, RG 22-191, no.9526; RG 80-5-0-47, no.11760.
General Register Office (Southport, Eng.), Reg. of births, Great Yarmouth (Norfolk), 11 Dec. 1847.
Canadian Statesman (Bowmanville, Ont.), 9 Feb. 1922.
Globe, 12, 17 Sept. 1883; 4, 9, 13 Sept. 1884; 3 Feb. 1922.
Toronto Daily Mail, 18 Sept. 1883.
Bright lights, big city: the history of electricity in Toronto (Toronto, 1991).
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Canadian National Exhibition, Greater Toronto picture souvenir ([Toronto], 1934).
C. W. Condit, The pioneer stage of railroad electrification (Philadelphia, 1977).
Merrill Denison, The people's power: the history of Ontario Hydro ([Toronto], 1960).
Directory, Toronto, 1873/74–1915.
Electrical News (Toronto), 21 (1911), no.7: 73.
History of Toronto and county of York, Ontario . . . (2v., Toronto, 1885), 1: 385.
J. E. Middleton, The municipality of Toronto: a history (3v., Toronto and New York, 1923), 1: 318