On this day: Sydney gets electricity

By Joanna Egan 7 November 2013
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On 8 July 1904 Sydney’s power supply was switched on for the first time.

ON THIS DAY in 1904, Sydney’s electric streetlights were switched on for the first time.

On the evening of 8 July, the lives of Sydneysiders were changed forever when the Lady Mayoress of Sydney, Sarah Lees, turned a switch-key at the Powerhouse in Pyrmont.

“I have much pleasure in switching on the electric light for the city of Sydney,” she announced to the small group of government officials, engineers and professionals who had gathered in the rain to witness the birth of Sydney’s electric era.

“I trust it will be a boon to the citizens and an encouragement to the enterprise of the City Council,” said Lees as the electric current was transmitted to 343 arc lamps in the inner city just after dusk, at 5pm.

From Circular Quay to Redfern Railway Station, and from Hyde Park to Darling Harbour, the city was aglow with electric-powered light for the first time.

Sydney’s first power supply

For more than half a century prior, the city had been lit by gas-powered lamps. These produced about 40 candlepower of light each. At busy intersections, the strongest gaslights shone at 400 candlepower. “There is no comparison between the old and the new style of lighting,” reported the Sydney Morning Herald on 9 July 1904, the day after the electric arc lights were switched on – each shining at 2000 candlepower.

“Gaslights have been completely overshadowed by the brilliance of the new electric arcs,” the paper reported.

The city was transformed. “What was particularly noticeable was the marked difference the more powerful light made in certain streets, which at night [had] hitherto presented a somewhat gloomy appearance,” reported the Sydney Morning Herald.

“In Bridge Street the lamps have been arranged along the centre of the road, owing to the splendid width of the thoroughfare; and last night the row of powerful lights looked remarkably well. In Moore Street…the light was equally brilliant.”

Light and power for Australia

The lighting of Sydney’s arc lamps marked the beginning of an era. Electricity was widely available to the public for the first time, and Sydney-siders could purchase it to light, heat and power their homes. The dawn of the electricity era also gave business owners the power to prosper. “There are many inquiries from factories, which want power to drive machinery,” reported the Herald.

By the end of 1905, electricity had reached Paddington, Camperdown and Kings Cross. While most people still lit gas lamps or candles in their homes, used steam to power their machinery and cooked on gas or fuel stoves, more than 500 customers were using electricity.

Relative to other towns in New South Wales, Sydney was behind the times in switching on their power supply. Tamworth, NSW was the first town in the Southern Hemisphere to electrically light its streets, as early as 9 November 1888.

Tamworth was soon followed by the towns Young, Penrith, Moss Vale and Broken Hill – all of which, by 1891, had a power supply system.