History of Electricity in Brisbane

Since the first public demonstration of electricity in 1882, Brisbane has seen constant growth in the power industry. From one 10 horsepower generator in the CBD to a state filled with power stations, there’s a remarkable history to uncover.

Electricity arrives at Brisbane (1880s-1900s)

Brisbane’s fledgling CBD was one of the first Australian cities to enjoy electricity’s benefits.

Australia’s first recorded use of electricity for the public was in 1882. Eight arc lights were lit up along Queen Street towards Victoria Bridge. A 10 horsepower generator located one block over at Sutton’s Foundry powered them.

The Government Printing Office (1883), Queensland Parliament House (1886) and General Post Office (1888) were the first buildings to receive a power supply. Parliament House was likely the first government building in the whole British Empire with electricity, while the post office was the first public building in Australia.

One name to highlight from the early days is E.C. Barton, who alongside C.F. White supervised the laying of Brisbane’s first electrical cables. In 1888 they built their own powerhouse for the General Post Office and surrounding buildings. Realistically, you could call them the first Brisbane electricians!

Their partnership ended in 1896 when Barton established the Brisbane Electric Supply Co., later renamed the Central Electric Lighting Co. or CEL in 1904.

Barton’s early factories produced many of Brisbane’s first appliances, including switches, fuses, telephones and bells.

Towards the end of the 19th century, the Electric Light and Power Act of 1896 allowed for anyone to apply for authorisation of a power supply, and in 1897, Brisbane’s first electric tramway opened.

Upping the voltage (1910s-1930s)

Once the public and local companies could apply for power, there was an electricity boom. And not just in Brisbane. Regional centres across the state saw local powerhouses pop up.

Often they knew exactly how many people and how many individual lights they serviced, and in some instances would switch off the supply during full moons as locals could use moonlight instead.

Perhaps the biggest difference between the early 20th century and now, is how households used electricity. Often they only had lights and one outlet, with smaller appliances like kettles, irons and toasters only just becoming more common.

For Brisbane, there was a milestone in 1914 when the CEL switched their current from DC to AC. This allowed for electricity to travel farther, although some regional centres used DC until the 1940s.

In 1925 another major shift in power occurred when the Brisbane City Council was born. The BCC was responsible for 20 towns and shires, uniting a newly created City of Brisbane. They built the New Farm Power Station in 1928, gained control of the tram network, and eventually took control of all local powerhouses and suppliers, except for the CEL.

Big changes for Brisbane electricians (1940s-1970s)

World War II slowed down Brisbane’s progress as international supplies were delayed and many workers went abroad to fight. For example, critical parts ordered in 1940 didn’t arrive in Australia until 1942 or 1943.

On the home front, the BCC and CEL began working together. They provided mutual assistance and support to ensure Brisbane would always have a reliable power supply in case of attack.

Brisbane electricians became more common as homes filled with stoves, hot water systems and refrigerators in the 1950s. Initially, there were not enough skilled tradies to handle the workload – imagine that! Thankfully this era saw the opportunity for many skilled workers to hone their skills in a new field.

After the war, smaller powerhouses began to be replaced by large scale power stations such as the Kareeya Hydro Power Dam and the Tennyson and Swanbank Power Stations in Brisbane.

Meanwhile, the Queensland Government began the arduous task of centralising electricity ownership and unifying the state’s patchwork supply.

Sadly part of this saw the end of the CEL as a whole. In 1952 the Southern Electricity Authority absorbed the CEL and in 1997 merged with the BCC. The Government named their new corporation the South East Queensland Electricity Board (SEQEB).

Queensland’s united power (1980s-present)

Over the last 40 years, Queensland’s power grid finally united and through the National Electricity Market supplies power to neighbouring states as well.

Through the 1980s and 1990s the remaining small scale powerhouses shut down. However, links to the early days of electricity survived, whether physical like the historic New Farm building in Brisbane, or in memory.

Renamed Energex, the SEQEB corporatised in 1997. But, Energex still acknowledges its roots as the City Electric Light Co. in 1904, and Barton and White from the 1880s.

The move from coal fired power stations to more hydro electric, solar, wind and gas have seen an evolution in the energy world, albeit sometimes slower than some may want.

Power stations in Roma, Longreach and Barcaldine closed, like Gladstone, Callide and countless more fuelling Brisbane and surrounds.

Queensland’s transitional period continues. Four coal-fired power plants are scheduled for decommissioning between 2032 and 2046, starting with the oldest in Gladstone. The future appears to be in renewable energies. The Archer Point Wind Farm is one of several proposed wind and solar farms for Queensland.

Metropolitan Electrical Contractors Brisbane hasn’t been around since 1882. But we know electricity! We call on over 25 years of experience so you won’t have to worry about a hopeless Google search for ‘Electrician Brisbane‘.

From blown switchboards to electric hot water systems, lighting installation and much more, we are your trusted Brisbane electricians. Contact us if you have an electrical emergency or just need an electrician in Brisbane today.


Published: 26 Jun, 2020

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