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"Commutator and Regulator for Dynamo-electric Machines." Patent no. 17319, filed by John J. Wright, 1883


Patent no. 17319. Filing year 1883.

"Commutator and Regulator for Dynamo-electric Machines," John J. Wright.

Often with claims of inventions -- particularly before the twentieth century -- the line between fact and fiction can be difficult to discern. John J. Wright's is a case in point.

Some sources claim that Wright, an English-born electrical engineer living in Toronto, made and installed the first electric motor in Canada at an Eaton's coffee and tea shop on Yonge Street, in Toronto, in 1883. The Canada Science and Technology Museum in Ottawa even has a motor from Wright's shop, marked with big, red letters saying, "Canada's first electric motor." In fact, by 1883, several electric motors had already been installed across Canada, some a decade earlier.

Also dubious is the claim made by some -- notably J. J. Brown in his history of Canadian invention, Ideas in Exile -- that Wright invented the elevated pole system used to power electric trolleys. Wright apparently attempted to install and operate the first electric railway in Canada at the Canadian National Exhibition (CNE) in 1883. This attempt, using an engine purchased from Thomas Edison, failed, the story goes, because the power source, a third rail in the ground, shorted out in heavy rains. Legend has it that Wright's solution was to convey the electricity through an overhead wire, connected to the trolley by an elevated pole; at the top of the pole, a spring-loaded wheel moved along the wire and conducted the electricity. This new electric railway system was demonstrated at the CNE in 1884, and this time it ran perfectly, carrying some 15,000 passengers on its two-week run.

However, the evidence does not bear this story out. Wright never patented a pole apparatus; he has three patents in Canada, one for a regulator for electric lights, and two for improvements to DC electric motors, including the one pictured above. Such "dynamo-electric machines," as they were then called, were the earliest type of electric motor and generator. (Another well-known Canadian inventor, Thomas Leopold Willson, patented and built his own electric dynamo in 1889, at the age of 20, but was better known for his contributions to chemistry.)

While Wright may have helped install electric railways at the CNE, and may even have used a pole system, there's no hard evidence to prove it. Official credit for the invention of an electric trolley pole has gone to an American, Frank J. Sprague, who installed a working system in Richmond, Virginia, in 1888. Trolley poles, of course, went on to power electric railways around the world, and are still used in Canada for Toronto's streetcars and Vancouver's electric bus system.

Regardless, Wright deserves credit as one of Canada's electrical pioneers. Between 1876 and 1881, he worked in Philadelphia for electrical engineers Elihu Thomson and Edwin James Houston, helping them install North America's first electric-arc street lamp in 1879. Upon returning to Toronto in 1881, Wright built a generator to power arc lights that he designed and installed in 15 Toronto businesses. In 1886, he became superintendent, and later manager, of the Toronto Electric Light Company, which that year installed Toronto's first electric street light system. In 1891, John J. Wright became the first president of the Canadian Electrical Association.


Thanks to Anna Adamek, assistant to the curator, Canada Science and Technology Museum, for her assistance with this profile.

Andreae, Christopher. "Wright, John Joseph." Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online.
(accessed October 7, 2005).

Armstrong, Christopher and H. V. Nelles. Monopoly's Moment: The Organization and Regulation of Canadian Utilities, 1830-1930. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1986.

Brown, J. J. Ideas in Exile: A History of Canadian Invention. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1967.

Carpenter, Thomas. Inventors: Profiles in Canadian Genius. Camden East, Ontario: Camden House Publishing, 1990.

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