Whitaker Wright

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Whitaker Wright's kid brother — a bright spark in Canada


Whitaker Wright had three younger brothers, one of whom — John Joseph Wright — became a pioneer in the field of electricity. Harry Black, in his 1997 book Canadian Scientists and Inventors, described him as ‘an electrical genius…an inventor, an entrepreneur, an innovator, and a man of unique vision.’

Known in the family as JJ, John was born in Great Yarmouth in December 1847. He received a good education at Shireland Hall School near Birmingham before emigrating to Canada with his elder brother in 1870. Settling in Toronto, he worked as a millwright, a machinist and as a proof-reader on the Toronto Globe. In 1874 he married a lumber dealer’s daughter, Jessie Firstbrook, and they went on to have six daughters and two sons.


An electric tram as developed by JJ Wright




Plaque to JJ in Toronto

In 1876 he attended the Centennial International Exhibition in Philadelphia, held to mark the 100th anniversary of America’s independence. He saw many new-fangled electrical devices there, including an electric pen and a telegraph which could transmit four messages simultaneously over a single wire. He attended lectures on electricity in the city, and found work with a local electrical firm. Before returning to Toronto in 1881, he helped to install Philadelphia’s first electric-arc street lamps and pioneered the concept of placing electrical wires underground.

Back home he developed Canada’s first electric motor, which was used to grind coffee in a Toronto store, and opened the city’s first commercial power station. He installed electric light in the East Wing of the White House and led the development of Canada’s first electric street railways. Not everyone approved of his innovative work. Denouncing him in a church sermon, a Canadian minister described his electric motor as ‘an instrument of evil since it releases girls from honest toil to wander about the streets and fall prey to the wiles of Satan.’


JJ on his wedding day aged 26




JJ at the height of his powers

A stocky man with a large moustache, JJ was not unlike his notorious elder brother in appearance and manner. He was known for his geniality and liked to be at the ‘centre of a jolly party.’ Like his brother he was a keen astronomer (he built a private observatory at his Toronto house) and was an enthusiastic sailor. He belonged to the Royal Canadian Yacht Club and enjoyed ‘speeding’ across Lake Ontario in his steam yacht Electric. He retired from the electrical industry in around 1915 and settled in Niagara-on-the-Lake, before moving to Newcastle, Ontario, in 1921. He died the following year and was buried in Mount Pleasant Cemetery in Toronto.


JJ at the helm of The Electric

He saw little of his brother after they went their separate ways in the early 1880s, but remained on good terms with him. The wreath he sent to Whitaker Wright’s funeral in 1904 bore the inscription ‘Mourning the loss of the best of brothers’.



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