The Edison two core street tubes were installed in 1884 in Brisbane, extending from the first Government power station (at the Government Printery in William Street) to the rear of Parliament House in Alice Street. It took another 2 years of protracted installation work until 1886 when the first electricity supply to the Queensland Parliament House was commissioned. This new technology facilitated the replacement of 200 hot and odorous gas lamps, with cool, electric lamps.
Research so far indicates that Brisbane was one of the first cities in the world (after London in January 1882, New York in September 1882, Milan and some other locations in the United States of America) to install and use this new technology.
The Edison mains or “street tubes” were designed by the famous inventor, Thomas Edison, and were manufactured in New York at the Edison Tube Works Company in 1881. They were the first commercial, underground electric power mains ever made. The “street tubes” consist of a wrought iron pipe; copper conductors; millboard spacers, and a mix of Trinidad pitch, paraffin wax, beeswax, and linseed oil, as an insulator. The length of each tube is 20 feet (6.1 metres). Some tubes were 15 feet in length (The Tamworth PowerStation Museum now holds the only 15 feet sample that was recovered during the 2018 excavation). Edison understood that 20 feet was the maximum length on a horse drawn dray that could be turned around in Manhattan’s narrow streets in New York.
On Tuesday, 6th February 2018, during the excavations for the new Queen’s Wharf development in Brisbane, the long ago buried and forgotten underground Edison Tubes were unearthed. The cable was carefully removed in full lengths under the supervision of heritage archaeologists and Research Engineers from Engineering Heritage Queensland. The tubes were stored at the Energex depot in the suburb of Eagle Farm in Brisbane.
When the recovery of these mains was reported, volunteers from the Tamworth PowerStation Museum contacted the Queens Wharf development Project Manager seeking to acquire a sample of this cable.
Following negotiations with Energex, samples of the cable and joints arrived at the Tamworth PowerStation Museum on 12th December 2018. The Museum’s volunteers have carefully conserved and displayed the cable. The display was launched during the Tamworth Regional Heritage Festival in April 2019. During the Heritage Festival, Brian Becconsall, from Engineering Heritage Australia, visited the Museum to see the new display. Brian explained that “They’re extremely significant to Australia as Brisbane was the only location in the southern hemisphere to ever install them.”
This sample of Edison’s first underground mains technology adds an important dimension to the Museum’s collection of electrical items of world significance.
Other sections of the Brisbane Edison tubes have been sent to the Science Centre in London, the Thomas Edison National Historical Park in New Jersey, the Powerhouse Museum (MAAS) in Sydney, the Commissariat Store Museum in Brisbane, the Highfields Pioneer Village in Toowoomba, Brisbane’s Parliament House and Energex in Brisbane.
The Edison Tube display can be viewed at the Tamworth PowerStation Museum from 9am to 1pm every Wednesday to Saturday.
Authored by Ron Greer, Anna Gregory and Brian Becconsall
Cover photograph left to right: Michael Page and Lionel Franklin (Tamworth Powerstation Museum volunteers); Brian Becconsall (Research Engineer, Engineering Heritage Queensland).
Bali, M 2018, Brisbane’s powerful link to Thomas Edison unearthed in Queen’s Wharf development,
Presentation of Edison Tubes display to Parliament House Queensland, 9 August 2018