Edward Gustavus Campbell Barton, Electricity Pioneer

Edward Gustavus Campbell Barton (1857-1942) is hardly a household name in Queensland, however as a pioneer of electricity supply his contribution to the development and modernisation of the state is unquestionable.

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Edward Gustavus Campbell Barton, ca. 1915. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. Acc. 29572 Queensland Energy Museum Collection.

Born in Toorak, Victoria, Barton had quite an international education, attending school in Dunedin, New Zealand, receiving engineering training in Scotland and studying in Germany at Karlsruhe Polytechnische Schule. Prior to returning to the Southern Hemisphere in the early 1880s, he superintended the first commercial electric-lighting system in Britain at Godalming, Surrey in 1882. Back in Queensland, Barton worked as an electricity consultant during which time he erected an electrical plant for the Phoenix Gold Mines at Gympie. He was appointed Queensland Government Electrician in 1886 and saw to the completing of lighting installations in the parliamentary buildings and government printing office.

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Barton, White & Co.’s Power Station, Edison Lane, Brisbane, ca. 1888. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. Acc. 29572 Queensland Energy Museum Collection.

In 1888, with C. F. White, he formed Barton, White & Co., manufacturers of electrical equipment, with the intention to supply electric light to the public. This they did, setting up their first power station in Edison Lane off Creek Street, the lane no doubt being named with this early occupant in mind.  With their first customer being the nearby Queensland General Post Office, Barton, White & Co. established the first public electricity supply in Australia and became the first electricity supplier in Australia. However in 1896, suffering from competition with gas companies and a conservative market, the company liquidated. Soon after, the persistent Barton reformed the company as the Brisbane Electric Supply Co. Ltd, with himself as manager.

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Letterhead of the Brisbane Electric Supply Company, 1900. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. Acc. 29572 Queensland Energy Museum Collection.

In 1901, operations moved to a new location in Ann Street, where Barton installed the first steam turbine in Queensland. The firm became the City Electric Light Co. Ltd in 1904 with Barton as general manager and a director, before he resigned, becoming a consultant.

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The City Electric Light Company Power Station, Ann St. Brisbane, ca. 1905. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. Acc. 29572 Queensland Energy Museum Collection.

Edward Barton’s vision, innovation and determination saw him successfully drive the establishment of electricity supply in Queensland, assisting the State in becoming the national front-runner in the field. Barton without doubt left a considerable legacy on both the industry and the State. In addition to these achievements, Barton later lectured in electrical engineering and physics at Brisbane Technical College, was elected to the Legislative Assembly as a member for Brisbane North in 1908, was appointed to the first senate of the University of Queensland in 1910, and served as president of the Brisbane Institute of Social Services from 1910-1915. In 1915 Barton left Australia to work with the British Ministry of Munitions and was based in Europe until his death in England in 1942.

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The workshop at the Ann St. Power Station, ca. 1901. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. Acc. 29572 Queensland Energy Museum Collection.

In 2017 the State Library of Queensland acquired the Queensland Energy Museum Collection. A small part of this collection contains items originally belonging to Edward Barton which provide a curious insight into the early days of electricity in Queensland. Amongst this assortment of photographs and papers is a fascinating notebook into which Barton appears to have penned intricate diagrams, calculations and sketches for his early work with electricity. Other items in the collection include early certificates, contracts and correspondence relating to Barton as well as a number of photographs of Edward Barton and his enterprises.

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Excerpt from Edward Barton’s notebook, ca. 1882. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. Acc. 29572 Queensland Energy Museum Collection.

Barton features in our exhibition, Magnificent Makers, which tells eight stories of curious creators, daring discoverers and imaginative inventors that trace a path through Queensland’s history since the late nineteenth century.  Magnificent Makers runs from 9 December 2017 to 3 June 2018.

Further reading

R.Hillier – Librarian, State Library of Queensland