Edward Gustavus Campbell Barton

Edward Gustavus Campbell Barton, introduced electricity to Queensland Parliament. QSL image 197371.

The Government Printing Office on William Street was one of the earliest buildings in Brisbane to be lit by electric power.

The first electric light in Brisbane, according to the Brisbane Courier of 7 July 1878, was demonstrated in front of the telegraph fitters’ shop in William Street. It was a small, self-regulating apparatus of German manufacture and was worked by a sixty zinc-carbon cell Bunsen battery. According to the 1878 report, it threw ‘a most brilliant light for a considerable distance’. This first electric light was to be used at Parker Island, near Lytton and the mouth of the Brisbane River, to identify ships at night approaching the torpedo defences which were then in place on the river.

Members of the Brisbane public saw their next demonstration of electric power on 19 December 1882. Using power from a generator in the JW Sutton & Co. foundry in Adelaide Street, bright arc lights were placed at eight points along Queen Street, between Eagle Street and the Victoria Bridge. JW Sutton & Co. had first used electric power to light their offices in Adelaide Street two weeks earlier.

In a similar fashion, the needs of the workplace led to the introduction of electric light into the Government Printing Office on William Street a year later. The contract, to install and put on trial an electric lighting system, was won by Alfred Shaw & Co. Power was supplied by an 8.5 hp generator coupled to the steam-engine used for driving the printing machines.  The lighting consisted of 50 Edison type incandescent lamps which lit the staircase, publishing and composing rooms.

By 1886 a comprehensive system of 400 lights was operational in the building, run from a two storey engine room with two 40hp steam engines and a dynamo, installed at an approximate cost of £10,000. That same year Edward Barton was appointed as government electrician to complete the installation of electric light to the newly completed Parliament House at the end of George Street. Using the engine room in the Government Printing, office electricity was supplied, via ‘Edison Street Tubes’ run under William Street, to Parliament House. It is believed this was the first legislative building in the British Empire to experience electric lighting. The tubes were considered the first underground electric cables in the Southern Hemisphere.

Barton resigned as government electrician in 1888, although he was retained as a consultant and saw the completion of the electrification of Parliament House in 1892.  In 1887 Barton went into partnership with CF White, as Barton White & Co., the first company in Brisbane to start public supply of electricity. The company’s first customer was the General Post Office. Next came the City Electric Light (CEL), formed by Barton in 1904. This company commenced construction of a powerhouse in William Street in 1910. CEL was one of the predecessors of SEQEB and Energex.

Additional Reading

Queensland Energy Exhibition Centre


UQ School of Information Technology and Electrical Engineering


Australian Dictionary of Biography entry for Edward Barton


Royal Historical Society of Queensland podcast on the Edison tubes of William Street, Brisbane

Additional Images