Sir Adam Beck (1857-1925)
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By J.V. Morris, P.Eng.

He specialized in public service to human settlement and helped the less advantaged.

Beck’s contribution to engineering was based on practical and business training and a lifelong dedication to the public good. His work included organization of the City of London’s water supply in 1907 from artesian wells; development of manufacturing/industry; construction of the Tuberculosis Sanatorium in Byron, Ontario; and efforts to improve transportation through electrification of railways and formation of “Hydro Radials.” His greatest accomplishment was the creation of the publicly owned electric generation and supply company known as “the Hydro” (now Hydro One) in 1906. Under his chairmanship, the number of Ontario municipalities served grew from 10 in 1910 to 252 by 1919. Apart from being repeatedly elected as Mayor of London and to the provincial government, he received many honours, including an honorary degree of Doctor of Laws from the University of Western Ontario, as well as a knighthood.


Adam Beck was born in Baden, Canada West, on June 20, 1857, the third son in a family of six children to Jacob and Charlotte (Hespeler) Beck. Jacob’s father, Frederick, a Lutheran, had emigrated from Baden, Germany (1829) to Schenectady and Buffalo, New York, and after a year or two moved to Doon in Upper Canada, a “Pennsylvania Dutch” settlement three miles west of Galt.

The Becks had been millers for generations and were familiar with water power. Jacob was employed in a locomotive works in Schenectady and followed his family to Canada when he was 18 or 19 years of age. In his early 20s, he started a foundry near Preston, which was later moved to a site near Berlin (Kitchener), becoming the centre of a new community that he called Baden. He dammed the river Nith to provide water power for his foundry and grist mill.

Jacob Beck, at the age of 63, went bankrupt during an economic downturn in 1879 and had to sell out. He moved to Detroit, where he set up and prospered in the grain and cereal business. Young Adam was influenced by a father characterized as “alert, daring and energetic, so charged with optimism that adversity could not keep him down,” and a mother who was kindly, busy and a leader in community activities.


In the 19th century, Ontario was rich in material resources and growing rapidly. Its mills, foundries, factories and steam railways were dependent on wood for fuel, which had to be replaced with coal imported from Pennsylvania. This major drain on resources stimulated the development of water power, which was initially restricted by an inability to transmit electricity over great distances. This changed in the 1890s, and private companies aggressively promoted power generation and transmission. There developed a municipal and public desire to control this vital utility from a perception that the private sector was favouring the U.S. rather than the Canadian industry, private interests as opposed to the public good, large centres at the expense of smaller municipalities and the agricultural community. Politicians were torn by these conflicting interests in an economy with periodic booms and recessions (Sturgis 6).

Education and Training

Adam Beck’s early schooling in a two-room, red-brick public school near Baden is described by W.R. Plewman (15). His father put him to work in his foundry at the age of 10 during the holidays, where he “sweated” from 7 a.m. until 6 p.m. as a molder and machine shop apprentice. He quickly developed mechanical skills and by 17 he had already built a small engine (Sturgis 5). In his teens, he first attended Dr. Tassie’s boarding school for boys in Galt, then Rockwood Academy, was confirmed in the Lutheran Church and enjoyed horseback riding, baseball and boating. He added English to his native German and was apparently independent, rather than “sociable” (Plewman 15).

At the age of 22, when his father moved to Detroit, he took a clerk’s job in Toronto with a brass foundry and, later, a cigar factory for a short time. Then, with fortitude and initiative, Adam Beck, his brother William and cousin William Hespeler formed a cigar box manufacturing business in Galt, which, due to their prodigious energy, expanded to London, Montreal and Toronto. Adam stayed in London, and working 14 to 18 hours per day for 10 or 12 years, attained a comfortable financial position. He became more active in athletics, socialized more and entered politics (Plewman 22). When he was 41, he married Lillian Ottaway, 20 years his junior, who shared his love of horses, society and community work. They were devoted partners throughout his stormy career. They had one daughter, Marion.

Beck and Engineering

Although Beck had no formal engineering training, his environment and early life were filled with exposure to civil, mechanical and electrical engineering principles and applications. With his desire to help the less advantaged, his drive and his determination, he contributed a great deal to engineering. He recognized the importance of politics to achieve his objectives. After an unsuccessful attempt as a Conservative in the 1898 provincial election, he won the mayoralty race in London in 1902. He achieved reform at Victoria Hospital to help the poor and refused to extend the lease of the London and Port Stanley Railway to a private company, reflecting his early desire for public ownership of utilities (Sturgis 8).

Beck was elected as a Conservative to the provincial government (Liberal majority) in 1902, and again in 1905 with a Conservative victory, continuing until he was defeated in 1919, when he ran as an independent. He rejoined the Conservatives and was re-elected in 1923.

Aside from major contributions in the areas of health and transportation, which will be discussed further below, his accomplishments included:

  • manufacturing/industry–personal success and improvement of the infrastructure, which helped move Ontario into a broad-based economy;
  • City of London water supply–In 1907, he organized the city’s water supply from the underground artesian wells within the city limits (Sturgis 27);
  • University of Western Ontario–Helped convince the government to recognize Western as a degree-granting institution. In 1916, the university thanked him by granting him an honorary degree of Doctor of Laws (Sturgis 27);
  • the Hydro–Adam Beck’s greatest contribution to his community, local and national, was the creation of the publicly owned electric generation and supply company known as “the Hydro” (now Hydro One).

In 1910, Beck’s daughter was found to be infected with tuberculosis, but fortunately, recovered after treatment in Europe. In 1912, it was estimated that there were at least 10,000 cases in Ontario, with at least 2000 deaths a year, mainly in the working class, who could not afford proper treatment. Adam Beck organized the London Health Association, which built a spacious tuberculosis sanatorium in Byron, eventually equipped to handle over 500 patients. He added a nurses’ residence in 1918 and led the pressure to have the government increase and improve facilities across Ontario. He was elected president of the Canadian Association for the Prevention of Tuberculosis. In the 1919 election, he declared himself in favour of old-age pensions and mother’s allowance.

Further, Beck made significant contributions in the area of transportation. Spurred by his success in creating public ownership of Hydro, Beck fought strenuously for public ownership and electrification of railways. The national railways showed no real interest, as their profits came from long-distance haulage where steam was more economical. Beck wished to strengthen inter-urban and rural services with networks of electrified trains or “Hydro Radials.” With his usual energy, he built public support from 1906 to 1914, but the government was reluctant to commit the huge sums required. Tight times following 1918, and the growing popularity of the automobile, with the associated costs of highway development, killed the dream. Refusing to accept defeat, Beck antagonized many with his stubbornness and was still attacking the government on this issue during his final illness.

American industry in the Niagara region had received cheap electric power since the 1890s, as three different companies had acquired rights to build generating plants at Niagara Falls and export electricity to the U.S.A. (Sturgis 11). Only the Electrical Development Company was Canadian-owned, and it planned to build a transmission line to Toronto to supply its subsidiaries, which controlled street railways and electric lighting. Beck, other industrialists and communities outside Toronto were afraid that they would not share in the cheap power required to expand and compete. From 1903, Beck organized and attended meetings, and generally promoted and won the support of the public and media. The Liberal government passed an act to appoint a commission to look into the question of public power: Beck was appointed a commissioner. The new Conservative government in 1905 also appointed Beck chairman of a Hydro-Electric Commission of Inquiry. Both groups recommended municipal or governmental distribution of power, and in May 1906, the Hydro Electric Power Commission in Ontario (“the Hydro”) was established, with Beck as chairman. Despite Premier Whitney’s concerns about antagonizing the private sector, Beck’s strenuous efforts succeeded in promoting the Hydro and himself as a champion of the people. In 1908, the Hydro signed contracts with the American-owned Ontario Power Company to supply power from Niagara, and with McGuigan Construction to build the transmission lines out of Niagara Falls.

On October 11, 1910, the hydro power was switched on at a ceremony in Berlin (Kitchener). Sir James Whitney, the premier, graciously took Beck’s hand to activate the switch, acknowledging the work of the popular “human dynamo” (Sturgis 20). Beck continued to push expansion with a 1911 bill to allow electricity to be taken to rural areas, with conditions. The number of municipalities served by the Hydro grew from 10 in 1910 to 252 by 1919. Costs were reduced for the public and small industry. The Hydro network was extended throughout Ontario and a generating plant on the Ottawa River was expropriated to serve Cornwall. Between 1916 and 1921, the Hydro built the largest water power development in the world at Queenston Heights on the Niagara River, eventually generating 375,000 kilowatts at a cost of about $40 million (twice the original estimate). By 1922, 20 dams, 30 hydraulic generating stations and over 60 electrical distribution plants were purchased (Sturgis 31).

When Sir Adam Beck (“The Hydro Knight”) died in August 1925, the streets were lined with people eight to 10 deep, demonstrating their respect. Ontario’s electricity was turned off as it had been at his wife’s death, in tribute to Beck’s devotion to the Hydro cause (Sturgis 61).

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