Building utilities in the South during 1890-1920: the path of Juan Tonkin Thomas

This paper shows the entrepreneurial path followed by Chilean engineer Juan Tonkin Thomas, that led to the foundation of one of the earliest electric power companies in Chile that used hydro power, in 1920. Unlike the literature that has stressed the relevance of major capitalists and engineers from the global North in building utilities in the global south (Bucheli, 2008; Linder, 1994), this research highlighs a more nuanced pattern of north-south influence, by unacknowledging the role played by local engineers and businessmen who significantly intervened in these processes. Juan Tonkin Thomas’ experience reveals how he mixed his businesses with those of major multinational actors through a web of professional and investment relationships in Chile and abroad between businesspeople of the global North and the global South. The paper examines several documentary sources, including the national archive of public administration, the Official Gazette of Chile. The evidence shows that successful entrepreneurial efforts crowned with the creation of Compañía Nacional de Fuerza Eléctrica (CONAFE) in 1920, were the result of a stepwise entrepreneurial transition of Tonkin Thomas in the 1890-1920 period. Tonkin Thomas withdrew a civil servant career to exploit his inventing capacity and develop his entrepreneurial persona both in Chile and abroad. Since then, he developed inventions, businesses, and business networks in different countries, all of which enabled him to accumulate varied intangible assets (such as intellectual property, professional and business experience, business networks, and reputation) that became fundamental for his successful endeavor in the electric power sector in Chile after 1920. Fostered by the development of global trade, greatly controlled by business actors from the global North (such as the Nitrate industry in Chile), Tonkin Thomas’ experience reveals how technical knowledge and business capacities of local engineers from countries of the South, were also important in the development of the electric energy sector and public utilities, and restates the primary role played by actors from the global North.