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History of Canadian Invention

Dr. A. J. Carty
President, National Research Council

Canadian Science Writers Association Annual Meeting
IRDC, Ottawa, Ontario

28 May 1999


Thank you..., and good morning everyone.

I am very pleased to be here with you this morning and to have this opportunity to speak at the Canadian Science Writers Association Annual Meeting. I wish you every success in all of your activities over the next two days.

I have been asked to speak today about the history of Canadian invention. Now, some Canadians might think that would make for a very short speech. After all, what have we humble Canadians invented that is of any real significance in today's world? The answer, of course, is that we have invented a great deal.

There is an element of truth to the popular image of Canadians as "hewers of wood and drawers of water" - our nation and our economy have truly been built around the strength of our natural resources. But we are also a nation of inventors.

Given the size of our population and the relative youth of our nation, Canada has made some tremendous contributions to the worlds of science, engineering and medicine, to transportation and agriculture, and to many other walks of life. Some of these have changed the course of human development.

One measure of our creativity is the number of Nobel Laureates Canada has produced in the field of science - a number that is far out of proportion to our population. Since Sir Ernest Rutherford won the Nobel Prize in 1908 for his pioneering work on radioactivity, more than a dozen Canadians have been honoured, including four this decade. They include Frederick Banting, Gerhard Herzberg, Saul Bellow, John Polanyi and, most recently, Bertram Brockhouse, for his work in determining how atoms behave in solids.

Entire books have been written about Canadian inventions, and I will refer to some of them later in my remarks. Well over one million patents have been registered in Canada. In fact, the one millionth Canadian patent was delivered in 1976, to James Guillet, a Toronto chemistry professor, and Dr. Harvey Troth, a British researcher, for their discovery of a new plastic that turns to dust when continually exposed to sunlight.

Now, I have good news for you this morning: I'm not going to talk about each and every one of those Canadian inventions. I'm not even going to talk about things chronologically. Rather than provide a history lesson, what I would like to do is provide some examples of famous and not-so-famous Canadian inventions, those that we exploited and those that got away. I also want to look quickly at some exciting research that is now under way, and to talk about the need to continue to invest in ideas.

So, let's begin by looking at a couple of what I would call the "big ones" in terms of Canadian inventions.

Where else to start but the telephone - an invention that happens to be claimed by both Canada and the United States.

Pick up an American encyclopaedia and you're likely to find a reference to Alexander Graham Bell, the "American" inventor. But Bell was actually born in Scotland, emigrated to Canada as a young man to escape a tuberculosis epidemic, and did much of his most creative work in Brantford, Ontario, where he invented the telephone in 1876. His novel approach used an undulating current to mimic variations in air density during human speech.

The Americans claim Alexander Graham Bell, I suppose, because he developed his theory at least in part while teaching at a school for the deaf in Boston, and later lived in Washington for some time. Even when he was living and working in the U.S., however, Bell would spend his summers in Canada, initially in Brantford and later at Baddeck, Nova Scotia.

The issue of whether Bell was a Canadian or an American inventor may never be resolved - at least until the U.S. sees the error of its position. I believe I can speak on behalf of all Canadians when I say that we are not about to surrender our claim to Bell's genius or his many inventions.

Nor should we relinquish our claim to another telecommunications blockbuster - radio. In his book Inventing Canada: One Hundred Years of Innovation, Ottawa inventor and author Roy Mayer writes that Canadian Reginald Fessenden, and not Guglielmo Marconi, was the real "Father of Radio." While Marconi sent a wireless telegraph signal one-way across the Atlantic in 1895, Fessenden was the first to achieve two-way voice transmission by radio. He also made the first public broadcast of music and voice on Christmas Eve in 1906.

Mayer calls Fessenden "Canada's great forgotten inventor." Along with dozens of other researchers and inventors, he made an important contribution to the World War I effort. Perhaps Fessenden's greatest invention was television, which he patented in 1927, although an American later tried to lay claim to this technology that has so changed our lives. When he died in 1932, Reginald Fessenden had 500 patents to his name.

Some Canadian inventions stand as living proof of the adage that "necessity is the mother of invention." Does it come as any surprise, for example, that two entrepreneurial types in Prince Edward Island - William Allin and William Stiggins - are credited with inventing an automatic potato digger in 1868? Or that Canada produced the first self-propelled combine? Or the first snowblower?

The snowmobile, another of Canada's best-known inventions, also falls into this category. It is also an example of a discovery that led to the creation of a Canadian-owned international manufacturing conglomerate - the Bombardier company.

Armand Bombardier was a 15-year-old boy in 1922 when he and his brother extracted the motor from an old Ford, somehow attached it to a propeller and four runners from a horse-drawn sleigh, and took the first motorized zip across the ice and snow of Quebec.

Four years later, Armand opened Garage Bombardier in his hometown of Valcourt, and quickly became known far and wide as a mechanical genius with all types of equipment and machinery.

Even after he became a successful businessman, the idea of a machine that could travel over snow continued to intrigue Bombardier. There is a real human element to this story - Roy Mayer tells us that the impetus that finally drove Armand Bombardier to success was the death in 1935 of his two-year-old son of appendicitis and peritonitis. The family could not get the boy to the nearest hospital, 50 kilometres away, because the roads were snowed in. The following year, compelled in part by his determination to prevent similar tragedies in the future, Armand successfully built a seven-passenger snow vehicle.

It was another 23 years before Bombardier perfected a machine designed to carry a single traveller. The machine was called the Ski-Dog, but a typographical error in the literature changed the name to Ski-Doo. Although numerous manufacturers have entered the business with dozens of models over the past 50 years, to many people the term "ski-doo" continues to be synonymous with snowmobile.

In northern countries world-wide, snowmobiles are an enormous business. And of course, as you all know, Bombardier Incorporated is now a world-leading company that designs and manufactures aerospace and transportation equipment and consumer products.

Some other Canadian inventions in the field of transportation are also in use around the world. In 1854, Samuel McKeen of Nova Scotia designed an early version of the odometer, a contraption that was attached to the side of a carriage to strike off the miles with the turning of the wheels. Around the same time, another Nova Scotian, John Patch, was testing the marine propeller, which amazed people for its ability to literally leave other boats in its wake. The story goes that Mr. Patch was talked out of registering a patent in the United States, only to learn several years later that his idea had been put into practice in England. Not the last time that we will see that Canada has failed to get the full pay-back on its creativity.

Canadians are also credited with inventing the bush plane and, later, the first true short take-off and landing aircraft - the famous deHavilland Beaver. Canadian technology is now playing a crucial role in a new travel frontier - space. The Canadarm, which I am sure you are all familiar with, was developed by an industry team in Canada, initially under the direction of the organization I head up - the National Research Council and under the Canadian Space Agency when it was a spin off from NRC in the early 80's. The Canadarm and the space vision system which guides it (also invented and developed at NRC) will be an important tool for building the International Space Station.

When doing historical research on inventions, you'll find that the same names keep popping up. The truly great inventors are those, like Bell, Fessenden and George Klein, who have many discoveries to their name.

Another legendary Canadian inventor was Thomas Ahearn of Ottawa. He brought the first electric street cars to this city in the early 1890s and went on to patent numerous other inventions, including the electric oven, an electric heater and sound machinery. Ottawa Electric Railway, the company formed by Ahearn and a business associate, is now OC Transpo, whose services some of you may have used to get here this morning. Ahearn also started the company that is now known as Ottawa Hydro.

Abraham Gesner of Halifax was also a leading Canadian inventor in the last century. He developed kerosene oil in the mid-1800s and set up a plant to manufacture it on Long Island. In no time, kerosene was the standard lighting fuel in North American homes. Gesner also patented technology for distilling bituminous material, which contributed to the development of the modern petroleum industry. His numerous other inventions included an early and very effective wood preservative and a process for asphalt paving.

Canadian researchers and inventors have made significant contributions to the field of medicine. Sir Frederick Banting and Charles Best were key players in a research team that in 1921 made one of the major medical discoveries of this century - insulin. While 75 years later Canadians continue to debate the roles of others on the research team, one thing is clear: insulin has been a lifesaving therapy for thousands upon thousands sufferers of diabetes.

Canadians are probably less aware that one of their countrymen invented the first heart pacemaker. John Hopps was born in Winnipeg, trained as an electrical engineer at the University of Manitoba and joined the National Research Council in 1941, at 21 years of age. In 1949 he was seconded from the NRC to the University of Toronto to conduct research on hypothermia. While using radio-frequency heating to restore body temperature, he made an unexpected discovery: if a heart stopped beating due to cooling, it could be started again by artificial stimulation using mechanical or electric means.

In 1950, Hopps returned to the NRC and built the first pacemaker - a device that initially was far too large to be implanted in humans. Over the next few years the technology was dramatically reduced in size and improved operationally, and the first pacemaker was implanted in a human body in 1958. Twenty-seven years later, Dr. Hopps himself was fitted with a pacemaker to regulate his heartbeat. Hopps died only a few months ago just before his invention was identified by Canadians in a survey as the Canadian engineering invention of the century. It is a real Canadian success story because a Canadian company Mitel is now the world's largest manufacturer of the innards of the pacemaker. As an NRC employee, I'm a proud user of this NRC invention.

There are many other examples of Canadian medical inventions. Around the same time as Dr. Hopps created the pacemaker, another team of Canadian researchers was developing cobalt 60 radiation therapy for cancer treatment. In 1968, a student in Montreal, one Phillip Gold, discovered the carcino embryonic antigen test, which is now commonly used to detect cancer. Also in the 1960s, Canadian researchers developed a bone marrow donor screening test, which has paved the way for donor registries that are now helping save lives across Canada.

One of our more recent medical breakthroughs is a series of vaccines to combat the different strains of bacteria that cause infant meningitis. A team of experts at the National Research Council's Institute for Biological Sciences developed the vaccines, some of which have completed clinical trials in Africa, the UK and the United States. One of these will enter the UK market later this year, but it will be a few more years before the new vaccines are widely available. The early results of laboratory and clinical trials have been very encouraging.

Sometimes an invention can be tied directly to a catastrophic event. After the Titanic sank in 1912, Reginald Fessenden, who as I mentioned earlier invented radio and television, developed radio sonar to prevent similar accidents in the future.

Not surprisingly, one of the most catastrophic events of this century - the Second World War - triggered a huge wave of government and industry spending on research and innovation. Many of the technologies developed specifically to support the war effort were later extended to the civilian world and are now part of our every day lives.

For example, Canadian research before and during the war years helped significantly in such technological breakthroughs as radar and air navigation. In 1940, Wilbur Franks and several of his colleagues at the University of Toronto invented the world's first anti-gravity suit, which allowed pilots to carry out high-speed manoeuvres without losing consciousness.

The National Research Council was deeply involved in many of these developments. The Canadian Institute of Strategic Studies has published an account of Canadian science in World War II entitled No Day Long Enough. It's a collection of essays, many of them by researchers directly involved in the war effort, and I encourage you to pick up a copy if you are interested in this topic. You might be surprised to learn about some of the technologies that came out of Canadian laboratories during this period.

One result of war-time research was a Canadian nuclear capability. In 1942, a joint British-Canadian laboratory was set up in Montreal under the administration of the National Research Council to design a nuclear reactor. There is a fascinating story about how heavy water got to Canada from Scandinavia, France and the UK and how Sir John Cockcroft came to Canada from Cambridge. In 1944, approval was given to proceed with the construction of the Zero Energy Experimental Pile, or ZEEP, reactor at Chalk River, Ontario.

The following year, as the war in Europe was coming to an end, ZEEP successfully achieved the first self-sustained nuclear reaction outside the United States. ZEEP launched Canada to the forefront of nuclear energy research and enabled scientists to discover new information that later led to the development of the heavy water moderated CANDU power reactor.

Journalist David Lees, writing in Toronto Life magazine a decade ago, noted that:

"... when the Association of Consulting Engineers of Canada cited the top ten Canadian accomplishments, CANDU made the list, along with the St. Lawrence Seaway, the Bombardier snowmobile and the Alouette satellite."

While some Canadian inventions do not carry quite the importance of nuclear energy, they do have their place in the every day world. Take, for example, the paint roller, invented by Norman Breakey of Toronto in 1940. It hasn't saved lives or opened new frontiers of travel or communication - but what would life be like without it?

The list of Canadian inventions goes on and on. Three Canadians - Grahame Ferguson, Roman Kroiter and Robert Kerr - invented the IMAX motion pictures for the Canadian pavilion at Expo 1970. IMAX was in the news earlier this week as an agreement to build a number of theatres in the UK has been signed

The technology to transmit photographs by wireless was developed in 1922 by the man who went on to become a World War II spymaster, Sir William Stephenson. Canadians are also credited with inventing canola oil, the walkie talkie, 3-D vision technology, the electronic flight simulator, the geostationary communications satellite, and pablum, to name but a few.

The list of Canadian inventions and innovations goes on and on. I'm just throwing up a few more on the screen, but we can't possibly cover them all.

While Canadians are an inventive people, many have argued that we are somewhat less proficient at getting our discoveries to market. In the introduction to their 1994 book, The New Innovators, Roger Voyer and Patti Ryan wrote:

"... many Canadian ideas, possibly too many, have been commercialized by others, meaning that the major benefits did not accrue to Canada."

In other words, we end up buying back the products of these discoveries instead of capitalizing on them ourselves.

A good example is the case of Henry Woodward of Toronto, who along with Matthew Evans patented the light bulb in 1875. Unfortunately, the two entrepreneurs could not raise the financing to commercialize their invention.

An enterprising American by the name of Thomas Edison, who had been working on the same idea, bought the rights to their patent. Capital was not a problem for Edison: he had the backing of a syndicate of industrial interests with $50,000 to invest - a sizeable sum at the time. Edison successfully demonstrated the light bulb in 1879 and, as they say, the rest is history.

The telephone is another prime example. Alexander Graham Bell's invention was patented in the U.S. and developed rapidly by the National Bell Telephone Company. George Brown, editor of the Toronto Globe, bought the Canadian rights for $25 a month but failed to follow through. Dominion Telegraph Company, when offered the Canadian rights, decided to pass.

As the new technology spread south of the border, the Canadian government of the day put a heavy tariff on imported phone equipment, making it impossible for Canadian rights holder Melville Bell to supply equipment to his subscribers at previously agreed prices.

In 1879, the National Bell Telephone Company took over the Canadian rights and created the Bell Telephone Company of Canada. Alexander Graham Bell himself apparently never made any money from the telephone.

Have we learned our lesson about letting inventions get away? Well, I think the jury is still out on this one. In the 1970s, NRC scientists Nestor Burtnyk and Marcelli Wein developed key frame animation (the algorithm for computer animation), which eliminates the need for the artist to draw each and every frame. An animator simply designates a beginning and end point in movement, and computerized logic fills in the intermediate steps.

This technology revolutionized the animation industry worldwide and earned the inventors an Academy Award in 1997. It also led to the development of a multi-million dollar Canadian animation industry. By the mid-1980s, three of the world's five major computer animation companies were Canadian. But today, the three companies - Alias, SoftImage and Vertigo - although still located in Canada, are American-owned.

Canada also lost out on the initial market for the pacemaker, which was commercialized elsewhere. In this case, at least we can say that the Canadian firm Mitel Semiconductor is the world's largest manufacturer of pacemaker components.

There are signs, however, that Canadian entrepreneurship may be on the rise. Voyer and Ryan, authors of The New Innovators, have this to say on the subject:

"New innovators are emerging to capture the growth industries of tomorrow - knowledge-intensive industries such as computers, telecommunications, aerospace, instrumentation, chemicals and pharmaceuticals."

I learned only last night that Entrust Technologies, a Nortel spin-off, now registered as a US company, is the world's largest cryptography (encryption for security of electronic transactions) company.

The path the inventor or innovator has to walk is not easy. Not everyone or even every company is willing to go through what is called here "the dark night of the innovator".

The New Innovators goes on to talk about a new strategy for innovation called "search and develop," under which more and more companies are buying inventions from others and then commercializing them, as opposed to the traditional R&D strategy.

This new approach is something we read about - or in your case, write about - on a regular basis. Especially in this high-tech capital of Canada, we often hear about bright young entrepreneurs who develop a new technology, which is then purchased and commercialized by one of the technology giants in Canada or the U.S.

There's a definite pattern here. Smaller firms tend to be less bureaucratic and more innovative, but often lack the resources to get their inventions to market. By selling the technology and then moving on to the next challenge or idea, these entrepreneurs can stay fresh and become rich very quickly.

There is another trend that shows an increase in Canadian entrepreneurism. The past five years has seen a tremendous increase in knowledge-based spin-offs from big companies like Nortel Networks and Newbridge. We've noticed the same thing in the public sector. More than 50 start-ups or spin-offs have resulted directly from the activities of Canadian Networks of Centres of Excellence. At the National Research Council, we have created 22 new spin-off companies in the past three years alone, as a result of a focussed effort to encourage entrepreneurship and spin-offs as a means to transfer technology .

These new companies are based on some fascinating NRC technological innovations: an MRI machine that can move over a patient to take pictures during an operation; a water jet cutting instrument that can cut even the hardest rocks and metals with water; thin film technology, like the patch on your 20 dollar bill, that can be used for identity cards and other security measures; and 3-D laser scanning technology for a wide variety of applications including the virtual museum - to name a few.

Now, I would be remiss if I did not take the opportunity to say something about NRC today because in the past our organisation has made a phenomenal contribution not only to Canadian inventions but to the fabric of Canadian society. The National Research Council is the federal government's largest R&D agency and is a truly national organization with facilities and offices spread right across the country. Our current Vision is to be a leader in the development of a knowledge-based innovative economy in Canada through science and technology.

We work closely with industry and universities, and have done so throughout our rich 83-year history. If I gave you my speech on NRC that would take another hour! But I want to emphasize that our strength has been our innovativeness, our ability to create new ideas and new technologies. And there is still a lot of fascinating research going on at NRC.

For example, we are helping to pioneer the development of a technique to see critical details of organic molecules deposited on a silicon surface - a discovery that could lead to the next revolution in microelectronics or rather molecular electronics. We can now see things in fine detail, which allows semiconductors to be customized by adding different materials to the surface.

In another project, we are collaborating with Concordia University and The Armstrong Monitoring Corporation to manufacture a silicon chip containing new chemical sensor materials and to use thin film technology to apply this to microchips. These sensors are able to detect various gases or vapours and identify the complex chemical compounds contained in them. The new chemical sensors are suitable for a range of applications - from industrial processes to personal environments.

And we are working on freeing up untapped sources of natural gas that account for 50% of the world's hydrocarbon deposits. This involves fundamental work on clathrate hydrates which trap natural gas in a solid form.

In another example, NRC, Air Canada and GE Aircraft Engines Canada have been working together to develop an "Integrated Diagnostic System" (IDS) - a ground-based, intelligent system, which allows technicians on the ground to monitor aircraft in flight. For Air Canada the benefits of IDS are enormous - on the A320 fleet alone, the ability to predict the probability and severity of problems, allowing better planning of resources, savings in inventory, decreased operational costs and minimised delays not to mention safety - are in the multimillions of dollars.

Those are only a handful of the hundreds of projects now under way at the NRC - not to mention the thousands at other research institutes, universities and in the private sector. And what about the countless unknown inventors working out of their basements and garages.

If the past 100 years have seen us move forward in leaps and bounds, imagine what the 21st century offers.

We are seeing an exponential growth of knowledge fuelled in part by the computer and the transistor or microprocessor. It took from 1 AD to 1950 to double Man's knowledge. It doubled again between 1900 and 1960, and again between 1960 and 1980, and will likely quadruple between 1990 and the millenium.

So, who is to know when that next great Canadian invention will hit the streets, or where it will come from? One thing we do know for certain is that scientific and technological knowledge will drive the global economy in the new century, and that means Canadians need to continue to invest in ideas.

We also need to tell people about our efforts, and particularly our achievements. Almost 15 years ago, the publishing mogul Conrad Black was quoted as saying:

"Probably because of our ancient, self-imposed status as a branch-plant country well back in the baggage train of the Anglo-Americans, we have come to regard achievements, other than by professional athletes and geriatrics, as somehow un-Canadian."

I think it's time to change that - to let the world know about Canadian accomplishments. For things like the light bulb and the automatic potato digger, that may be a job for historians. But surely science writers have a key role to play in telling people about today's inventions and inventors.

In fact, I believe science writers have an incredibly important role to play in modern society. Your job is to inform Canadians about technology breakthroughs that may change their lives, about new medical treatments, about threats to our environment and how science is helping us develop solutions. It's your job to put the technical jargon of scientific research and invention into layman's terms, and to profile what the author Roy Mayer calls "Canadian heroes."

In the introduction to his book, Inventing Canada: One Hundred Years of Innovation, Mayer writes:

"Our innovators have given novelty, variety, and colour to our lives with their great practical gifts, and the world would be an exceedingly boring and grey place without their vitality."

I could not agree more.

I encourage all of you, through your writing, to bring out the variety, colour and vitality of Canadian inventions.

And of course, I invite you to visit and talk to our own scientists and engineers wherever they may be in our institutes across Canada. You will be surprised by the wealth of diversity of the scientific and technological advances that are being made in our organisation.

Thank you, and good luck with your meeting.

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