Friday, July 07, 2017

Canadian innovations that changed the world

Having just experienced the combined hysteria and ennui of Canada 150, Canada's uneven celebration of 150 years since confederation, I thought I would dip into a book called Ingenious: How Canadian Innovators Made the World Smarter, Smaller, Kinder, Safer, Healthier, Wealthier and Happier, a book with pretentions almost as bloated as its title.
The preamble to the book makes clear that it lists Canadian innovations, not necessarily inventions. "Innovation" means a change in the nature or fashion of something to make it more useful to more people; "invention", on the other hand, is the act of discovering or finding out, either accidentally or as  a result of search and effort. It also makes clear that the list will almost certainly be controversial and lead to "lively debate".
Anyway, although many of the items listed are well-known Canadian achievements (like the telephone, standard time, insulin, Trivial Pursuits, ice hockey, basketball, poutine, etc), or obscure things I had never even heard of (the flexi-coil air seeder, anyone?), and some were such vague or general concepts that it is hard to attribute them to Canadians or to any particular person or nationality (e.g. canoes, snowshoes, potlatch, etc), some items were nevertheless pretty interesting and eye-opening. For example, did you know that:
  • The electric light bulb was actually invented by Toronto medical student Henry Woodward and hotelkeeper Matthew Evans in 1874 (they did patent the invention, but they couldn't obtain financing to market it, and ended up selling the patent license to none other than Thomas Edison, who refined their design and has taken all the credit for it ever since).
  • Theodore Witte of Chillwack, British Columbia, invented the caulking gun in 1894 after watching a local baker decorating a cake.
  • The radioactive chemical element radon, as well as the process of "atomic recoil" or radioactive decay, were both discovered by Canada's first female nuclear physicist Harriet Brooks in 1901 at McGill University, Montreal (where she worked with Ernest Rutherford, the father of nuclear physics), and not by Marie Curie as I had always thought.
  • The idea of the dump truck was first thought up and manufactured by Robert Mawhinney from Saint John, New Brunswick, back in 1920.
  • Geologist John Tuzo Wilson of the University of Toronto is credited with first describing the theory of plate tectonics in 1962, something I thought had been figured out a couple of centuries earlier.
  • In 1967, Canadian physicist Richard Taylor (along with a couple of American colleagues at Stanford University who shared his Nobel Prize) was the first to physically demonstrate the existence of fundamental particles called quarks, which make up the protons and neutrons in atoms, and which had only ben theoretically predicted before then.
  • Mike Lazaridis' BlackBerry (not the iPhone, and not some basic model Samsung) became, in 1997, the first digital wireless communications device, capable of exchange text messages over a secure network and syncing remotely with email accounts, as well as making good old-fashioned phone calls.
  • The ship's propeller was apparently invented by the gloriously-named Captain John Patch one day in 1833, thus bringing the age of sail to a close almost overnight, but Nova Scotia at the time had no legal mechanism for registering patents so that Captain Patch's name is all but lost to history.
  • The modern odometer was invented in 1854 by Samuel McKeen, also of Nova Scotia, although at that time it was used on horse-drawn carriages.
  • Henry Taylor of Stanstead, Quebec, built what may have been the first ever horseless carriage - also known as a "steam buggy" or "car" - in 1868 (although the French, Brits, and Germans may disagree), but then, after showing it off at various local fairs for a few years, he grew bored with his invention and dismantled it, leaving the field open to names like Benz, Daimler, Ford, etc.
  • Reginald Fessenden, a little-known inventor from East Bolton, Quebec, apparently invented both radio (in 1900, possibly before Marconi) and television (in 1929, just after John Logie Baird, but completely independently).
  • Torontonian Norman Breakey, who invented the paint roller in 1939, is another example of a Canadian inventor who failed to patent (and profit from) an idea that later went on to sell hugely,thereby sinking into historical obscurity.
  • The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the fledgeling United Nations back in 1948, was written by Canadian John Humphrey in his capacity as first director of the United Nations' division of human rights at the time (not an invention as such, but certainly a worthy inovation).
  • Winnipegger Harry Wasylyk developed the plastic garbage bag (later sold under the tradename Glad Bags and other brands), which have made garbage day slightly less unpleasant for millions, but which now clog landfills the world over.
  • The Blue Box system of municipal curb-side recycling pick-ups was the brainchild of Kitchener, Ontario's Nyle Ludolph, and from Kitchener it went on to spread across Canada and the rest of North America, and throughout most of the world.
  • It never occurred to me that road lines were an invention attributable to one individual, but apparently the world's very first dividing lines on roads were painted on a road near the Ontario-Quebec border in 1930, and were an innovation of one John Miller, an engineer with the Ontario department of transport.
  • Peanut butter was invented, not by American botanist George Washington Carver (as many seem to believe) but by a chemist from Quebec called Marcellus Gilmore Edson in 1884, and he has the patent to prove it.
  • Another surprise is that the world's first oil well was dug by James Miller Williams right here in southwestern Ontario in 1857.
  • The heart pacemaker is one of a whole host of biomedical engineering breakthroughs (including the electron microscope, molecular spectroscopy, telesurgery, etc) attributed to Canadians, this one invented by the Toronto physician Wilfred Bigelow.
  • Instant mashed potatoes were first developed by Edward Asselbergs, a chemist at Agriculture Canada in Ottawa in 1960.
  • IMAX films, bigger, clearer and steadier than traditional films, were first developed by a goup of five Toronto filmmakers in 1971.
  • The ubiquitous hookless fastener now known as the zipper was invented in 1913 by Swedish-born Canadian Gideon Sundback, who also created a machine to manufacture the fasteners in St. Catherine's, Ontario.
  • The humble, and highly practical, egg carton was invented by Joseph Coyle in 1911 in Smithers, British Columbia.
  • The world's first functional internet search engine (yes, before Google, Yahoo, even Altavista) was called Archie, and was developed in 1990 by three students at Montreal's McGill University.
  • And, finally, who knew that the synthesizer traced its roots back to Canadian physicist Hugh Le Caine, whose "electronic sackbut" of 1937 was the first electronic music synthesizer.
So, this is a book aimed at stroking the fragile egos of Canadians. It tries to give the impression that Canadians are a uniquely resourceful and inventive bunch, and often that it is the land itself that causes this in some way, but I'm sure that the same book written in Italy or Germany or Japan would be just as impressive and twice as thick.
It tells many poignant stories of Canadian creativity overwhelmed by rapacious European and American commercialism, although I have a suspicion that many of the important advances listed here that became overshadowed by other, better-known discoveries elsewhere, may not have been exactly comparable, or maybe were independently developed after the better-known gadget - yes, history is written by the victors, but I have to assume that there is probably a good reason why the world does not know names like Reginald Fessenden and Henry Woodward.
Maybe this is just Canadian excessive modesty, another trait we are known for, but it's probably not a bad thing to be wary of tub-thumping and self-congratulation. Ingenious is an interesting read, nevertheless.

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