Eureka Moments

Gary Goodyear, the federal minster for science and technology, recently stopped in Halifax on his travels across Canada promoting “science at work,” a government program designed to turn innovative ideas into economic engines.

“How do we create economic growth and prosperity for our nation through science and technology?” Goodyear asked the gathering of scientists and business leaders. “The answer always seems to come back to innovation.”

He was in the right place to learn about great ideas that have changed the world, created jobs and saved lives. Atlantic Canadians have long been some of the world’s most creative inventors and few people know their history better than Mario Theriault. Theriault, a patent agent in Fredericton for the last 16 years, literally wrote the book on east coast innovation.

“Part of my job is to do patent search. I came across several of them and put them aside. I built up a file of them and one day decided it was worth writing a little book on them,” he explains.

The result was Great Maritime Inventions 1833-1950. He says the east coast has a long and fruitful history of inventing local solutions to solve global problems. He shares a few of his top picks.

“John Patch is a favourite one,” he says. “I think that fellow has not been recognized to his full merit.”

Patch was a fisherman in Yarmouth, N.S. when he invented the boat propeller in 1833. He was given the U.S. patent in 1849 and Theriault notes the modern propeller is surprisingly similar to Patch’s original design.

If you ever wonder about the fairness of confederation and the effect of oil wealth on ‘have’ vs. ‘have-not’ provinces, Theriault points to Abraham Gesner. The Halifax man, who served as New Brunswick’s provincial geologist, started experimenting with tar in Moncton in 1854. “He produced kerosene,” Theriault says. “He is the father of the petroleum industry. If you look at this inventor, look at how many jobs he has created with his invention. All of our cars today would not exist if not for Abraham Gesner.”

Theriault also likes Wallace Turnbull from Saint John. He invented the airplane propeller with variable pitch. Turnbull also built the world’s first wind tunnel, revolutionizing the aviation industry. His contributions earned him a place in the Canadian Aviation Hall of Fame in 1977.

New Brunswick has a particular bent for engineering solutions. James Elliot and Alexander McAvity of Saint John invented the scuba tank in 1839. Benjamin F. Tibbets of Fredericton created the compound steam engine in 1845. A clothes washer with roller wringer was developed by John E. Turnbull in Saint John in 1843. Robert Carr Harris of Dalhousie developed a monstrous-looking snowblower way back in 1870.

And leave it to a New Brunswicker to take a much-hated winter word – flurry – and add two letters to make our mouths water. Ron McLellan was running a McDonald’s franchise in Bathurst in 1998 when he had the brilliant idea of the McFlurry. The dessert rapidly caught on and became a staple of McDonald’s franchises across the world.

Nova Scotians are no slouches either when it comes to delectable treats. Ron Joyce from Tatamagouche combined two of Canada’s favourite things, hockey and coffee, when he partnered with NHLer Tim Horton. Joyce’s business acumen unleashed the caffeine colossus we all love today. It will surprise few to learn that the donut king’s previous job was as a policeman in Hamilton.

Another Nova Scotian invented something even more fundamental to modern life: standard time. Halifax’s Sir Sanford Fleming lived in an age when trains raced across the country and ran into the problem of figuring out what time it was “locally.” If a train leaves Amherst for Toronto at 1 p.m. going 75 kilometres an hour, what time is it in Toronto? Until Fleming, as chief engineer of the Canadian Pacific Railway, invented Standard Time zones in 1869, nobody had a clue. His standardized time is the same Greenwich Mean Time system we use today.

Heck, Nova Scotia can even claim the greatest modern inventor of them all: Thomas Alva Edison, the genius behind the phonograph, the motion picture camera and the very symbol of a great idea – the light bulb. Okay, technically he was born in Ohio, but his father, Samuel Edison, was from Marshalltown, Nova Scotia. That still counts, right?

If Edison gets disputed Nova Scotian status for inventing the movie camera, the province does not have to share the genius behind the digital camera. Willard Boyle of Amherst shared the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2009 for co-creating the first charge-coupled device (a semi-conductor circuit that changes light into electric signals that create a large number of pixels) back in 1969. You can thank him for that adorable photo of your niece taken with a smartphone and posted online – and also for the soul-shaking Hubble Space Telescope photographs of stars being born, and Rover images of the lonesome beauty of the surface of Mars.

It will surprise no one to learn that P.E.I. has taken the lead on agricultural inventions. William Allin and William Stiggins invented a potato digger in 1868. The large machine broke the trail for modern, mechanized harvesting. Abraham Gill the Younger created the hay carrier in 1872, allowing farmers to more easily move hay in their barns. In 1934, Robert Holman of Summerside invented the cultivating and hilling machine. Its basic concept has been in use ever since.

Newfoundland and Labrador lives up to its big-hearted reputation with inventions that greatly reduced the amount of suffering in the world. The First World War gave humanity many terrible advances in self-destruction, including the first use of poison gas to kill soldiers. Dr. Cluny Macpherson of St. John’s created a gas mask made of fabric and metal with an attached breathing tube. The original looks disarmingly like a ghost smoking a cigarette, but it went on to be one of the most important protective devices of the war. A modern version of his invention continues to protect soldiers and civilians today.

In 2001, Rutter Inc. of St. John’s perfected the Voyage Data Recorder, a black box for ocean-going ships. It is the modern equivalent of the captain’s log and records every detail about the ship’s trip. It quickly] became mandatory for all international cargo vessels over 3,000 tons. The VDR’s developers, Byron Dawe, Gary Dinn and Joe Ryan, are all based in St. John’s. Like airplane black boxes, the virtually indestructible VDR can be recovered after an accident to learn what went wrong, and to learn how to avoid such tragedies in the future.

Newfoundland can also claim status as the birthplace of modern rapid communications. The Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi pioneered the wireless telegraph in 1901. Critics said radio waves went in a straight line and did not curve with the earth. Marconi disagreed and devised an experiment to prove it. From atop St. John’s Signal Hill, he proved the doubters wrong by receiving the first transatlantic radio message.

Mario Theriault’s book of east coast inventors ends in 1950, but he sees the region’s continuing spirit of innovation in his patent work every day. His notepad is once more overflowing: he’s writing a sequel to Great Maritime Inventions.

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About Jon Tattrie

Jon Tattrie is a freelance journalist and writer based in Halifax. He's a board member of the Writers' Federation of Nova Scotia and regularly speaks to universities, colleges and schools on journalism and writing. His debut novel, Black Snow, was published by Pottersfield Press in April 2009. His first non-fiction book, The Hermit of Africville, was released in the summer of 2010.

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