Gotta Know 'Em, Eh? - Inventions and Inventors

  1. telephone: If you did a survey asking people around the world to name a famous invention, the most frequent response would very likely be the telephone. Of course this communication device was invented in Canada, specifically in Brantford, Ontario, by Alexander Graham Bell (1847—1922), who made his home in Baddeck, N.S., on Cape Breton Island. Bell's name survives in that of Canada's currently largest corporation, BCE. He wrote his own modest epitaph, which even ends on a self-deprecating note: "Inventor — Teacher — Died a Citizen of the U.S.A."
  2. electric lightbulb: In cartoons, the image of a lit electric lightbulb above a person's head is the very symbol of an original idea. In this way, cartooning professionals regularly pay homage to Canadian creativity and inventiveness, for this revolutionary lighting fixture was invented by Henry Woodward, a student at the University of Toronto medical school, and a gentleman named Mathew Evans. Accounts from a demonstration in 1873 describe it as "consisting of a water gauge glass with a piece of carbon filament filed and drilled at each end for the electrodes, and hermetically sealed at both ends." Woodward and Evans sold the patent to T.A. Edison, an American industrialist and marketing wizard.
  3. radio broadcasting of music and voice: In 1906, there wasn't much on the radio worth listening to — just the dots and dashes of Morse code. That all changed that year on Christmas Eve, when wireless telegraph operators in the North Atlantic were astonished to hear the dulcet Canadian voice of Reginald Aubrey Fessenden (1866—1932) singing Christmas carols through their equipment. A graduate of Bishop's University, Fessenden and his wife, Helen Trott, endowed the Fessenden-Trott Awards for Canadian university students. The couple's son wrote Fessenden's epitaph: "By his genius distant lands converse and men sail unafraid upon the deep."
  4. kerosene: Before electricity became widespread at the end of the 19th century, people lit their homes with oil lamps. The light from burning animal or vegetable oil wasn't all that great, so Abraham Gesner (1797—1864) caused a sensation in Charlottetown in 1846 when he demonstrated the high-quality bright light of a new mineral product. Gesner has been called "the father of night life" for introducing practical and safe artificial illumination. Nova Scotia-born Gesner had been Provincial Geologist of New Brunswick — the first government geologist to be appointed in any British colony — and he was able to extract kerosene from petroleum, providing the first major use for that commodity, and profoundly changing the world's economic system in the process. This included saving the whales as a side benefit. At his grave in Halifax, Imperial Oil pays tribute to Gesner for giving "the world a better light."
  5. polymethylmethacrylate: What's that? Better known by its trade name, PlexiglasŪ, the clear plastic was invented by William Chalmers in 1930 while he was a graduate student in chemistry at McGill University. By polymerizing methacrylic ethyl ester and methacrylic nitrile, he got a thermoplastic resin that was transparent — the first such plastic produced. After being granted a patent for the product in 1931, Chalmers sold it to Imperial Chemical Industries. The quiet confidence we have that this glass substitute won't shatter like glass is a confidence in Canadian engineering talent.
  6. basketball: The popular sport was the invention of one man, the Canadian James Naismith (1861—1939). After graduating from McGill in 1890, he became physical director of the International YMCA Training School in Springfield, Massachusetts. He single-handedly came up with the idea for an indoor game that football and lacrosse players could play during the winter. The first match was played on December 21, 1891. Modestly refusing suggestions that it be called "Naismith ball", he named the new sport "basket ball". In 1936 in Berlin, the proud brainfather witnessed the debut of his brainchild as an official Olympic event.
  7. universal standard time: It used to be that every town set its own time of day, based on noon being when the sun was directly overhead. This became confusing when faster means of transportation, such as railways, were bringing communities closer together, and scheduling got very complicated. It took a Canadian, Sandford Fleming (1827—1915), to devise the international system of time zones that people throughout the whole world today take for granted. The former chief engineer in construction of the Intercolonial Railway, Fleming first presented his brilliantly simple idea to the Canadian Institute for the Advancement of Scientific Knowledge in 1879, and got all North American railways to accept it in 1883. In 1884, 25 countries adopted it at a conference in Washington, D.C. Of the world's 24 time zones, Canada has five and a half.
  8. cardiac pacemaker: Millions of people have enjoyed longer lives because of this Canadian invention by John Hopps (1919—1998). A graduate of the University of Manitoba, Hopps was working with surgeons at the National Research Council in Ottawa when he made the important discovery that an electrical stimulus could restart the heart or regulate the beat rate, without harming the heart muscle. In 1950, Hopps developed the first pacemaker, which in those pre-transistor days was too large to be implantable. From 1984, he was not only the inventor of the pacemaker, he was also a client.
  9. Java: Any user of the World Wide Web has some familiarity with Java applets. These are written in a programming language that was the invention of Canadian James Gosling (1956—), a graduate of the University of Calgary. Java allows people to write a program once that will run the same way on many different kinds of computer systems, via the Java virtual machine. Sun Microsystems says: "Since its introduction in May 1995, the [Canadian-invented] Java platform has been adopted more quickly across the industry than any other new technology in computing history."
  10. Trivial PursuitŪ: Since anyone visiting this website is likely a trivia buff, we just had to include the best-selling trivia board game of all time, which was conceived in Montreal on December 15, 1979, by Chris Haney and Scott Abbott (both 1949—), who worked at The Montreal Gazette and Canadian Press. Their invention has entertained millions of people with versions in 19 different languages. Typical Canadian Academic Quiz Leaguers are thankful to Messrs. Haney and Abbott for providing us with a means of empowerment in front of our friends and family.

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