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Canada: 150 Years of Innovation

The Great White North has produced some amazing things throughout its history. Here are just a few of them.

Global Influencer

Global Influencer
Global Influencer

Ask anyone about Canadians and they will tell you we are polite, nice, humble, non-confrontational, quiet, caring, and a bunch more adjectives around the word humble. We try not to toot our own horn and usually won’t recognize our own for their accomplishments until they are recognized in the US or Europe.

We are the second largest country in the world (next to Russia) yet have the population (36M) of California. We say ‘eh’ a lot and pronounce ’Z’ as zed. However, Canadians are at the forefront of innovation and change in almost every industry.

Once could say that innovation can be defined by the amount of inventions that have been made or breakthroughs in industry. Canada has had many life-changing inventions, but most of the innovation has come through small improvements to existing infrastructure, systems or products.

Five types of innovation were defined by the economist Joseph Schumpeter in 1911: a new thing; a new process for making a familiar thing; a new market to which to sell; a new source of supply or raw material; and industrial reorganization, e.g., establishing a monopoly. Only the first two of these five types are likely also to be inventions.

In spite of the brain drain to the US, Canada has always been a leader in innovation and one does not have to go far to see the changes Canada has made to the world.

In the world of sports, Canada has been a dominant player, having invented hockey (Montreal, 1875), basketball (Canadian James Naismith,1891) and even America’s favorite pastime: baseball. I bet you thought Abner Doubleday invented baseball in Cooperstown, New York in 1839, but the truth is the first baseball game was in Beachville, Ontario, in 1838 while Doubleday was attending West Point. Heck, we even invented the ‘instant replay’ for sports. It was developed for CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada in 1955.

Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone in Brantford, Ontario but refused to have one in his office because he felt it was an intrusion. He and two partners tried to sell the patent to US-based Western Union (WU) for $100,000 but the CEO of Western Union balked at the deal and called it a toy. Bell Laboratories was the premier research facility of its type, developing a wide range of revolutionary technologies, including radio astronomy, the transistor, the laser, information theory, the operating system Unix, the programming languages C and C++. Eight Nobel Prizes have been awarded for work completed at Bell Laboratories.

Henry Woodward invented the lightbulb – what? Indeed, while a medical student in Canada, he developed the first incandescent lamp and sold the patent to Edison. I won’t tell you Thomas Edison was Canadian but his father grew up in the Atlantic Provinces. The lightbulb has always been the metaphor for innovation.

In 1922 Wallace Rupert Turnbull patented the Variable Pitch Propeller. Considered one of the most important developments in the history of aviation, this mechanism allowed for change in blade pitch to suit flying conditions and airplane weight. The significance of this is that it also revolutionized ship propellers too.

Canada developed the famous CANDU nuclear reactor to generate electricity. There are 42 reactors in place in many countries around the world and are known for their safety record and low-cost-to-produce energy.

We’ve created some common household items too, like the garbage bag, the zipper, the paint roller, the Robertson screw (that uses the square bit), alkaline batteries (1954) and the caulking gun (1894). After you’ve used these tools, sit down and have a bloody Caesar, invented in 1969 by a Canadian.

What would life be like without the AM radio and the Sonar, both invented by Canadian Reginald Fessenden in 1906, or the Snowmobile in 1937 by Bombardier (BBD.A)(BDRBF), now a respected aircraft builder.

How’s your health? Toronto Sick Children’s Hospital owns the patents on Pablum, the leader in child nutrition as a way to prevent and treat rickets in children. The popular infant food went on to improve the health of millions of children around the world, and has led to ideas to help hundreds of millions more. A Canadian was the first Director General of the World Health Organization (WHO), while the development of the Cobalt Bomb ushered in the age of modern nuclear medicine with it’s treatment for cancer.

Canadians Sir Frederick Banting created insulin for the treatment of diabetes that has been dubbed one of the most important medical discoveries of the 20th century, and Jonas Salk developed the vaccine for polio in 1955, which the WHO has on it’s list of essential medicines.

We’re not just into developing life-changing inventions. The Wonderbra and the hard-cup jockstrap (a necessity if you have ever played hockey) was created in Montreal in 1961.

We have also had our less-than-heroic side as well. Gerald Bull designed the Project Babylonsupergun” for the Iraqi government that was able to fire a projectile into orbit from a huge 500-foot long cannon, weighing 2000 tons. Fearing the gun could be used to launch nuclear missiles into Israel, Bull was assassinated outside his apartment in Belgium in March 1990 by the Massad.

Canadians, actually British before Canada became a country, won the War of 1812 over the US and burned down the White House. Sorry about that! We’ve invaded the US in other areas like entertainment. Celine Dionne, Ryan Gosling, William Shatner, Dan Aykroyd, Justin Bieber, Mike Myers, Jim Carrey and Superman (created by Joe Shuster in 1932) are just a few of your favorite celebrities who are from Canada.

Image of Celine Dionne via Anirudh Koul/Wikimedia

It’s a fascinating year for us to celebrate 150 years as a country. Skilled advertisers wanting to get in on the excitement from Corn Flake boxes to zippo lighters emblazoned with our flag are exploiting our national colors, red and white and we love it.

At a time when the world is beset with problems, Canada is celebrating a land that has given a lot of innovation to the world. Canada will continue to be part of a global wave of technological, medical, social and business innovation like none the world has seen before. Collaborative research by our best neighbors and friends will guide us in the right direction.

Join us on July 1 for Canada Day and give any Canadian you know a hug – we’ll hug you back!

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