Skip to main content
obituary

Inventor Robert Winsor.Courtesy of the Family

Known to friends as a “mad inventor,” Robert Winsor was an engineer and entrepreneur who held a dozen patents, including one that revolutionized the way vehicles are transported on railway cars in North America. In his spare time, he built elaborate treehouses for his grandchildren, and other things. He used a great deal of the money he earned from his inventions to support causes such as Special Olympics – where he served as chair for two years – and the universities he attended, Mount Allison and McGill.

Mr. Winsor, who had leukemia complicated by COVID-19, died in Sherbrooke on Jan. 14. He was 81.

Mr. Winsor’s most successful invention was a “wheel chock” used to hold automobiles and light trucks in place on rail cars. The old system used chains to hold down the automobiles, which caused damage when the rail cars made a sudden movements while being shunted in rail yards or when trains started and stopped.

Mr. Winsor's wheel chock invention was first used by railroads in Canada, then was picked up by American carriers.Handout

“The wheel chock works like a seat belt; in other words, it doesn’t do anything if there’s no need for it. But if there’s a need for it, it had better work,” says Bruno Pietrobon, the president of Holden America, the company Mr. Winsor owned.

“The chock is fixed or attached to a peg-board-style grid system that is affixed to the rail car, and it is easily applied or removed depending on the type of vehicle that’s being transported. It holds the wheels of the vehicle and prevents the vehicle from shifting during transit, avoiding damage.”

The invention was first used by railroads in Canada, then was picked up by American carriers and is now the standard for transporting vehicles from the factory to the dealer.

Another one of his successful inventions dealt with grain cars. Mr. Winsor came up with a new gate at the bottom of the rail car, allowing it to be unloaded more efficiently. It, too, is now one of two industry standards.

“The grain-hopper gate was a very successful product for the company and for him,” Mr. Pietrobon said. “Bob had about a dozen patents to his name, mostly in the railroad industry.”

Robert Beck Winsor was born in Montreal on May 2, 1939. His father, Roland Blandford Winsor, was from Wesleyville, N.L., and moved to Montreal to study engineering at McGill. His mother, Doris (née Beck), of Winnipeg, had a degree in nursing from the University of Manitoba.

“My mother-in-law was an amazing woman. She was always very forward-thinking,” says Robert’s wife, Susan (née Poe) Winsor. “She was working as a public-health nurse in New York City when she came to McGill to see her brother and met his best friend, who she married.”

The family lived in the inner Montreal suburb of Town of Mount Royal, where Robert went to the local high school. His father taught him the art of fly fishing starting from the age of 10. Mr. Winsor became an expert with a fly rod.

After high school, he went to Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B., where he played football and was a two-time all-star, earning a Bachelor of Science certificate in engineering. The next stop was McGill for his full degree in mechanical engineering. At McGill, he played offensive end and defensive halfback for the McGill Redmen.

“He scored a touchdown in the 1960 championship game against Queen’s,” recalled his teammate John Cleghorn, a lifelong friend, who went on to serve as chairman and chief executive of the Royal Bank.

“Bob was always the mad inventor. If he saw someone throwing away a vacuum cleaner, he would retrieve it to find spare parts for some project.”

After graduating from McGill in 1962, Mr. Winsor went to work for Dupont Canada in Kingston. He then became involved with a firm called Napanee Industries, which made equipment for railroads. It later morphed into Holden America.

The railroad industry, almost two centuries old, is not given to embracing new equipment.

“It’s an industry that does not easily adapt or accept a single standard,” Mr. Pietrobon says. “Bob’s signature achievement was that this equipment became the North American industry standard starting in the early-1990s, and that was quite an achievement. Bob worked with the automobile manufacturers at the time and convinced them to adopt this as a standard, and they ultimately convinced the railroad customers.”

The head office of the company was in Montreal, and Mr. Winsor and his family moved there. He bought the rail-car division when the parent company sold off various divisions.

With the proceeds from his inventions, Mr. Winsor donated millions of dollars to the McGill University Health Centre and Montreal General Hospital. Mr. Winsor also gave money to McGill University, including a $1.5-million endowment to its football program.

Along with his involvement with Special Olympics, Mr. Winsor was a major donor to Dunham House, a treatment centre for mental health and addictions, in West Brome, Que., and the Adaptive Sports Foundation, which helps people with physical disabilities to ski and water ski.

Mr. Winsor received an honorary doctorate from Mount Allison University in 2006 and one from McGill in 2014.

In addition to his wife, he leaves his children, Jennifer and Greg; his daughter-in-law, Tara Marsh; and six grandchildren.