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Great Canadian Innovations

A century and a half of Northern telecom innovations

Tracing 150 years of Canadian technological contributions to communication, from Bell to BlackBerry

A series about people, products and discoveries that changed the world

The global market for telecommunications is worth more than $1-trillion (U.S.) annually, and Cisco Systems Inc. estimates suggest that by 2020 the world will have 4.1 billion people with Internet access, and 26.3 billion networked devices.

More than a simple service, connectivity is now intimately intertwined with modern life.

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Over the past 150 years, the industry developments have been remarkable and relatively numerous. Many names dot Canada's own history of innovation in telecom: Bell and the telephone, Rogers and the battery-less radio, the Canadian Marconi Company and advancements in radar, Nortel and digital switching equipment and, of course, Research In Motion and the BlackBerry.

Here's a closer look at a few breakthrough technologies with Canadian connections.

From the telephone …

Alexander Graham Bell was overworked. Pushing himself to the point of exhaustion at his lab in Boston, the inventor and teacher of the deaf suffered from severe headaches and insomnia, prompting his worried mother to implore him to return home over the summer break from school. The Bell family lived in Brantford, Ont., where they had established a farm after crossing the ocean from London in search of a healthy environment after the deaths of Mr. Bell's two brothers.

Using his own invention, Alexander Graham Bell helped start telephone service between New York and Chicago in 1892.

"His mother would basically beg him to come home in the summer to rest," said Brian Wood, curator of the Bell Homestead National Historic Site at the family's one-time home. Brantford, now known as the Telephone City, is located more than 90 kilometres southwest of Toronto.

"By doing that, she really was providing him with a place where he could not only regain his health, but at the same time be away from the busier surroundings of the big city and put his thoughts on paper," Mr. Wood added.

Mr. Bell whiled away the summer hours at a vantage point just above the Grand River. He had been working through his thoughts on how to take the telegraph from a device capable of sending only Morse code to one that could use the electrical current to transmit articulate speech. It was on the farm at his "dreaming place," Mr. Wood says, that the inventor "discovered the basic principles of the telephone in 1874."

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Alexander Graham Bell’s home in Brantford, Ont., in 1876.

He later performed a number of tests in Boston and was granted the first U.S. patent for the telephone in 1876. But Mr. Bell also returned to his family's farm to conduct other tests, including one that would go down as the first successful long-distance call, placed between Brantford and Paris, Ont. This helped prove the commercial viability of an innovation that revolutionized communications technology.

… to the first transatlantic wireless signal …

As the telephone quickly became commonplace around the world, inventors kept working on novel ways to transmit sound. The now-Canadian province of Newfoundland saw another milestone demonstration in 1901, when Guglielmo Marconi received the first transatlantic wireless signal there, at one of the easternmost points in North America.

The Italian inventor set out to prove that radio waves could in fact travel long distances across the curving Earth's surface. He initially planned to send his test signal from Cornwall, in Britain, across the ocean to Cape Cod, Mass., but because of weather difficulties he changed the location of the receiving station to Signal Hill in St. John's, which was several hundred kilometres closer to Cornwall.

Battling December winds, Mr. Marconi used a kite to hoist an antenna trailing copper wire that led back to a telephone receiver in an abandoned hospital close by. Back in Cornwall, his team transmitted the Morse code signal for "s" for several days in a row at an appointed time and on Dec. 12 he made out the sound of three "pips" in a row. The demonstration was a success – he had sent a wireless message more than 3,000 kilometres across the Atlantic Ocean. It would be two more decades before scientists would confirm exactly how he did this (radio waves reflect off the ionosphere – part of the upper atmosphere that is electrically charged by the sun's rays – and some of them are bent or bounced back toward the Earth, allowing them to travel long distances), but word of the achievement spread quickly.

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The Newfoundland government hoped Mr. Marconi would pursue the commercialization of the technology on the island and build a wireless station there. But a legal threat soon surfaced; Newfoundland had granted the Anglo-American Telegraph Company a 50-year monopoly on telegraphic communications that did not expire until 1904. Telegraph companies, which had invested heavily in laying transatlantic cables, jealously guarded their business model and Mr. Marconi quickly heard from Anglo-American's lawyers. He moved on to Glace Bay in Cape Breton, N.S., where the first actual radio message was exchanged across the ocean in 1902 and where he launched a transatlantic wireless-service business five years later.

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… to the BlackBerry…

Almost a century later, Southwestern Ontario, home to the Bell family's homestead, was once again the backdrop for a paradigm shift in communications. Mike Lazaridis, who immigrated to Canada with his parents when he was a young boy, founded Research in Motion Ltd. (RIM) in 1984 after dropping out of the University of Waterloo.

A few years earlier, he had marvelled at an IBM computer on campus, the largest and fastest of its kind in Canada at the time. "I just looked down into the room and I said, 'This is where I'm going,'" he told reporters Sean Silcoff and Jacquie McNish.

"Wireless technology and computing were travelling toward each other at warp speed when Lazaridis enrolled in electrical engineering at Waterloo," the reporters wrote in their 2015 book Losing the Signal: The Spectacular Rise and Fall of BlackBerry.

RIM began developing products for a network called Mobitex that connected computers to mobile terminals, making the mobile transport of data possible. The company started selling a two-way messaging pager in 1996 and by 1999 it launched its first handset bearing the BlackBerry name. The hand-held devices stood out from other personal digital assistants (PDAs) on the market at the time with features such as a keyboard and, crucially, mobile e-mail that downloaded and sent instantly and could be synced with corporate e-mail inboxes.

It was the beginning of the smartphone era and users quickly got hooked on what would soon be dubbed the "CrackBerry." RIM's BlackBerry user base surged to 165,000 in fiscal 2001, up from 25,000 the year before, and the company scrambled to keep up with demand. By the end of 2007 it had more than 12 million subscribers. Although growth continued for several more years, the once iconic BlackBerry would soon be eclipsed by Apple Inc.'s iPhone, introduced earlier that year.

RIM struggled to respond to the iPhone as well as Android-based smartphones that came to dominate the fast-moving wireless market. By 2012, Mr. Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie, who joined the company 20 years earlier, stepped down as co-chief executives. RIM, now known as BlackBerry Ltd., lost its grip on the handset market but is trying to reinvent itself as a software and security-focused company.

Editor's note: The number of people with Internet access and networked devices has been corrected in the online version of this story.


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