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Canada 150 Great Canadian Innovations: How the snowmobile opened much of Canada’s North

Great Canadian Innovations

From a wood garage to the Canadian backcountry

The introduction of the snowmobile opened up much of the country's Northern expanse, drawing formerly remote communities together

Joseph-Armand Bombardier, designer of the Bombardier snowmobile, stands beside the latest model of the machine on the production line of his Valcourt, Que. factory in this 1960 photo.

Part of series about people, products and discoveries that changed the world.

One of Canada's best-known inventions was born out of the grit and emotional distress of a Quebecker looking for a way out of winter's isolation.

Joseph-Armand Bombardier was a bright-eyed and cheerful repairman in the 1920s when he began working in earnest on an idea to build a motorized vehicle to replace horse-drawn sleds. The fun-loving youth, whose wiry frame, round glasses and dark hair would give him a Harry Potter air in modern times, noted early on the difficulty that people in his region had getting around through the snow in winter.

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Back then, as soon as the flurries came, all secondary roads closed. The mechanical wizard became obsessed with finding a way to get on top of them.

Working out of a wood garage in his home town of Valcourt, Que., Bombardier and his assistants spent days taking apart old automobiles and fashioning new parts to build the first experimental snowmobiles. From time to time, he'd emerge from the repair shop to test the latest prototype, many of which backfired noisily through the streets.

During its first winter of production in 1936, the Bombardier B7 snowmobile sold eight units before a patent was secured with the Canadian government.

Bombardier spent 10 years working through the challenges, including the difficulties of some 50 different snow types. Then, one night in January, 1934, his dream was crystallized by tragedy. Yvon, his two-year-old son, was struck with appendicitis and peritonitis and died.

"The nearest hospital was in Sherbrooke, some 50 kilometres away, and the roads were snowed in," according to a biography of the inventor by author Roger Lacasse. "An unfinished snowmobile sat in Armand's garage."

Yvon suffered the same fate as countless other people who fell ill in winter and couldn't obtain proper medical care. After the death of his son, Bombardier's work veered in a new direction, according to Mr. Lacasse, who had access to Bombardier family archives for his book. He gave up trying to make a small, light vehicle for one or two people. Instead, he set out to design a bigger snowmobile that could carry several passengers. "It was like moving from motorcycles to automobiles," Mr. Lacasse wrote.

Through years of trial and error, Bombardier had found answers to the main challenges posed by snow, and developed game-changing innovations that remain in use today: Rubber-encased sprocket wheels; tracks with rubber belts; flexible suspensions.

In 1936, the B7 snowmobile roared to life. Bombardier sold eight of them during his first winter of production and, a year later, received a patent confirmation for his devices from the Canadian government. The machines were subsequently used by doctors, priests, police and for mail delivery; even as school transportation.

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The key component in the B7's traction system is the sprocket. The toothed wheel has existed for centuries, but Bombardier put it to new use guiding a track over snow. It drives the track. The track improves traction and increases surface contact with the ground, preventing the wheel from getting stuck in the snow

Several other inventors are known to have been working on a machine to transport people over snow at the same time as Bombardier. But archivists say he was the first to commercialize such a vehicle. He would build other models in subsequent years as demand grew, constantly trying to improve the design.

From those humble but tenacious beginnings, the plane and train maker we know today as Bombardier Inc. was built. A separate motor-sports vehicle manufacturer named BRP Inc., whose stock symbol is DOO (a reference to their Ski-Doo brand) also lives on from a base in Valcourt.

Visitors tour The Museum of Ingenuity: J. Armand Bombardier in Valcourt, Que.

The inventor's zeal for innovation also endures in his children and grandchildren, including Charles Bombardier, an industrial designer in his own right. Showing a reporter around Valcourt on a particularly biting day in February, Charles said his grandfather harboured plans that went far beyond snowmobiles and into electricity production – he even bought a nearby town in a bid to generate hydro power from its waterways.

"He had so many plans," Charles Bombardier said. "But he was limited by the time he had and the health he had."

Government also posed trouble for Joseph-Armand along the way. During the years around the Second World War, Ottawa's decision to pay him a pittance for his output and question the validity of his patents is a particularly prickly period of history, and it continues to echo today in the tight grip with which Bombardier Inc.'s founding family holds onto the company.

Joseph-Armand Bombardier explains the construction of the Bombardier military snowmobile’s track to two men in Valcourt, Que. in March, 1943.

Today, some 600,000 snowmobiles are registered in Canada – one for every 60 Canadians. BRP estimates that the world's four major manufacturers together sold about 158,000 units worldwide in 2015, many of them to people living in remote areas.

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Diane Gear, Mayor of Postville, Labrador, is one of them. People in her town, population 195, use snowmobiles to pick up groceries and take their kids to daycare, among other things. The former trading post is located about 30 kilometres into the interior of Kaipokok Bay and is not accessible in summer except by air and water. But the arrival of snow opens up white boulevards over the land, making communities nearby a quick snowmobile ride away.

"When it starts to get cold and the snow starts to get on the ground, we can't wait to get our Ski-Doos out," Ms. Gear said, using the Bombardier brand name for the machines. "We can go more places."

To a large extent, however, snowmobiles have become an indulgence. What was once a contraption that helped connect towns is now mostly a frill for people who want to escape them.

Snowmobilers are drawn to the adrenalin rush or to the prospect of "forgetting about everything" while they enjoy nature, said BRP chief executive officer José Boisjoli. "We are not in the necessity business anymore. [It's] a luxury. We are the first to be dropped from the shopping list when a crisis happens."

Snowmobiles race at a track in Valcourt, Quebec on Feb. 10, 2017.

Charles Verdo, a small-business owner who'd travelled to Valcourt to attend the city's annual snowmobile competition that weekend, has taken his shopping to an extreme. As racers darted by at speeds topping 160 km/h in flashes of neon and black, Mr. Verdo explained from the comfort of his sponsor's loge that he's bought 75 snowmobiles over the past 30 years and now has a stable of nine machines at home. He likes new technology, he said. And he likes snow.

"I'd rather be here at minus-30 [C] than in Florida," Mr. Verdo said.

Complaints that snowmobiles disrupt wildlife and cause air and noise pollution persist. Conservationists note that as the machines have become more powerful and technologically advanced, they're able to tackle terrain that was previously inaccessible and move into the orbit of animals that are being driven away.

Still, the sleds have evolved dramatically since Joseph-Armand Bombardier's early sketches.

Engines are cleaner and the average snowmobile now emits fewer decibels at full throttle from 15 metres away than a household vacuum cleaner, Mr. Boisjoli said. In what it calls a revolutionary advancement, BRP recently introduced a new electrical-charge system allowing riders to start the engine with the push of a button.

"At the end of the day, the industry is evolving," Mr. Boisjoli said. "And I believe that the snowmobile will be there forever."

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