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Lloyd Pinkney was a brilliant thinker who was ‘never wrong’

Inventor’s concept for a roadside guardrail became essential component of Canadarm’s positioning system.

Karen Bell

Lloyd Pinkney was always thinking. The engineer, who worked at the National Research Council in Ottawa for 44 years, was out at a movie one night with his wife and another couple and still pondering an engineering conundrum when he had a eureka moment.

It was The Graduate and toward the end of the movie, Dustin Hoffman's Benjamin runs by the wall of a church.

"That's how I'll do it! That's it!" he called out in the dark, quiet theatre, to be immediately shushed by his wife.

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Seeing the image of a moving object against a fixed object gave him the idea of using fixed points to measure movement. It was a concept he would apply in a couple of innovative ways: He used it initially to monitor car crashes when he invented a roadside guardrail, and it later became an essential component of a positioning system he created for the Canadarm. The Space Vision System (SVS) he conceived uses cameras on a spacecraft and at the end of the arm to track points on a payload and measure their movements to calculate precisely where the arm sits in three-dimensional space.

"We made it work as a team but without Lloyd, there would be no system. It was his creativity at the beginning that got it started," says Steve MacLean, former astronaut and former president of the Canadian Space Agency.

Mr. Pinkney had been asked to create the system as a backup, in case the Canadarm didn't meet the space agency's specifications for control. The arm did, and was delivered to NASA in 1981 without the system.

But when Mr. MacLean flew on the shuttle Columbia in 1992, he took SVS with him, testing it for five days in space to see if it could control the arm more precisely.

"We wondered if it would work. Of course it did. Lloyd was never wrong," recalls Garry Lindberg, who was project manager for the Canadarm starting in 1974 and became director general for the NRC in 1979. "It really augmented the arm's abilities. It made it possible to do things that the basic arm could not do."

The NRC retrofitted all Canadarms to include SVS and it became a standard part of the Canadarm2, which was released in 2001. The system, which eventually used lasers instead of cameras, was instrumental in helping build the International Space Station, where it is still in use today.

In his four decades at the NRC, Mr. Pinkney worked on a wide range of projects through the Institute for Aerospace Research and the Integrated Manufacturing Technologies Institute.

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In the 1970s, he helped invent an innovative roadside guardrail made of cables that, when a car crashed into it, would gently nudge it back to the side of the road, causing minimal damage to the vehicle and its occupants.

"The barriers should have been used, but they didn't get adopted," Mr. Lindberg recalls.

At one point, the NRC was having a hard time calibrating one of the wind tunnels it used to test the safety of airplanes. Mr. Pinkney was called in and, using his extensive knowledge of physics, engineering and aerospace design, got it back on track.

"He was a brilliant mind and did all sorts of interesting things," Mr. Lindberg says.

A well-rounded childhood

Harold Frederick Lloyd Pinkney was born in 1931 in Blairmore, a coal-mining town in southern Alberta. His father, Robert William Harold Pinkney (who went by the name Harold), was a decorated First World War veteran who fought at Passchendaele, and after the war ran the family business, the general store F.M. Thompson Company.

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Young Lloyd and his older sisters Thelma and Audrey grew up working in the store, skiing in the nearby Rockies and golfing – Mr. Pinkney's mother, Elin, was the ladies' champion at the local golf club for 10 years and Audrey later held the same title for a decade herself. Audrey was an excellent pianist and Lloyd played the violin; music was a huge part of all Pinkney family gatherings.

Mr. Pinkney studied engineering physics at the University of Alberta (he was pals with future premier Peter Lougheed, who was president of the students' union). Always well rounded, he gained a spot on the school's ski team and its orchestra. The NRC hired him right out of school in 1954 and he moved to Ottawa. He soon landed scholarships to complete his master's degree and PhD in engineering physics at Stanford University, with the NRC granting him leaves to do so.

In 1961, he went on a double date with a friend from the NRC. Right away, he hit it off with his buddy's date, Mary Gayle Anderson, an elementary school teacher. "He was a very bright man. But he needed someone who was social and organized. And of course being a teacher, I was both," she recalls.

Seeing their obvious compatibility, the friend graciously bowed out and the couple married in August, 1962.

The Pinkneys started a family in 1966 and had three kids: Chris, Mary Ellen and Laurie. With his career in full swing, Mr. Pinkney began devoting less time to his hobbies, which included playing violin in various groups and singing with the Ottawa Choral Society and a group called the Gleeman Four. He even cut back on his golf games. "I'd rather be with the kids," he told his wife. He remained involved with City View United Church and sometimes attended meet-ups with a small Mensa group in Ottawa.

In 1996, Mr. Pinkney retired from the NRC and then worked for six years with Neptec Design Group in Kanata, just outside Ottawa, the manufacturer of SVS.

He fully retired at age 71 and he and his wife travelled and enjoyed their grandchildren (there are now nine). By his late 70s, there were obvious signs of cognitive decline and Mr. Pinkney was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. He died on May 3 at the age of 83, a few months shy of his 52nd wedding anniversary.

'Earth to Dad, Earth to Dad'

From the early days of his career, Mr. Pinkney was known for a devotion to work and science, but not a conventional sense of time. In his bachelor days, he was often found by security guards early in the morning asleep at his desk. Secretaries kept a sign-in sheet and staff members who were late by 15 minutes got a red line through their names. "Lloyd collected a fair number of red lines," Mr. Lindberg recalls.

Work deadlines were also somewhat elastic for Mr. Pinkney, who reportedly took quite some time to calibrate the wind tunnel. In the deadline-driven aerospace industry, this was a challenge, Mr. MacLean recalls, as he'd often complete projects late. "But there was usually a reason."

Once he had a family, Mr. Pinkney made an effort to return home early to spend time with the kids and, once they were in bed, with his wife. But once Ms. Pinkney went to sleep, he'd often stay up with a notepad, thinking. During a project to test the safety of new car headlights from Europe, which had to be run in the dark, he would be arriving home to sleep when she and the children were getting up.

When the children were infants, he took charge of the middle-of-the-night feeding. Ms. Pinkney would often hear him talking aloud to the baby about the latest physics, mathematical or engineering problem he was working through.

He still rarely arrived at work for the required 8:30 a.m. start and had to be prodded by his wife to remember social functions – but he always made it, although he was often lost in thought. "Earth to Dad, Earth to Dad," the kids would frequently say.

Chris Pinkney recalls that being the son of a brilliant engineer had its perks. While his friends weren't quite sure what to make of a father who talked about math and science and claimed the schools were teaching calculus all wrong, young Chris thought it was pretty cool to have a dad who crashed cars for a living– he got to watch the videos of the guardrail tests as a youngster.

Years later, Chris Pinkney's university friends from Queen's would wangle weekend invitations to the house so Lloyd Pinkney could explain complex math and business concepts to them.

When the Pinkneys would visit Blairmore, Mr. Pinkney would sit down with his sister Thelma's son Fred Bradley, with whom he was very close, and talk politics for hours. "He was always looking for someone to have a conversation with," Mr. MacLean says.

While Mr. Pinkney sometimes came across as a brilliant and eccentric scientist, everyone who got to know him quickly discovered he was equally kind, generous and never condescending, even when sharing his extensive knowledge.

When Chris Pinkney brought home Mimi Wood, his future wife, for the first time, when the two were doing MBAs at Western, she was studying for a huge exam in operations management. Mr. Pinkney took her textbook and stayed up all night reading it. He then spent the entire next day with her, talking her through the challenging information. "He always wanted to help," Chris Pinkney says.

Even in the stressful climate of working with others on tight deadlines at the NRC, Mr. Pinkney stayed calm. "He never got angry at anyone. And in our industry that was hard to do," Mr. MacLean says.

His wife also recalls him most as a clever man who was very easy to live with. "Even when I wanted to fight with him, he'd just say, 'I know, I know. We'll work it out, don't you worry about it.'"

Mr. Pinkney leaves his wife, Mary Gayle; son, Chris; daughters Mary Ellen Chapman and Laurie Pinkney; and his nine grandchildren.

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