Ask a roomful of people to name Canadian innovations and they might rhyme off the usual names – insulin, the Canadarm, hockey, Saturday Night Live – and move on to the next topic.
So let's hold on for a minute.
Canadians have produced a lot more ingenious devices, materials, technology and methods than most people think, but many of these innovations have either gone unnoticed or unattributed to their masterminds.
"It's our tendency to hide our light under the bushes," notes Kamiel Gabriel, professor and founding associate provost of research and graduate programs at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology in Oshawa, Ont. "It's a Canadian thing which, unfortunately, means we don't always get recognized for our accomplishments."
The list of Canadian innovations is long – a book released this year called Ingenious highlights 207 – and full of surprises. For instance, who knew those painted lines separating road lanes were the brainchild of an Ontario engineer named John Millar, or that the backup lights that are a standard feature of modern cars were invented almost a century ago by James Ross of Halifax?
Canadian ingenuity is evident in so many aspects of daily life. Take a kitchen staple like peanut butter. The sticky spread – originally named peanut candy – was created by Marcellus Gilmore Edson, a Quebec chemist who discovered that heating surfaces to 100 F when grinding peanuts created the thick, mouth-gluing stuff that is now consumed all over the world.
The humble garbage bag and blue recycling bin are also Canadian inventions that have become part of everyday life in Canada and many other countries. For anyone who has ever had to paint a house, there's the paint roller, which was devised in the 1940s by Toronto's Norman Breakey, who, sadly, never thought to patent his invention.
"We need to thump our chest and say 'Look at us,'" says Josie Graham, chief executive officer of the Canadian Innovation Centre, a Waterloo, Ont.-based not-for-profit that helps inventors and entrepreneurs commercialize their innovations. "After all, we did invent the smartphone and the zipper and a whole lot more."
Indeed, mothers everywhere continue to be grateful for the Jolly Jumper, that brilliant contraption that lets parents take a break – and maybe even a shower – while their child bounces away in their Canadian-conceived harness. Thank you, Susan Olivia Poole.
Canadian innovation lives in lofty, mind-boggling spaces as well. For instance, there's particle physics, a field of science borne from the discovery of quarks – a concept proposed previously but never proven until Canadian physicist Richard Taylor and his team of colleagues found proof in a powerful new accelerator. The discovery, which continues to enhance our understanding of the universe, earned Dr. Taylor and his team the 1990 Nobel Prize in physics.
Canuck savvy has also had a profound and global impact on people's health and safety. Those life vests found in virtually all boats and planes? They were made originally by Canada's Inuit, who stitched together sealskin or seal gut. The electric wheelchair? The first one was made in 1953 by George Klein, a National Research Council engineer who wanted to do something for injured war veterans.
Today, Canadian innovators continue to break ground in health care and medicine. Seven years ago, industrial designer Jessica Ching of Toronto created the world's first self-test for cervical cancer, a disease that kills 275,000 women each year yet is often missed because women are often too embarrassed to get tested.
Already a pioneer in wound diagnostics – Calgary's Don Chapman created a system in 2012 that gauges a wound's ability to heal – Canada is now building on its innovation in this field with a device called MolecuLIght I:X, which uses fluorescence imaging to visualize bacteria in wounds.
Canadian scientists are also leading the way in research into various conditions ranging from cancer to neurological diseases. Many have done so behind the scenes while a few are starting to receive recognition for their work. For instance, earlier this year, Lorina Naci, a lead researcher at the University of Western Ontario's Brain and Mind Institute in London, Ont., received an international "rising talent" fellowship from the L'Oreal Unesco for Women in Science program for her work on patients who are comatose or vegetative, making her only the second Canadian recipient of the award in the program's 19-year history.
Dr. Naci uses suspenseful movie clips – a particularly effective one features the actor Liam Neeson in a scene from the movie Taken – to gauge mental consciousness in the patients. The findings of Dr. Naci's research could have significant implications for doctors' decisions to continue or withdraw care for comatose or vegetative patients, and they could also open the door for rehabilitation of those who are found to be cognitive.
Canada has long been known as a leader in aerospace innovation – we built the Canadarm, after all, not to mention the ill-fated but celebrated Avro Arrow. There's more to come from this field, as Canada's engineers continue to innovate. Watch out for the Sea Stryder, a seaplane that promises up to 50-per-cent improved fuel efficiency, thanks to its ability to hydroplane on its wings.
"Our plane doesn't have pontoons, which create a lot of drag when you're airborne," explains Ray Richards, president of Ajax, Ont.-based Aquavion Systems Corp., which designed the Sea Stryder and is now looking to build two full-size prototypes of the plane. "The design is a lot more energy efficient."
As the world increasingly moves toward digital currencies such as bitcoin, it seems only fair to mention that the inventor of a relatively new but increasingly popular cryptocurrency known as Ethereum is Canada's Vitalik Buterin, who was born in Russia but grew up in Toronto and studied at the University of Waterloo.
Ms. Graham at CIC says she sees more brilliant innovations coming out of Canada, and hopes Canadians will be a little louder about their accomplishments. We certainly have a lot to be proud of, she adds.
"We should just keep doing what we're doing."
Tips for inventors
Everyone has an idea for an invention that would make them millions. But the trick is figuring out how to get from point A (imagining an app-activated bottle opener that will have your beer ready when you return home from work) to point B (raking in the millions after the contraption gets into stores). Here are some tips:
Research: Leave it to bureaucrats to turn the fun of invention into work, but the federal government's Canada Business Network, set up to assist entrepreneurs, highlights research as the No. 1 task. It's a must to find out if your idea is truly original, if people will be willing to pay for the gizmo, who the target customers will be (their age, sex, interest and occupation; basically any and all demographic traits). More can be found at https://canadabusiness.ca/starting/before-starting-your-business/developing-your-ideas.
Protect the idea: Patents, trademarks, copyrights, industrial designs, even integrated circuit topographies all require different methods for protecting intellectual property. As the federal government's guide-to-patents website indicates, this brings back some of the fun, because we're talking trade secrets (like the Coca-Cola recipe). See https://www.ic.gc.ca/eic/site/cipointernet-internetopic.nsf/eng/h_wr03652.html for details.
Raise funds: Inventors will find numerous programs and tax credits for research and development, from regional innovations to global business ideas. Much of this is geared toward scientific and industrial research (perhaps a little more "serious" than app-based bottle openers), but the wealth of funding programs, such as what you can find on the government's innovation and funding Web page, is encouraging. See https://www.canada.ca/en/services/science/innovation/funding.html.
– Guy Dixon