Inventing Canada

It’s bitterly cold outside as you zip up your jacket, turn on the porch light and drag the green plastic garbage bags out to the end of the driveway.But that little household task could be a whole lot worse. Picture life without the zipper, electric light bulb or plastic garbage bag. If it weren’t for some incredibly imaginative and innovative Canadians — many of them aged 50-plus when they made their mark — none of these conveniences we take for granted would exist.

Canadians have been responsible for some of the most life-altering inventions of all time, but a National Science Literacy survey found that more than two-thirds of us can’t name even one Canadian inventor. Oh, sure, we learned in school about the good doctors, Banting and Best and their life-saving discovery of insulin as a treatment for diabetes. But how many Canadians know that a Swedish immigrant to our country, Gideon Sundback, made the zipper what it is today?

Sundback wasn’t the first to try and make a closure for clothing that improved on the performance of the button. But he took the concept one step further and ran with the ball. In 1913, he came up with a workable design and later t patent for his “Separable Fastener”. It was the B.F. Goodrich Company who coined the word “zipper” when it applied Sundback’s invention to the firm’s rubber galoshes.

However, it’s the history of gentlemen’s clothing that has been forever changed by Sundback’s invention. By 1937, the zipper had beaten out the button as the favoured closing for men’s trousers. Esquire magazine lauded the zipper, saying it was a design that would “prevent the possibility of unintentional and embarrassing disarray” for gentlemen. And we’re sure mankind – and womankind, for that matter — has breathed a sigh of relief ever since!

As for the green plastic garbage bag, that bright idea came from a Winnipeg resident, Harry Wasylyk and Lindsay, Ont., Union Carbide employee Larry Hansen in 1950. (Glad Garbage bags were a Union Carbide product.) And while we give most of the credit to good old Thomas Edison for the light bulb, the first patent was actually issued to Canadian Henry Woodward in 1874.

Canadian inventions run the gamut from the sublime to the, well, downright bizarre. We’ve given the world everything from five-pin bowling to frozen fish. Yes, you can blame those frozen dinners on Dr. Archibald Huntsman, who came up with the concept of freezing fish. A yummy product called Ice Fillets was the result and it went on sale in Halifax in 1929. The rest, whether we like it or not, is culinary history.

No shortage of inventors
But Canadian invention is not just part of our past. There’s no shortage of amazing ideas on the drawing board right now and many of the best are from people that could be taking life a little easier.

Take Dr. George J. Klein, who died in 1992 at the age of 88. Klein, a Hamilton-born design engineer and often cited as the most prolific Canadian inventor of the 20th century, was called out of retirement at the age of 72 to act as chief consultant on the CANADARM – Canada’s contribution to NASA’s space program. Klein also worked on the team that designed this country’s first nuclear reactor.

While we seem to excel at serious medical and scientific inventions, Canadians have also come up with items that are plain fun or just downright useful.

Well-known Canadian actress, singer and comedienne Dinah Christie has her own plaque in Ottawa’s Museum of Science and Technology to prove it. Christie, 55, invented Hot Heels – a fashionable protector for the backs of shoes that prevents scrapes and scuffs when driving or walking.

“I came up with the idea while I was working on a TV series with Don Adams, of Get Smart,” says Christie. “There was a lot of down time between shoots and I started doodling this little design for a heel protector for ladies high heel shoes. After I went home, I ran up a couple of prototypes, complete with decorations, and ended up selling them in stores across Canada.” (Eaton’s in Quebec was one of the largest stores to stock Hot Heels. She now makes them only on special order.)

It was that little invention that got Christie the plaque in Ottawa’s museum, and success and recognition spurred her on to even greater heights. Christie, who lives in Holstein, Ont., now runs her own company called The Badd Sisters.

“It’s virtually a cottage industry that makes environmentally friendly natural cotton and hemp accessories for those who love the outdoors,” says Christie. “We make hats, water bottle holders, and the Ultra-Visor, a device that protects the wearer from UV rays.”

In fact, Canadian women inventors have come up with some pretty amazing contributions. How about Dr. Elaine Thompson from Manitoba who invented rubber asphalt, or another Manitoba native, Agnetta Peters, who came up with a way to preserve potatoes in 1920? Then there’s British Columbia’s Olivia Poole, beloved by parents everywhere for inventing the Jolly Jumper.

Inventor and entrepreneur Chips Klein heads up an organization called the Women Inventor’s Project. She lectures and holds workshops around the country to help inspire women to stick with their dreams. Klein herself invented a top-selling item called The Eye Maker, a mirror that makes it easier for women-on-the-go to apply eye make-up anytime, anyplace. But coming up with the idea was easier than getting the product to market. Klein invited a banker to a convention where she was showing the Eye Maker mirror. After he saw the number of people interested in the product, he offered Klein the financing she so desperately needed for production.

Sometimes it’s just a simple annoyance that gives birth to a new idea.

Paul Mason, 52, who runs a company called AMPM Packaging, in Concord, north of Toronto, got tired of friends dropping food, drinks or broken glass on the patio during summer parties. As a result, he invented the Beverage Butler – a plastic clip designed to fit onto the arm of a patio chair that will hold any type of drinking container from beer bottles to stemmed wineglasses. Mason recently added the Buffet Butler to his line — a plate that also clips onto the patio chair.