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Canadian Inventions

Posted by phduffy on 2007-07-24 12:18:31
2 forum posts

So Tim gets the following "Fun Facts" in his email from Sears:

Canada is the home of many great inventions, including: basketball, the electric light bulb, the electric range, the electron microscope, standard time, the television, the telephone, and the zipper.

He replies:

I'm not sure why this annoys me or why I feel compelled to respond, but every week you keep publishing and sending these 'Fun Facts' on Canadian inventions that are completely erroneous.

In fact, only one of the inventions you list is in fact a bona fide "Canadian" invention. There are lots of useful Canadian inventions -- insulin comes to mind -- we don't need to perpetuate silly myths of the sort propagated by giddy CBC pundits on Canada Day telecasts.

Please forward this email to the editor of your newsletter.


A quick a history lesson on your list of 'Canadian' inventions:

Basketball - Barely Canadian. Invented in the US by James Naismith, who formerly lived in Canada. He lived and worked in the US, invented the game in the US, and died an American citizen. This game was neither invented nor developed on Canadian soil. Now, Naismith was a Canadian citizen at the time, though everything he did of importance was outside of Canada. This is a weak example of a "Canadian" invention.

Light bulb - No. Interestingly, a Canadian patent was issued to two young scientists in Toronto in 1874 for an incandescent light bulb (5 years prior to Thomas Edison's famous patent). Edison gets credit because he developed a practical bulb that was actually useful, but there were tons of records of one-off experiments and related patents before. The first patent, typically the measure of an invention, was granted to an Englishman in 1841. So yes, the Canadians beat Edison (and actually sold their patent to Edison -- who DEFINITELY did not invent it), but there are more than two countries in the world, and many others (Brits, French, Germans ...) came first.

Electric range - Yes. A guy named Thomas Ahearn of Ottawa invented it in 1882.

Electron Microscope - No. Germans invented it in 1931. A better one was developed and built at U of T in 1938, and it's considered the first really good electron microscope, but nobody considers this an invention.

Standard Time - No. Sanford Fleming "proposed" it in 1879, and it was quickly adopted across North America. However, British railways had been using the system since 1847. So again, if there were only two countries in the world, it would be Fleming, but the British were first ... by many decades.

Television - No. Scores of people had been trying to develop this, but no important milestones are attributed to Canadians. A Brit and a Russian are most accurately credited as 'inventors', and the technology was first commercialized by Americans.

Telephone - No. Alexander Graham Bell was born in Scotland, he came to Canada at 23 and only lived here two years before moving to the US. He invented the telephone in the US where he lived and worked afterwards. He apparently did some research in Brantford, and a well-funded museum in Brantford has lots of drawings ... and Bell bought an estate in Nova Scotia just before his death, but a US patent was issued following the invention of the working telephone while Bell lived and worked in the US. This is clearly an American invention. Interestingly, the Scots also claim the telephone to be a Scottish invention.

Zipper - No. A Swedish-American guy named Sundbuck created the version that is essentially the same design we have today. He didn't invent the zipper, as there were tons of incremental developments, but his version is remembered because it resembles the ones we still use. Not only did he merely improve (not invent) the zipper, he did this in New Jersey and Chicago. The justification of it being Canadian? One book on Canadian inventions claims "Sundback had been president of a Canadian-based company that was one of the earliest manufacturers of the zipper." This is a far cry from inventing.
  2 forum posts