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Likely the most-cited Canadian invention, basketball has become one of the world’s most popular sports since its invention by James Naismith, a native of Almonte, Ont., in 1891. Naismith studied philosophy at McGill University in Montreal, but his love of athletics took him to Springfield, Mass., where he studied and later became a physical education instructor at the YMCA Training School. There he was challenged to devise a new activity to keep athletes fit during the chilly winter months, and basketball was born. His version involved nine people per side trying to toss the ball into peach baskets fastened three metres (10 feet) above each end of the court. He wrote the sport’s rule book and went on to coach the basketball team at the University of Kansas for 39 years.


Getting rid of household trash used to mean tossing it into a metal garbage can, which was emptied with a deafening clatter every garbage day. But that all changed when Winnipeg-based inventor Harry Wasylyk began experimenting with different uses for a new material called polyethelyne shortly after the Second World War. He came up with the first plastic garbage bags and sold them to the Winnipeg General Hospital.

During the same period, two other Canadians were working on similar ideas. Frank Plomp of Toronto was selling his version of the garbage bag to local hospitals and offices in the 1950s. Larry Hanson of Lindsay, Ont., was a worker at the Union Carbide plant and developed bags for use around the factory. Union Carbide was so keen on the idea that they bought Wasylyk’s Winnipeg business too, and began mass-producing garbage bags from their Montreal plant.


Where would movies, road trips and vending machines be without chocolate bars? Although chocolate has been enjoyed for centuries, the wrapped chocolate bars you find in every corner store were invented right here. Brothers James and Gilbert Ganong founded a confectionary company called Ganong Bros. Limited in St. Stephen, N.B. in 1873. They made chocolate and candy, but it wasn’t until James’s son Arthur prepared to head out on a fishing trip with a pal that the chocolate bar was born. Before setting out he approached the company’s candy maker, George Ensor, and asked Ensor to make him long, moulded pieces of chocolate mixed with nuts that he could easily carry with him. He wrapped the pieces up for the trip, and realized how convenient the new format was. The company began selling the world’s first five-cent chocolate bars in 1898.

Ganong Bros. Ltd. is still going strong in St. Stephens, N.B.


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Try getting through a day without your phone. It’s not so easy anymore! Today’s communication-crazy world was made possible by Scottish-Canadian-American inventor Alexander Graham Bell. Bell was born and educated in Scotland, then moved with this family to Brantford, Ont., in 1873 and became a Canadian citizen. In 1876 he invented and patented the first ‘method of, and apparatus for, transmitting vocal or other sounds telegraphically,’ and in 1877 created the Bell Telephone Company. He and his investors became millionaires.

Bell was also a financial backer of the famous journal Science, and one of the founding members of the National Geographic Society. He died on his estate on Nova Scotia’s Cape Breton Island in 1922 and is buried on a hill overlooking Bras d’Or Lake.


The now-ubiquitous egg carton was reportedly invented to solve an argument between a famer and a hotel owner. The hotel owner complained to the farmer that he kept receiving shipments of broken eggs, and the each blamed the other. In 1911 a local newspaperman in Smithers, B.C. named Joseph L. Coyle took this as a challenge and invented a paper egg carton to separate and protect the eggs. Coyle produced the cartons by hand for years, and invented the machinery necessary to manufacture them. He then moved to the United States and founded the Coyle Safety Carton Company based in Chicago. By the 1920s the cartons were produced by the thousands in Chicago, New York, Pittsburgh and London, Ont.



Every astronaut that ventures to the International Space Station lives inside a structure built, one piece at a time, by Canadian technology. In the 1970s, NASA put out a call for a dexterous mechanical arm it could attach to its new fleet of space shuttles. A group of Canadian companies designed a proposal and in 1974 began building the first Shuttle Remote Manipulator System. It was unprecedented work: no one had ever designed a device to move heavy loads around in the harsh extremes of space.

The final product functioned much like human arm, with two rotating joints at the shoulder, one at the elbow and three at the wrist. ‘At 15 metres and weighing less than 480 kilograms, the Canadarm could lift over 30,000 kilograms–up to 266,000 kg in the weightlessness of space–or the mass of a fully loaded bus, using less electricity than a teakettle,’ says the Canadian Space Agency’s website. Canadian astronaut Julie Payette describes controlling the Canadarm as much like controlling a video game.
The Canadarm was used in more than 50 shuttle missions. Canadarm2 is attached to the International Space Station and played a key role in its assembly and maintenance. It celebrated its tenth anniversary aboard the space station in 2011.


Modern medicine owes much to the electron microscope, a Canadian invention. James Hillier of Brantford, Ont., a graduate student at the University of Toronto, and fellow student Albert Prebus designed and built the world’s first high-resolution electron microscope in 1938. Their device improved upon German scientists’ work and produced magnification three times more powerful than that of optical microscopes by sending a stream of electrons through the specimen to focus on a photographic plate below. But the real innovation was the much greater depth of focus possible with the new microscope, which sparked leaps forward in many scientific fields such as medicine, chemistry and metallurgy.

After completing his PhD in 1941, Hillier took his design to Radio Corporation of America (RCA), based in Camden, N.J., and began work on a more compact version of the electron microscope more useful for lab research. The methods he designed with colleagues at RCA improved the device’s magnifying power to 200,000 times, a milestone towards today’s magnifying power of two million. Hillier was the first to photograph an ultra-thin section of a single bacterium.
Hillier died in Princeton, N.J. in 2007. Prebus died in 1997.


A perennial favourite childhood toy, today’s walkie-talkie has its roots in British Columbia’s wilderness with a man named Donald L. Hings. In 1930, Hings took a job with the Consolidated Mining and Smelting Company (now called Cominco). The company’s geologists would head off into the dense B.C. bush for months at a time in search of mineral deposits. When they found something, it would often take weeks for them to send word back to the head office. Likewise, if an accident occurred, search and rescue was a challenge.

Hings was asked to put his interest in telecommunications to the test and develop a better way of keeping in touch. In 1937, after much trial and error he successfully modified the two-way radio into the first rudimentary portable voice radio, which he called ‘the packset.’ It could float, was waterproof and featured a folding antenna. At the outset of the Second World War, Hings was invited to Ottawa to show his packset to the Canadian military, where he was enlisted by the National Research Council for the duration of the war. Subsequent versions featured speech scramblers, noise filters and better earphones. Improved communication through the sets saved countless Allied lives on battlefields across Europe. Until his death in Burnaby, B.C. in 2004, Hings continued to receive letters of thanks from grateful veterans.


Millions of people around the world rely on pacemakers to keep their heart beats regular, and the groundwork for the life-saving invention was laid here in Canada. John Hopps, an electrical engineer from Winnipeg who was then working for the National Research Council, teamed up with researchers at the Banting Institute in Toronto to develop a method for stimulating the heart’s lining without opening the patient’s chest. Upon returning to the NRC in Ottawa, Hopps built the first ‘portable’ pacemaker unit. It was still too big to be implanted into a person’s chest, but Hopps later wrote that ”In 1950, it was still considered portable!”

Hopps’ later work earned him a reputation as the father of biomedical engineering in Canada.



This Canadian invention, essential from coast to coast to coast, would have been devised in the United States if not for a twist of fate. The ship carrying its inventor, Robert Foulis, from Scotland was bound for Ohio, but rough weather pushed it north and it landed in Nova Scotia. Foulis settled in Halifax, then moved to St. John, N.B. in 1822 and opened the province’s first iron foundry in 1825. As the story goes, one evening in 1853 he was returning home in a thick fog and as he approached the house heard his daughter playing piano inside. He could pick out the low notes but not the high. Already a prolific inventor, he designed a steam foghorn based on this revelation and asked the New Brunswick legislature to install one on Partridge Island in his city’s harbour. The horn is still there, though it was silenced in 1998 after 139 years in service.