Science and Technology
Many scientific breakthroughs, discoveries and innovations have taken place in Saskatchewan, mostly at our universities. Some have been game-changers.
A small sample of scientific innovations at the U of S since 1970
The Canadian “VHF Meteor” to measure wind and temperatures was set up in a new laboratory in the Arctic.
Saskatchewan scientists’ contributions to the first Canadian-led experiments on space shuttle Discovery in 1990.
U of S scientists participated in experiments in space at the MIR space station.
The first conversion, in 1998, of an antibody into an enzyme could lead to improved medications and therapies
The first ultrasound of a human ovary releasing an egg in 1990 made possible the non-invasive study of ovarian changes, a technique that could improve fertility.
The first high-gravity fermentation process that produces higher alcohol concentrations, is now preferred by brewers for its efficiency, and is also used to make ethanol fuel (1980s).
The first “pulse stretcher” ring in North America, the Electron Ring of Saskatchewan (EROS) used in nuclear physics, was a “mini-synchrotron” that in the 1980s paved the way for the Canadian Light Source synchrotron.
The first technology was developed in the 1970s to weigh passing vehicles on highways.
[U of S Century of Innovation website (no longer active); skyway.Usask; International Road Development and other sources]
The halls of science
Building facilities for scientific progress and innovation
1887: The Agriculture Canada Research Station opened at Indian Head, one of five experimental farms developed and directed in Canada by William Saunders; later other experimental farms and nurseries were established elsewhere in Saskatchewan. Saunders’s son, Sir Charles Saunders of Ontario, in 1904 developed rust-resistant Marquis wheat, which revolutionized grain production for farmers.
1906: The Royal Saskatchewan Museum, first museum in the province, began in Regina as the Provincial Museum, its mandate to collect and preserve natural history specimens.
1909: The University of Saskatchewan opened at Saskatoon (having started in Prince Albert). It was then focused on agriculture, but later offered a smorgasbord of courses of study for students.
1948: The U of S obtained the first Betatron in Canada, used for cancer treatment and radiation research, a science coup spearheaded by Dr. Leon Katz (Order of Canada), nuclear and accelerator physicist.
1951: The trail-blazing “cobalt bomb” was pioneered, for cancer treatment using cobalt-60 radiation by Dr. Harold Johns, a medical physicist at the U of S. It saved millions of lives worldwide, and is currently displayed at Saskatoon’s Western Development Museum. The Canadian Medical Hall of Fame, into which Johns was inducted in 1998, considers him the “father of medical physics in Canada.” He was also appointed an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1978.
1958: Dr. T.T. Thorvaldson was first director of research at the new National Research Council lab on the U of S campus.
1962: The Saskatchewan Accelerator Laboratory (SAL) at the U of S housed the ground-breaking new (for its time) linear accelerator, built for $1.7M under the direction of Dr. Leon Katz. The lab revolutionized research in radiology, chemistry and physics and spawned the synchrotron.
1986: A toxicology centre opened on campus. It was said to be the first in Canada.
1989: The Saskatchewan Science Centre opened its doors in Regina to unveil the marvels of science to the public with its interactive Powerhouse of Discovery, and the Kramer IMAX theatre.
In 2004 when the Canadian Light Source Synchrotron (the only one in Canada) opened on the U of S campus, it was a blockbuster event with awesome scientific implications. By 2014, 220 staff and 700 researchers worked there.
In Saskatoon, the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization (VIDO) founded by Lorne Babiuk, does research to maintain and improve the health of animals.
[Cobalt bomb: www.usask.ca/cobalt60/; cdnmedhall.org; Encyclopedia of Sask. and other sources. Toxicology: Century of Innovations website (now off-line?), U of S]
Standing on the shoulders of giants
Some renowned scientists who made history at our universities
Henry Taube, the only U of S graduate to receive a Nobel prize, was awarded this prestigious prize in chemistry in 1983 (even though his field was physics). Born in Neudorf, Saskatchewan in 1915, he took physics classes from Gerhard Herzberg, attaining an MSc and honorary LLD at the U of S, and later a PhD from the University of California. He taught at the universities of California at Berkeley, Cornell and Stanford. Dr. Taube was at Stanford when he received the Nobel prize for his “work on the mechanisms of electron transfer reactions, especially in metal complexes.” His other honours, too many to list here, are cited on the Nobel website.
Former U of S president John W.T. Spinks was the sparkplug behind many spectacular scientific developments at the U of S. Born in 1908 in England, he attended King’s College, University of London, where he attained a BSc and PhD in chemistry. He came to the U of S in 1930 as assistant professor, but spent the academic year of 1933-34 at the University of Darmstadt in Germany. There he met Dr. Gerhard Herzberg, whom he was instrumental in bringing to the U of S. Spinks became a professor in 1938, head of chemistry in 1948, dean of grad studies in 1949, and president of the university in 1958. The U of S Archives website says he “led the university through its most active period of development.” He published 260 scientific papers and an autobiography, Two Blades of Grass. His honours and degrees included an MBE in 1945, an LLD, DSc, and Companion of the Order of Canada.
Gerhard Herzberg received the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1971. Educated in Germany, he had to flee as a refugee in 1935 because his wife was jewish. He came to the U of S as a guest professor, with funding from the Carnegie Foundation. He remained a faculty member for ten years, and then became a research professor at the University of Chicago until 1948, when he joined Canada’s National Research Council. His science career continued to soar thereafter. Other honours bestowed on him include Companion of the Order of Canada (CC), Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada (FRSC), and Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS).
In the 1920s Dr. Thorberger Thorvaldson developed a revolutionary new kind of cement, resistant to the sulphate that was causing foundations to crumble. The chemistry building at the U of S. was named in his honour. To this day owners of buildings with crumbling foundations wish he had developed his new concrete sooner. Among honours he received was being named FRSC. (He died in 1965, before the Order of Canada was established.)
Under the baton of former U of S engineering dean Chalmers Jack (C.J.) Mackenzie, the National Research Council flourished in Ottawa. Born in New Brunswick and educated at Dalhousie University, he came to the U of S in 1912 to develop the engineering program. After serving in the Canadian Army, he returned to the U of S until 1932, when he turned his attention to public works projects like Saskatoon’s Broadway Bridge. In 1939 he moved to Ottawa to head the NRC, and also became the first president of Atomic Energy of Canada. A string of degrees and honours follows his name: CC CMG MC FRS FRSC.
Stem cell therapy grew out of research sixty years ago by U of S grad James Till and a colleague Ernest McCullough, at the Ontario Cancer Institute. Stem cells are used in bone marrow transplants to treat cancer, and scientists are exploring ways to use them to fix damaged cells, and even grow artificial organs. At the U of S some of his early work was with Dr. Harold Johns. He was honoured by the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame, and received two major international awards for his medical research, is a FRS and FRSC, as well as an Officer of the Order of Canada.
Astrophysicist and space scientist Alistair G.W. Cameron did a PhD at the U of S and later joined Harvard University’s astronomy department. His scientific achievements are rather astronomic. He conceived theories about the creation of chemical elements in stars, and the moon’s birth when Planet Earth collided with an object as big as Mars. He is highly recognized in the field of nuclear strophysics in which he was a pioneer. Among his many laurels are as a member of the National Academy of Sciences (U.S.), a member of the American Physical Society, and as a FRSC.
In space technology: Saskatoon native Richard Carley’s fascination with aviation rocketed him to a career at NASA, where he specialized in guidance and navigation in space shuttle systems. He was one of several Canadians involved with the doomed Avro Arrow progam, who went on to NASA and helped put a man on the moon in 1969 in the Apollo space program. He also worked on the Mercury and Gemini space programs, and helped develop GPS.
[General: Canadian Encyclopedia, Green & White, Wikipedia, and other sources. Carley: ingenium.canada.org, history.nasa.gov. Herzberg: Nobelprize.org. Mackenzie: Wikipedia and other sources. Spinks: University of Saskatchewan Archives website; Two Blades of Grass; Taube: Nobelprize.org. Taube: Facts.Nobel/Prize.org]
Dinosaur fossils found here
Dinosaurs were land-based reptiles (often titanic in size) that lived in the Mesozoic era. Partial remains found here, usually bone fragments or teeth from the late Cretaceous period sixty-five to seventy-four million years ago.
Tyrannosaurus rex (T.rex) fossil remains found in 1991 in the Frenchman River Valley, in the RM of White Valley. A model of the full dinosaur (nicknamed Scotty) is on display in the paleontological museum near Eastend.
Remains of a Gorgosaurus, found along the South Saskatchewan River. It was a thirty-foot-long carnivore resembling an Albertosaurus. Both are tyrannosaurs, the same dinosaur family as T.rex.
An ankylosaur (spiked-armor-plated dinosaur with club tail), teeth of which were found near Consul in 2018.
Remains of three Triceratops unearthed in 2018 in Grasslands National Park. They were a common dinosaur for this time period.
Parts of the large dinosaur Struthiomimus, found in several places, including Grasslands National Park and the Frenchman River Valley. It looked like a cross between a kangaroo (with short front legs) and an ostrich (with long neck).
A specimen of the species Anzu, a rare oviraptor (known as “egg-stealers”) found in Grasslands National Park. These dinosaurs were bird-like but couldn’t fly. Some oviraptors had beak-like snouts, crests on their heads, and flexible tails ending in feathery fans.
The skull of a duck-billed dinosaur (hadrosaur) known as Edmontosaurus was discovered near Shaunavon in 2018.
Fossil remains of Pachycephalosaurus, belonging to a dinosaur family commonly referred to as “dome-headed”, are found in Saskatchewan, according to the Princeton Field Guide to Dinosaurs, but are “vanishingly rare.”
Remains of a Stygimoloch, an herbivore bristling with spikes on its cranium, in the pachycephalosaur family. Up to ten feet long and three feet high at the hip, it stalked on two legs and could run like an ostrich. Its fossil remains were reportedly found along the South Saskatchewan River.
Other dinosaurs that lived in Saskatchewan included Ornithomimus, Chasmosaurus, Thescelosaurus, Dromaeosaurus, Sauronitholestes, Troodon and Richardoestesia. The latter four were bipedal and flesh-eating. Another, the aptly named Torosaurus, was a horned dinosaur.
[List compiled with the help of Dr. Emily Bamforth, archaeologist at Saskatchewan Natural History Museum. Other sources: Global News 19 September 2018, www.cbc.ca August 2018; Braithwaite, The Western Plains.]
Other ancient fossils
Marine and flying reptiles, and mammals
A vast, shallow inland sea once covered Saskatchewan, and fossils of marine reptiles have been found here that were not dinosaurs. Neither were flying reptiles that were contemporaries of the dinosaurs. Mammal specimens have also been found.
A juvenile Elasmosaur (a long-necked plesiosaur) fossil was discovered at Lake Diefenbaker. They were endurance swimmers.
In 1992 bones of the marine reptile Terminonatator ponteixensis (meaning “last swimmer) have only been found near Ponteix, Sask. A genus of elasmosaurs, they were about eight metres long and fed on molluscs and crustaceans.
Remains of a Mosasaur, a marine reptile resembling a crocodile, up to ten metres long, were found between Saskatchewan Landing and Riverhurst. Mosasaurs were “fast and agile swimmers.”
Bones of a Terminonaris crocodile from the Cretaceous period were found near the Pasquia Hills in the Carrot River area in 1995. It was originally thought to be a Telethinus.
Parts of a young brontothere (a mammal like a rhinoceros) came to light recently near Eastend.
Mammal bones twenty-five million years old were discovered in 2018 at Grasslands National Park – parts of a rhino, three horses including a diminutive one, and a cougar-sized cat. They lived in an time that was tropical, even up here.
[Dr. Emily Bamforth (see previous entry)]
Made in Saskatchewan
Scientific and technical ingenuity of tinkerers and inventors
In 1913 a key figure in the Church, Withers and Simister Company invented a post hole digger that had an attachment for setting posts. He claimed it enabled one man to do the job instead of six.
The Meilicke calculator was the brainchild of Carl Meilicke of Dundurn, who made his first one with a tomato can. He set up Meilicke Systems Inc. factory in Chicago, where more high-tech versions of it were made. They solved specific math “problems”, each worked out in advance, and his system spat out answers. When computers came on stream, these “calculators” became obsolete.
“Blowtorch”, a life-sized mechanical horse powered by a nine-horsepower gasoline engine, was built about 1947 by W.J. McIntyre of Swift Current. Small wheels under its hooves made its legs lurch backward and forward. With its sheet metal body painted black and white, a horsehair mane and tail, it looked somewhat real. One of the three versions of it can be seen in the Moose Jaw WDM.
A straw-gas powered car was developed by U of S chemistry prof R.D. McLaurin and engineer A. R. Greig. Using existing technology to create gas (chiefly methane) from straw, they powered a car with a gas-producing balloon attached above it, with a pipe to the carburetor. This contraption turned heads in Saskatoon.
The Lux “vertical axis wind turbine” was created by Saskatoon inventor Glen Lux in the early 2000s. It is said to be cheaper to run, quieter, occupies less space, and is safer for birds. There is a model of it in the WDM.
Veterinarian William Ballard created the recipe for what became “Dr. Ballard’s Dog Food”, and canned it. His son, William Robert Ballard, born in 1914 in Grenfell, turned the concoction into a popular pet food brand.
U of S grad Jackie Martin of Viking Innovations invented a system for preventing kitchen fires, called the Dalmation.
The Draganfly X6UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) is basically a remote-controlled gizmo that looks like a helicopter and functions a bit like a drone with cameras on board. In 2008 Popular Science Magazine called it their “best of what’s new in aviation and space.” It is made by Draganfly Innovations Inc.
Ernie Symons, a nineteen-year-old tinkerer/blacksmith, developed the Symons Oiler. Existing oil cans inspired him to improve the design; he applied for a patent in 1922 and launched a business that took him as far afield as Burma.
The Gofer EV is an electric vehicle (EV) that looks something like a golf cart. It was developed by PapaBravo, founded by Patrick Byrns of Saskatoon in 2010. It is a boon in mines because it doesn’t pollute the air.
Driving off in winter without unplugging one’s block heater cord elicits curses — it’s annoying and costly to fix. Now a U of S grad has brought us a magnetic, prong-less, block-heater plug that connects and disconnects easily. (Ordinary ones take nimble fingers and thirty-five pounds of pressure to plug in or unplug.) Jarash Janfada invented the “Voltsafe” concept, and electrical engineer William Topping designed the device. It’ll help absent-minded or disabled drivers, and arthritic seniors, and is expected in Federated-Co-op stores in December 2019. (Note to southerners: Block heaters, invented in 1947, are essential in sub-zero climes.)
[WDM staff; Saskatchewan Trivia; Green & White fall 2016; Voltsafe: voltsafe.com; CKOM Radio Saskatoon, CJME Regina, Global News Saskatoon, 24 October 2019]
Television broadcasting history
How we got the “boob tube” – 1954 to 1971
Because Saskatchewan was too remote to piggyback on signals from big American cities, television took root slowly here. Private broadcasters gave the new technology its initial boost. Luckily, local writers have chronicled the saga of the evolution of TV here.
Early television experiments were conducted in Saskatoon by Sigurd Sanda, a machinist from Norway who designed and built “one of the world’s first” television transmission and receiving sets. As the story goes, he transmitted in 1929 the first TV signals from the Zenith Building in downtown Saskatoon, using his mechanical invention. Unfortunately, his brand of television didn’t catch on.
The first television “broadcast” (or perhaps “narrowcast”) using TV cameras occurred in Saskatoon in 1949 during a medical convention at the Bessborough Hotel. Surgeons performed operations in front of enormous television cameras at CFQC, which broadcasted them to the hotel and wowed the assembled doctors. TV close-ups showed its potential for demonstrating surgical techniques to medical students, up close and personal in large groups.
Television made its formal debut in Canada in the 1950s, and in 1954 here. That year TV sets were selling like hotcakes. More than 110,000 sets were sold in Saskatchewan between 1955 and 1959, more than households with indoor plumbing.
Until 1966 television stations in Saskatchewan were privately-owned affiliates, not owned by CBC.
In the 1950s privately-owned stations affiliated with the CBC did many of their own programs, which were local in nature to reflect our own realities. As is the case today, they carried news, sports and weather, but there was more. Local TV stars were born, in programs such as “Sallytime”, “Smokey’s Cabin” and “Kids’ Bids.” There was even a teen dance program on CFQC in the 1950s, “Teens on TV” probably modelled on “American Bandstand” hosted by Dick Clark.
In Regina, CKCK-TV started to broadcast on July 28, 1953, after an abortive start.
In Saskatoon, A.A. Murphy, owner of CFQC, got the first television license and began broadcasting later in 1954. The StarPhoenix, CKOM and others were all clamouring to get into the act but – no dice.
Moose Jaw’s CHAB-TV had birthing pains too, enduring both technical glitches and sparring among businesses.
Would-be viewers had to live within sixty-five kilometres of a transmitter and erect rooftop aerials. Even in the cities our TV sets often blasted us with noisy “snow” in early broadcasting days.
The microwave network arrived here in 1957. Before that, we had to rely on pony express. Well, not really, but we did have to wait for films of programs to be shipped – not very satisfactory for hockey games and the like! But we did get the cream of the crop from CBC and three American networks.
In 1958 a new broadcasting act set up an independent Broadcast Board of Governors, which permitted satellite stations to rebroadcast to smaller places. Before that legislation, all stations had to hook up with CBC.
Then private groups in the cities created their own network, CTV, in 1961. Moose Jaw got a CTV station, so it could offer different fare than nearby Regina, and their lucky viewers had a choice of two networks.
Between 1954 and 1969, there were six privately owned stations, located in Saskatoon, Regina, Swift Current, Moose Jaw, Prince Albert and Yorkton. Each city only had one station at first, so there were no family feuds about what to watch.
Prince Albert’s CKBI went on air in 1958. Their satellite station in North Battleford began broadcasting in February 1961, but signals from Edmonton kept interfering until CKBI built a more powerful transmitter.
A demand arose for a CBC-owned and operated station. After a government freeze on applications for licenses was lifted, CBC won approval for its own station in April 1965. By 1969 the CBC had its very own stations in Moose Jaw and Regina, but Saskatoon had to apply three times, with government, citizens and local ringleaders “squawking loudly” before getting their own CBC station, in October 1971.
Even in the early 1960s northerners were beseeching the powers that be for service up there. CBC finally got the go-ahead to broadcast in Uranium City and El Dorado and went on air in 1968 and 1969. In 1970, 11.5 percent of Saskatchewan households still did not have good TV reception.
Prince Albert pioneered the cable system in this province in 1955, and Weyburn and Estevan followed suit in 1958 and 1959. (The latter could piggyback off signals from the U.S.) Of the 264,000 household in Saskatchewan with TV, only 5,800 had cable. Finally, in the 1980s, cable spread its tentacles far and wide.
Colour TV arrived with peacocks and fanfare in the 1960s. For example, in 1966 CFQC-TV scored equipment to produce network, film, slide and videotape shows in colour. That was also the year it became a full affiliate of the CTV network. In 1971 it bought three RCA Colour Studio cameras, and graduated to full colour programming.
[Zenith broadcast: Wayne Schmalz, On Air: Radio in Saskatchewan; “Zenith Block Tuned in to Television,” Saskatoon Sun, 22 December 1996, B8. Broadcast to doctors: StarPhoenix 1949. History of television: Bonnie Wagner, We Proudly Begin Our Broadcast Day: Saskatchewan and the Arrival of Television, 1954-1969 (master’s thesis U of S Department of History, October 2004); Bonnie Wagner, “Squawk, and Squawk Loudly”, citing DBS and Statistics Canada documents; Saskatoon History Review (vol. 19, 2005): 1-6]