1916 - 1945


Wars and turbulent times

The National Research Council of Canada's first chapter was characterized by the challenges of a wheat-dependent economy, northern exploration, the Great Depression, and two world wars. Canada transformed its society and its place in the world. Therefore, early research at NRC focused on military and agricultural security as well as developing Canada's natural resources.

Story number 1

Cementing a solution

Saving deteriorating concrete in Western Canada

In the 1920s, NRC oversaw research on the deterioration of concrete in Western Canada, which eventually led to the manufacture of alkali-resistant cement.
City of Calgary Archives (Cal A950612021)

In 1920, NRC was asked to help solve a pressing problem. Cement was deteriorating rapidly in western Canada, affecting public buildings, sewers and aqueducts. The root cause was unknown.

Without its own laboratories in the region, NRC established an associate committee, secured public and private funding, and led a consortium of university, industry and government researchers as well as the Engineering Institute of Canada. Extensive experimentation ensued, and chemical analysis of a deteriorating basement in Saskatchewan provided the missing key. There, the groundwater showed an abundance of sodium sulphate that attacked tricalcium aluminate, a primary ingredient in cement, plus excess magnesium sulphate that posed problems for other cement ingredients. An unfavourable mineral cocktail in the groundwater was to blame.

Identifying and overcoming the problem took nearly seven years. To immunize tricalcium aluminate and protect cement from sulphate or alkali destruction, research teams applied a process called steam curing. Consequently, manufacturers developed cement more resistant to alkali deterioration, which reduced repair costs and extended the lifetime of infrastructure in Western Canada.

Story number 2

Rust in the bread basket

Defending wheat for Canadian farmers

The battle against Wheat Rust, a crop disease once responsible for the loss of tens of millions of dollars worth of wheat, was effectively won by an NRC-led effort to breed rust-resistant strains in the 1920s and 1930s.
Library and Archives Canada (collections PA-043198)

Wheat has helped make Canada one of the world's great bread baskets, earning nearly $15 billion annually. A serious fungus known as rust has afflicted wheat crops around the world throughout history. In Canada, wheat rust, with its various and easily transmitted strains, has caused severe epidemics dating back to 1916.

NRC began its support for wheat research in 1918 to identify troublesome strains, and created a rust research program in the early 1920s. Persistent epidemics required significant partnerships with farmers, university and other government biologists. Rust-resistant wheat varieties of high milling and baking quality were tested successfully. Over the years, however, the fungus continued to mutate, causing epidemics in the 1950s and requiring persistent research efforts. McKenzie is one of the latest rust-resistant breeds, outperforming its hardy predecessors Neepawa, Katepwa and Roblin.

Today, NRC is part of the Canadian Wheat Alliance, a formal scientific partnership that coordinates wheat breeding, genomics, biotechnology and pathology to produce wheat that can better resist environmental stress and diseases.

Story number 3

Picture perfect

Aerial surveying with bush planes

In 1920, Canada first combined photography and surveying during an experimental flight, which eventually led to the development of precise instruments, improving aerial-photography practices.

Early surveyors built observation towers and climbed mountaintops to generate maps. The maps took years to make and rarely included remote areas.

In 1920, Canada first combined photography and surveying during an experimental flight. Subsequently, NRC launched the Associate Committee on Survey Research, with participation from federal partners, and led a photography subcommittee focusing on calculating measurements. Heading up that work, NRC's L.E. Howlett combined physics, metrology and eventually optics and radar to develop precise instruments and improve aerial-photography practices.

Howlett enabled pilots and surveyors to obtain clearer pictures by recommending that flight altitude guide lens selection and settings. Camera attachments became more stable and aeronautics improved due to NRC designs. Using its wind tunnel, NRC's team perfected the three-camera system, which permitted better aerial identification and the ability to accurately adjust and measure multiple camera angles.

Science, engineering, aerial photography and advanced surveying quickly filled in Canada's map, particularly its northernmost regions. Today, aerial photography's fine details complement satellite images for detailed mapping, military reconnaissance activities, tracking geological changes, managing forests and waterways, and urban planning.

Story number 4

Hard-pressed for fuel

Making Saskatchewan's lignite coal viable

NRC oversaw a project in the 1920s which made lignite coal from Saskatchewan a viable fuel for heating, power and rail transportation.
Library and Archives Canada collections PA-015316)

By sending fuel overseas during the First World War, Canadians experienced fuel shortages, price hikes and rationing. At that time coal was a source of fuel for heating, power and rail transportation, so Canada became desperately dependent on imported coal from the United States.

Vast amounts of lignite coal could be mined in Saskatchewan, but lignite naturally offers low heating value. So, NRC established a committee to acquire funding for and oversee a collaborative project to transform lignite into viable fuel. The research focused on hardening techniques like carbonizing lignite with heat and adding tar binders to form hardened coal briquettes. Initial partners included other federal departments, the governments of Saskatchewan and Manitoba, and coal users.

NRC established Canada's Lignite Utilization Board and led the implementation of new technologies for lignite coal. Production started in Bienfait, Saskatchewan in 1921, and a commercial company eventually took over the briquettes plant. For decades afterwards, lignite primarily fueled coal-fired power plants. The enhanced lignite made Saskatchewan Canada's third-largest coal producer with three mines still employing Canadians in 2012.

Story number 5

Canning the problem

Long live Canada's lobster fishery

In 1923, NRC helped to save the East Coast lobster fishery by discovering the source of the discolouration in their canned products and introducing an inexpensive solution.
Library and Archives Canada (collections PA-047921)

In 1920, industry solicited NRC's assistance when Canada's lobster canners faced an unappetizing problem: discoloured lobster meat. Often, discarding the affected cans was the only solution. Delivering live lobster to distant areas was difficult, so canning the meat was integral to the viability and value of Canada's lobster fishery.

NRC researchers soon discovered the source of the discolouration. Bacteria in the cans had produced hydrogen sulphide, which reacted with iron in the cans to produce iron sulphite, visible as a dark colour. The researchers also determined that the alkalinity of brine, used to pickle the lobster, further contributed to darkening the lobster meat. They overcame the first problem by developing a specific heat-sterilization process and the second by adding vinegar or citric acid to boost the brine's acidity.

These simple, inexpensive techniques increased the value of canned lobster and contributed to the industry's longevity. Though lobster canning eventually declined after improvements in transportation and refrigeration made shipping live lobster possible, Canadian research ensured the survival of the lobster fishery and continued employment for Atlantic Canadians.

Story number 6

Fast-tracking safety and speed

Streamlining the locomotive for improvement in rail travel

In the 1930s, NRC engineering helped to launch the era of streamlined locomotives, which improved fuel efficiency and prevented smoke from obscuring the view ahead.
Canada Science and Technology Museums Corporation

In the early 1930s, steam locomotives needed shorter smokestacks if they were to travel through the growing number of tunnels and under bridges that spanned tracks. But, when travelling at high speeds, smoke would billow into their cabs, clouding the engineers' view of the signals and tracks. Although visibility, and therefore safety, improved at slower speeds, passengers would then complain about delays.

This led Canadian National Railways to enlist NRC to solve the problem. Using its new wind tunnel, NRC tested the aerodynamics of models for existing locomotives and proposed alternate designs, including a sleeker, more streamlined design. One such design was put into production and unveiled in 1936 as the 6400.

The semi-streamlined design resolved the problems and its aerodynamics substantially improved the locomotive's efficiency. During the 1939 World's Fair in New York City, the 6400 gained instant fame. If imitation is a form of flattery, then locomotive manufacturers soon paid tribute globally. From the late 1930s to 1950s, locomotives sporting the 6400's likeness appeared on tracks worldwide. The 6400's silhouette also graced that era's countless travel posters.

Story number 7

Exacting standards

Avoiding another Ross Rifle

Members of the First Canadian Division returning their Ross rifles at Kingston, Ontario
Library and Archives Canada (collections PA-061466)

The Ross Rifle Fiasco during the First World War saw Canadian soldiers ill-equipped with hunting weapons unsuited to warfare and trench conditions. Tragically, on European battlefields, soldiers replenished their rifles with British Enfield ammunition, which fit but was slightly mismatched compared to Canadian ballistic measurements. As such, bullets frequently jammed in the rifle, leaving Canadian troops vulnerable and causing countless deaths.

After witnessing the horrors of unarmed Canadians on the frontlines, General Andrew McNaughton vowed to focus on the importance of accurate and standard measurements through his role as NRC president. He championed NRC's activities in metrology—the science of exacting weights and measures—to avoid jeopardizing the lives of Canadian soldiers with inconsistent ammunition.

Metrology underpinned NRC's contribution to the design, testing and manufacture of a wide range of weapons and supplies for Canada's military and its Allies during the Second World War. Whether for explosives, chemicals, radar, aeronautics, vaccines or ballistics, NRC's metrology ensured safer, reliable outcomes from defence science and technology.

Story number 8

Instant magnesium? Oh, Mg!

Creating the Canadian refractories industry

Lloyd Montgomery Pidgeon was world renowned for the development of the Pidgeon process, a method of magnesium metal production, which was crucial to the Allied effort during World War II.

Creating the Canadian refractories industry While making products like steel and cement, manufacturers shield high-temperature furnaces by inserting refractory linings. Before 1937, Canada and the world overly depended on quality, imported, Austrian magnesite—a refractory mineral containing much magnesium.

In 1925, NRC's first full-time scientist began researching how to improve Canada's magnesite and found that heat separated out impurities in a commercially viable way. By 1937, Lloyd Pidgeon developed a chemical process to bind magnesite bricks and produce the world's purest magnesium. Pidgeon's process led to the 1942 opening of Dominion Magnesium Company, Canada's first magnesium plant. The United States built five, and licensing meant NRC recouped research investments.

The Pidgeon process guaranteed North America had ample magnesium and magnesite for industry and war. Strong, lightweight magnesium's applications span automotive and aerospace, die casting, refractories and alloys. Today, China leads global magnesium production and continues to use the Pidgeon process. Furthermore, NRC's magnesite bricks led the Canada Cement Company to triple its output to use a single refractory lining, and Canadian industry subsequently exported refractories to 30 or more countries.

Story number 9

10-4 for the corps

Walkie-talkies for the frontlines

Donald Hings is credited for inventing the walkie-talkie in 1937, initially as a portable field radio for bush pilots flying between remote locations in Canada's North and then developed further as a valuable military technology while he was on loan to NRC.
Guy Cramer

Wartime requires new inventions and adaptations of pre-war technologies. That is how Donald Hings came to spend five years in Ottawa. In the early 1930s, Hings invented the first lightweight, waterproof, two-way radios for pilots in Canada's North. His long-range, handheld versions—"packsets," eventually known as walkie-talkies—were in production by 1938, spelling potential for Canada's military.

During the Second World War, on loan from his employer, Hings and his NRC colleagues would make the walkie-talkies more robust. They created versatile antennas, noise filters, power supplies and voice scramblers for handheld models suited for battle and for attaching to vehicles, including tanks.

In a 1943 speech, federal minister C.D. Howe reported that Allies had ordered "tens of millions of dollars" of Canadian walkie-talkie equipment. Some 18 000 of one model (C-58) shipped to Canada's Army Signal Corps and allied forces. The walkie-talkies performed well and saved lives through timely communications with the frontlines, including on D-Day. All told, Hings earned the Order of Canada, British honours and more than 50 patents.

Story number 10

Gearing up against gas attacks

Manufacturing gas masks for Canadian troops

NRC developed protection against weaponized gas in the late 1930s by developing and testing anti-gas fabrics, masks and machines.

German troops surprised Allied forces during the First World War by launching poisonous attacks using chlorine and mustard gases. Having seen firsthand the resulting deaths and debilitation, NRC's president, General Andrew McNaughton, urged his scientists to investigate how to mass produce gas masks for Canadian troops.

Researchers visited manufacturers in England and toured Canadian assembly plants that appeared adaptable to the task. In parallel, a team set up an NRC laboratory to test materials, identify suitable filter chemicals and design the containers that would filter out poisons. NRC worked closely with the Department of National Defence for much of this research as well as involving industry to ensure that the innovations could be delivered in a timely manner.

This groundwork and the resulting technologies generated a new assembly industry for Canadian respirators, gas detectors and anti-gas capes, which troops draped over their clothing to guard against falling poisonous gases. Most important, the domestic supply of gas masks was ample to outfit the entire First Canadian Division by the Second World War's outbreak.

Story number 11

G-suit genesis

Inventing the anti-gravity suit

The anti-gravity suit was invented by Wilbur Franks and was one of many projects initiated by NRC to protect air crew fighting in Europe during WWII.

With new aerodynamics, faster flight above the cloud line enabled fighter pilots during the Second World War to fly at speeds never before envisioned. But, problems arose, including that pilots lost consciousness during high-speed exercises. The pilots were subject to immense gravitational (G) forces, making it difficult for the heart to pump enough blood to the brain.

Dr. Wilbur Franks, from the University of Toronto, led NRC's Associate Committee on Aviation Medical Research after his mentor, Sir Frederick Banting, died in 1941. Franks began experimenting with a water-filled suit that pressed on the legs and abdomen to enable a pilot's blood to circulate normally. His preliminary tests were on mice that were surrounded by condoms filled with water. Franks also subjected himself to tests in aircraft.

Later designs used air pressure, instead of water, and included an inflatable bladder. Aviators and astronauts still use G-suits today. The British first used the Franks Flying Suit in combat during military operations in North Africa in 1942.

Story number 12

Delivering in dire times

Technology-based production for the war

Research Enterprises Limited was a successful wartime crown corporation established to build both optical and radar equipment for allied forces using NRC product designs and engineering.

In 1939, NRC President General Andrew McNaughton proposed establishing a Canadian optics industry to avoid repeating the First World War's supply shortages of optical glass and equipment. After consulting American optics experts, McNaughton was convinced of the need. His successor, C.J. Mackenzie, initiated internal activities, but realized that a factory, not his federal optics team, should deliver volume production.

Mackenzie recommended the optics proposal for special funding at the Second World War's outset. By July 1940, Canada established the Crown corporation Research Enterprises Limited (REL) to build both optical and radar equipment for allied forces. NRC contributed product designs, lent engineers to REL, and trained REL staff, and Mackenzie's influence continued throughout REL's existence.

By war's end, Toronto-based REL had more than 7 000 employees and manufactured $220 million (approximately $3 billion today) worth of binoculars, telescopic gunsights, periscopes and radar systems, including cathode ray tubes and cavity magnetrons. Upon dissolution in 1946, REL's facilities became home to Corning, Honeywell and Rogers Majestic. Canadian companies like Electrohome, General Electric Canada and Westinghouse scooped up skilled REL employees.

Story number 13

Canada's on the radar

World's first mass-produced microwave radar

NRC improvements in the cavity magnetron paved the way for the mass production of microwave radar and by 1945 NRC had developed 32 different types of radar for various military purposes, helping the Allies win the war.

Classified technology brought to Canada during the Second World War had the makings of a strategic weapon to allow the Allies to identify the enemy by radar. The devices were cavity magnetrons. Canadian researchers improved the designs and found resources to produce enormous supplies for the war effort, in absolute secrecy.

NRC was the focal point of the research, aided by universities, private industry and the military. In all, about 12 types of radar were mass-produced, and smaller quantities of 20 types were manufactured for the military. By 1941, the Northern Electric Company, later to become Nortel, made magnetrons for radar sets—a major feat, considering no one in Canada had known what a magnetron was until the year before. That year, a new company began the first ever mass-production of a radar system known as GL IIIC with orders worth $36 million ($6 billion in 2016 dollars).

Today, the cavity magnetron is the main component of the microwave oven. The technology marked the creation of an industry to design and produce electronic parts in Canada.

Story number 14

Coils of invisibility

Degaussing countermeasures for ships

NRC developed countermeasures for threats posed by German mines to allied shipping during WWII by creating technologies to degauss the magnetic field generated on steel-hulled ships that caused the mines to explode.
Library and Archives Canada (collections PA-112993)

By debilitating merchant shipping during the Second World War, mines cut off trade routes that supplied Britain and the rest of Europe. German mines were equipped with a magnetized needle, a catastrophically simple mechanism that would move slightly and detonate whenever a steel-hulled ship passed.

NRC solicited part-time help from Dalhousie University physicists to create countermeasures to reduce, or degauss, the magnetism generated by seagoing vessels. An early magnetometer device, set in a waterproof box, could be dragged beneath ships to identify their individual magnetic signatures from bow to stern and from side to side. Then, each ship was fitted with tailored-to-measure degaussing coils that counteracted the ship's magnetic signature, effectively cloaking the ship from enemy mines.

During the war, degaussing techniques were further refined by establishing the Bedford Basin Degaussing Range in Halifax. Degaussing was credited with saving 3 800 vessels and proved instrumental in winning the Battle of the Atlantic. Next-generation degaussing has been used to reduce magnetic fields from computer monitors and to erase data from magnetic storage.

Story number 15

An intelligent shell

Proximity fuses—improved ammunition for the war effort

NRC made key contributions to the development of a successful proximity fuse, which was hailed as one of the major military technology advances of World War II.

Early in the Second World War, gunners had no means of detonating a shell on target. Only by saturating an area with shells and exploding everything nearby could gunners damage a target. This left open the possibility of an enemy target escaping, in addition to wasting shells in a futile barrage. Although the British dreamed up a secret device, Canadian and U.S. support was required to realize it.

The Allies perfected a fuse with a tiny radio transmitter that could obtain its own intelligence to detect a target—and then explode. NRC specifically designed the mechanism that armed the fuse after it left the weapon barrel, eliminating the possibility of early detonation and harm to the gunner firing the weapon. The Allied mission was deemed significant enough to fly a physicist VIP-class to Britain on a Lancaster bomber.

Scientists monitored performance as one-quarter of the American electronics industry, together with three-quarters of plastic-moulding makers, set to work manufacturing the compact, reliable devices.

Story number 16

Pulp non-fiction

Project Habbakuk—dreams of an aircraft carrier made of ice

Used today for northern runways, pykrete is a mixture of wood pulp and ice developed by NRC during WWII for a secret project to build unsinkable aircraft carriers.
Habakkuk fantasy illustration created by Dominic Harman

Midway across the Atlantic, outside the reach of patrols by short-range aircraft, German submarines torpedoed ships during the Second World War. Frequent submarine attacks on supply ships prevented food and essential supplies from reaching Europe. Winston Churchill's priority was to keep trans-Atlantic shipping routes open.

In response, the British Combined Operations Headquarters proposed Project Habbakuk (misspelled after the prophet "Habakkuk" from the Hebrew bible), a massive, inexpensive, floating, pykrete airstrip. Pykrete—essentially ice reinforced with wood pulp—melted slowly and could ricochet bullets. A secret prototype took shape in Alberta. Next, NRC led Canadian universities and companies in evaluating how to build a larger-scale version. The answer: insulation, refrigeration systems, steel and hefty investment.

So, operation Habbakuk died when radar improved, and escort ships, remote bases and longer-range aircraft became available. Hindsight makes Habbakuk seem absurd, but it signaled the innovative, collaborative and desperate measures the Allies were willing to take to overcome challenges and end the war. Pykrete, named after inventor Geoffrey Pyke, has since strengthened remote, northern runways, if not a floating airstrip.

Story number 17

On the right track

The "Weasel"—a military vehicle built for snow

During the Second World War, NRC helped design the Weasel, an all-purpose assault vehicle that could glide through snow, mud, swamp and underbrush.

In 1942, Allied forces planned a winter raid to halt Hitler's activities in Norway. Snow, mud and swamps posed serious obstacles. Hence, the need for a custom, speedy, all-terrain vehicle for use by an elite American–Canadian unit nicknamed the Devil's Brigade.

NRC and American researchers independently determined that the top-secret vehicle—the Weasel—required a unique track design. To avoid ice build-up, Canadian inventor George Klein recommended all-rubber tracks, rubber-coated wheels and selfclearing sprockets. Manufacturers were wary. They conceded Klein was right after wet snow and ice clogged their metal tracks on experimental Weasels. Early Weasel models adopted his modified sprockets, but it was too late to incorporate NRC's light, all-rubber tracks. Instead, manufacturers coated the existing metal tracks with rubber, although selected later models did adopt tracks similar to Klein's.

Within seven months of the initial request, the Weasel moved to production, serving as a versatile military vehicle. In all, more than 15 000 were manufactured. The Weasel's popularity continued for decades, across many continents, including for explorers in the Arctic and Antarctica.

Story number 18

Saving Great Britain's bacon

Long-distance breakfast deliveries

NRC designed portable refrigeration units for supply ships carrying fresh meat and perishables to the British isles during the Second World War.

During the Second World War, debilitating food shortages affected most of Great Britain. Preserving and shipping high-quality Canadian bacon, eggs, poultry and other foods across the Atlantic required novel food research and refrigeration technology. Biologists at NRC laboratories, working in co-operation with federal agriculture colleagues, investigated bacterial contamination, spoilage and proper packaging.

British tastes differed from Canadian tastes. Brits liked Wiltshire bacon, not the common strip bacon that North Americans eat. So, NRC researchers perfected a Canadian version of Wiltshire bacon. They also devised methods to improve the taste, safety and shipment of eggs, egg powder and dressed poultry. NRC engineers even developed portable refrigeration units to preserve food on long voyages abroad.

A wartime agreement led to weekly bacon shipments of 2.3 (metric) tonnes from Canada to Great Britain. An egg agreement soon followed, paving the way for an entirely new market for Canadian producers in later years. Today, Canada exports more than 3.7 million tonnes of processed eggs a year.

Story number 19

Sound wave masterminds

The development of sonar

An NRC partnership led to the production of a prototype ASDIC device—the first sonar—for submarine countermeasures.
Library and Archives Canada (collections PA-184187)

The British Royal Navy's Board of Invention and Research required innovations to protect ships from submarines during the First World War. In response, Canadian physicist Robert William Boyle and French scientist Paul Langevin co-produced a prototype Anti-Submarine Detection Investigation Committee (ASDIC) device, the earliest sonar system.

Before war's end, British warships featured ASDIC devices. In 1929, a decade after returning to Canada, Boyle left academia to lead physics research at NRC, including overseeing acoustics, radar and more. Boyle hired promising graduates like George Field. Field set up NRC's acoustics laboratory and led interdepartmental international projects on how to outrival acoustic mines, and how water temperature and pressure affect sonar waves. His team invented tools to verify sonar's transmission efficiency and record oscillations, and Field's optics colleagues devised new techniques for manufacturing the quartz-crystal discs at the core of sonar devices.

From 1941 to 1943 alone, Canadian manufacturers applied those advances to produce thousands of Canadian sonar systems. NRC's sonar enhancements also helped foil submarine attacks, acoustic mines and torpedoes during the Second World War.

Story number 20

Battle of cattle plague

Eradicating a viral threat to livestock

NRC led a collaboration during World War II that developed the first Rinderpest vaccine for cost-effective mass production.

Bioterrorism, food security and pandemics are not new concerns. During the Second World War, Allies feared enemy forces would launch chemical and biological attacks. If unleashed, gases, bacteria and viruses could devastate military troops, civilians, animals and agriculture. A top concern was Rinderpest, or cattle plague. Rinderpest strikes split-hoofed animals such as cattle, sheep and pigs. The virus spreads fast and, for centuries, it continued wiping out millions of livestock and wildlife, causing people to starve, and triggering economic hardship.

To protect food supplies and guard against vulnerabilities, Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom created research stations, including at Grosse Île, Quebec. There, under NRC direction, government scientists and veterinarians collaboratively developed the first cost-effective Rinderpest vaccine for fast mass-production, using chick embryos.

The United Nations delivered large quantities to fight Rinderpest in Africa and China. The Food and Agriculture Organization recognizes the Grosse Île vaccine as a vital milestone in effective vaccine development and disease eradication. On June 28, 2011, Rinderpest was officially declared the first-ever animal disease to be eradicated globally.