After the Second World War, Canada experienced a baby boom that echoes in our nation to this day. During that same post-war period, socio-economic policies gave rise to unprecedented prosperity in Canada. In response to the nation's shift, NRC returned to civilian research and focused on construction, manufacturing and health technologies that improved the livelihood of all, including returning veterans.
From nuclear pioneers to leaders
Nuclear energy for peaceful purposes
NRC's ZEEP (Zero Energy Experimental Pile), Canada's first nuclear reactor and the first one in the world built outside the U.S., went critical at 3:45 PM, September 5, 1945, in Chalk River, Ontario.
In 1940–1942, George Laurence achieved nuclear fission and built a prototype reactor at NRC in Ottawa. Next, Canada successfully collaborated with Britain and France to design ZEEP, Canada's first operational nuclear reactor. By late 1945, Canada lit up the first-ever reactor outside the United States and committed post-war resources to peaceful nuclear uses.
Research reactors followed. Canadians developed NRX in 1947, the world's top reactor for several years. Its successor, NRU, is the world's oldest operating reactor. Its ongoing applications include developing and producing medical isotopes to diagnose diseases and treat cancer, tests for reactor fuel and components, designs for CANDU power reactors, cobalt-60 for sterilizing medical equipment, neutrons to research and test materials, and early nuclear safety guidelines.
Apart from research leadership, economic and social gains resulted. Canada's nuclear industry, with revenues exceeding $6.6 billion annually, accounts for nearly 40 000 jobs and generates 58 per cent of Ontario's electricity.
Snow state and the seven morphs
The world's snow classification system
NRC's groundbreaking snow studies and the resulting classiﬁcation system have supported decades of snow-related R&D around the world, affecting the design of roads, buildings and consumer products.
Dry. Wet. New. Old. Dense. Granular… Snow descriptions vary widely. Not being able to consistently measure snow's mechanical and physical properties made it difficult to predict how snow would affect everything from transportation and construction to snow sports and spring run-offs.
To conduct Canada's first national snow survey in 1947, NRC's George Klein designed instruments and protocols necessary for measuring snow. He described and measured snow's average grain size and shape, hardness, temperature, specific gravity and free-water content. Experts worldwide took notice. Together with American V.J. Schaefer and Swiss M.R. de Quervain, Klein went on to lead the development of the first International Classification for Snow in 1951, which classified seven morphological shapes for snow crystals plus extra states of frozen precipitation—hail, graupel and ice pellets.
Scientists continue to refine that classification to reflect meteorological and technological advances, including machine-made snow and additional types of snow. Standardized snow measurement influences everyone by making transportation, workplaces and recreation safer—for example, specifying snow loads for building codes and bridge designs, as well as preventing avalanches.
No runway? No problem.
The De Havilland Beaver
NRC improved the skis on the De Havilland Beaver, Canada's most successful bush plane, by making them lighter, more aerodynamic and less sticky on snow.
Marked by lakes, mountains, permafrost and forests, Canada's North cannot accommodate conventional runways. Yet, pilots shuttle necessary supplies and even people to those remote areas. So, pilots requested a safe aircraft capable of quickly landing on and taking off from water, snow and land hemmed in by trees and rock faces.
In 1947, de Havilland Canada unveiled its DHC-2 Beaver, a short-take-off-and-landing (STOL) aircraft. By 1948, production versions materialized. The versatile Beaver exceeded pilot needs in the air, on floats and on wheels, but Ontario's Air Service asked NRC to improve the Beaver's skis. NRC engineers triumphed with lighter, more aerodynamic skis that adhered less to ice. Soon, the engineers' expanded role included performance and wind-tunnel tests, wing designs, engine modifications and STOL enhancements for the Beaver and its descendants—the Otter and Twin Otter.
More than half a century later, pilots revere and pay heftily for the hundreds of Beavers and Otters still actively flown in demanding environments worldwide. At 1 692 produced, Beavers set a Canadian aircraft manufacturing record and launched the nation's STOL industry.
Tracking down rail solutions
Engineering a range of rail technologies
NRC engineers removed the distinctive "clickety-clack" from train tracks by developing techniques to lay 426-metre welded rail sections instead of bolted 12-metre sections, substantially lowering maintenance costs and giving passengers a smoother ride.
City of Toronto Archives (S648_Fi0115_ID0002)
Canada's train and streetcar rails spanned tens of thousands of kilometres in the mid-20th century. Rails had to permit passenger and freight cars to travel safely, efficiently and quietly.
Using a reverberation chamber, NRC engineers simulated rail noise from subway tunnels. One of those engineers was even seconded to conduct varied construction research as Toronto built its subway system. To reduce train derailment potential and improve operating efficiency, the engineers developed ways to prevent snow and ice accumulation on track switches. The team also created longer welded rails with wider spacing between rail joints, which reduced maintenance costs and contributed to smoother rides.
NRC's work and recommendations led to ideal placement of sound-absorbent material that minimized subway noise. By treating rails with varying thicknesses of automobile undercoating, the engineers could cut rail noise by half. All this expertise fed future projects, including the development and implementation of simulation techniques that saved millions of dollars annually, by reducing rail and wheel wear. It also led to fewer failures. Engineering delivered improved safety, less noise, efficiency gains and cost savings.
Well on wheels
Useable, motorized wheelchairs for vets
NRC's George Klein invented the first truly practical electric wheelchair when he fixed the flaws of earlier designs, by increasing the electric drive's voltage, adding independent drives to the wheels and adding a sophisticated control device that looked like a "joystick".
The Second World War created a new kind of war veteran. Penicillin enabled 9 out of 10 soldiers to survive war injuries, although many veterans were para- and quadriplegics when they returned to Canadian families and hospitals. Manual wheelchairs were inadequate, especially for quadriplegics, who could not move around independently.
NRC's George Klein invented a useable electric wheelchair by fixing flaws in earlier, unacceptable designs. First, he increased the electric drive's voltage, then added independent drives to each of the main wheels so the chair pivoted easily. His sophisticated controller with eight different positions resembles the modern joystick still in use for today's wheelchairs. Klein continued to perfect the design by working closely with patients who would eventually use the chairs. He even devised a control system that allowed patients to operate the chair by applying pressure with a cheek instead of hands.
The result was the first truly practical electric wheelchair—an invention that would change the lives of people with severe disabilities. Along the way, the field of rehabilitation engineering was pioneered.
And the beat goes on
The world's first pacemaker
NRC researchers invented the world's first cardiac pacemaker in 1950 and decades later NRC was also credited with creating the world's first "biological pacemaker" charged by the body's own energy.
During the 1940s, Canadian surgeons experimented with extreme cold to slow the heart rate during open-heart surgery. But, they could not figure out how to safely restart a heart that had stopped beating. Surgeons needed a way of creating an alternative, repetitive, electrical impulse—one that mimicked the heart's own natural impulse and spared the heart muscle from injury.
NRC assigned engineer John A. Hopps to the task. He developed an electrical pacemaker circuit that supplied a gentle stimulation with a dial controlling the rate of stimulation. The device itself was a metal cabinet about the size of a thick cereal box. It used vacuum tubes to generate the electrical pulses, while an insulated wire inserted through a large vein in the neck delivered the electric shocks.
This Canadian discovery forged a new field of research in biomedical engineering. Over the years, advancements in battery technology have led to miniaturized, implantable pacemakers. Hopps received his own pacemaker in 1984, learning first-hand the value of his monumental research.
Blasting away tumours
Cancer-fighting cobalt-60 isotopes
In the early 1950s, NRC produced the isotopes for the cobalt-60 bomb treatment that launched a new era in radiation therapy for cancer, saving millions of people around the world.
Since shortly after Marie Curie's 1898 radium discovery, radioactive sources have treated assorted diseases and afflictions. While promising for some localized cancers, radioactive sources could not reach deep tumours.
Then, Canada opened its powerful NRX nuclear reactor. New radioactive isotopes, developed for medicine and science, had entered the scene. Among them was a cancer-fighting contender: cobalt-60. To make radiation beams hit previously unreachable tumours, researchers increased cobalt-60's strength and concentration thousands of times. NRC began mass-producing cobalt-60 and developed dozens of different isotopes at NRX. By the early 1950s, the so-called "cobalt bomb" boosted patientsurvival rates by 75 per cent for cancers that previously had survival rates of one in five people for more than five years.
Ultimately, NRC medical physicists invented technology for targeting and destroying only cancerous tissue. Based on the Monte Carlo statistical technique, the technology quickly calculates individualized and precise doses of radiation. NRC licensed that technology to Nordion Canada Inc., and now it is in use at cancer clinics worldwide.
Down but not out
Inventing the crash position indicator
NRC built the Crash Position Indicator, a precursor to the black box, which not only could indicate the location of a downed aircraft but could also survive the impact of a crash, as well as related fires, explosions or exposure to water.
Searching for a downed plane in a remote area, especially Canada's far north, without a distress signal is like looking for a needle in a haystack. The best experimental crash position system needed too many parts: a parachute, a shock absorber, an external extendable antenna, two orienting arms and a flotation bag.
Legendary NRC engineer Harry Stevinson invented a device with no moving parts but containing a transmitter, antenna and delivery system in one tiny package. If mounted externally on the plane with a spring-loaded mechanism that released on impact, the new crash position indicator would lift to a safe distance. Stevinson designed a protective skin and a shock absorber that was tough but transparent to radio waves. An antenna transmitted a signal, regardless of orientation to the Earth's surface. The device could float, was fire resistant and was eventually manufactured by Leigh Instruments, near Ottawa.
Today, the famed "black box" incorporates a flight recorder and is a permanent fixture on commercial aircraft all around the world. NRC later developed further expertise in retrieving data from damaged flight recorders.
Research that matters
Pioneering methods for neutron scattering
In 1994, Bertram Neville Brockhouse, famous for pioneering methods for neutron spectrometry, shared the Nobel Prize in Physics with Clifford Shull of MIT for research conducted several decades earlier in the field of neutron scattering for condensed matter.
Since the early days of physics, scientists have grappled to understand the fundamental nature of matter. In the absence of sophisticated technology, key properties about atomic structure and behaviour remained a mystery.
Enter Bertram Neville Brockhouse, a physicist who would help change all that when he joined NRC's atomic energy project at the Chalk River Laboratories in 1950. Over the course of his career, Brockhouse developed spectroscopes and their applications for inelastic neutron scattering, a field of spectroscopy that employs neutrons to measure the movements of atoms within materials. Using tools such as the triple-axis neutron spectrometer, the process analyzes how neutrons behave when they are beamed through matter.
Brockhouse earned the 1994 Nobel Prize in Physics for his outstanding work, and today his techniques still provide critical tools for researchers in solid-state physics and organic chemistry. Practical applications in biology include the study of virus structure and DNA molecules. In the transport industry, engineers can test the amount of stress created by manufacturing processes for rail, car and aircraft parts.
Safer navigation through the Seymour Narrows
NRC engineered the leveling of Ripple Rock with explosives in the Seymour Narrows of British Columbia, making the volatile stretch of water safely navigable in 1958.
Museum at Campbell River (Ripple Rock Explosion 19984-3)
Powerful, unpredictable currents churn the Seymour Narrows, a waterway on the inside passage of Vancouver Island. For centuries, a submerged mountain—Ripple Rock or ‘Ol Rip—presented an added hazard. At low tide, its rocky claws neared the water's surface, gashing and sinking boats, which caused more than one hundred deaths. Currents foiled all attempts to trim Ripple Rock's peaks.
In 1953, NRC researchers studied the feasibility of carving vertical and horizontal tunnels from nearby Maud Island to Ripple Rock. Picture how robbers dig indirect, underground paths to access bank vaults. NRC recommended and then guided the multi-million dollar engineering project. Companies readied the shafts and explosives. On April 5, 1958, the world's largest non-nuclear explosion to date sheared off Ripple Rock's topmost peaks.
The controlled blast opened up safer navigation. Today, freighters and cruise ships sail the Seymour Narrows, connecting northern B.C. and Alaska to Vancouver and Seattle. Canada celebrates Ripple Rock as a national historic event and an engineering triumph that drew global attention from atomic scientists.
A timely invention
Designing an early cesium clock
Since 1939, NRC has been Canada's official time-keeper – CBC radio listeners would use "the beginning of the long dash" to set their clocks to the exact time.
For thousands of years, humans have searched for the most accurate means to monitor time. However, Earth's daily rotation lacks uniformity for accurate measurement and man-made timekeeping devices were unreliable—that is, until the development of atomic clocks.
NRC scientists designed one of the world's first cesium clocks in 1958, a foundational instrument that would lead them to build the most stable and accurate clock in the world—so precise, it would be off by no more than three seconds in a million years. Cesium clocks are useful for providing a definition of time, or a primary frequency standard, used to monitor other clocks. In 1970, NRC assumed the entire timekeeping function for the country and shortly thereafter created the first instrument in the world to combine the accuracy of a primary frequency standard with the capability of a continuously operating clock.
As a standalone, NRC's new instrument resolved the problem of shifting frequencies in secondary clocks. It became Canada's primary time standard and was used in setting official time scales and clocks around the world.
Setting the flow of history
Studies of the St. Lawrence Seaway
NRC played a role in the building of the St. Lawrence Seaway by helping model the planned construction and its impacts.
The St. Lawrence Seaway, with seven locks built in the Montréal–Lake Ontario section, opened in 1959. It is recognized as one of the most challenging engineering feats ever. Beyond actual construction, building the Seaway also involved the management of major bridges and tunnels, and the relocation of highways, towns and villages in the flooding path.
NRC modeled parts of the planned construction to help determine the Seaway's best flow. Additionally, since several towns were abandoned for flooding, NRC gained a full-scale site to burn pre-demolition. That fueled critical research for fire safety. The resulting information helped amend Canada's National Building Code, and NRC's fire testing even led to the adoption of smoke detectors instead of heat detectors. Other countries took notice and integrated Canada's fire amendments into their fire and safety codes. Ice also presented significant challenges during the Seaway's construction, and enabled NRC to conduct extensive snow and ice research.
The Seaway opened trade, navigation and research opportunities. Research continues today, including an NRC study on harnessing hydroelectric power without constructing Seaway dams or floodgates.
A pinch-hit for surgeons
Early kidney transplants and first successful microsurgical stapler
Famed Canadian surgeon Isaac Vogelfanger collaborated with NRC engineers to co-develop the world's first successful device for microsurgical stapling.
Despite technological advances in medicine in the 1950s and early 1960s, doctors were not fully exploring certain medical innovations. The root problem: surgical limitations. Surgeons found that manual sutures to reconnect tiny arteries and veins demanded extraordinary skill. They also took upwards of 30 minutes—time that may not even have been feasible for particular surgeries.
To overcome these constraints, famed Canadian surgeon Isaac Vogelfanger and other doctors collaborated with NRC engineers. Together, the cross-disciplinary team co-developed the world's first successful device for microsurgical stapling. Considered highly sophisticated for its time, the NRC–Vogelfanger stapler was a tube-like instrument that could surround severed blood vessels as small as one millimetre. It snapped sterile staples into place within seconds, thus replacing the slow, intricate manual process.
The device saved many lives and enabled researchers to explore new techniques for neurosurgery, transplants and deep-wound repair. Without the stapler's rapid precision, that era's pioneering kidney transplants and heart procedures may not have happened. Ultimately, Montréal-based Preci Surgical Ltd. commercialized the device and derivative technologies internationally.
Say hello to helo control
NRC pioneered variable stability fly-by-wire helicopters and used the technology to create airborne simulators for testing a wide range of aircraft designs and for training helicopter pilots.
As helicopter designs matured, their speed, manoeuvrability, stability and performance increased. Yet, pilots flying at night in combat or in bad weather did not necessarily experience all those improvements. In general, pilots rely on cockpit instruments when situational awareness is limited. However, helicopters are harder than other aircraft to operate on instruments alone.
In 1960, NRC pioneered fly-by-wire (FBW) technology. FBW converts readings from cockpit instrumentation into electronic signals and transfers manual controls to a computer system that calculates and executes commands to control flight speed, pitch angle and other variables. After engineers modified FBW for a helicopter as the first airborne flight simulator, NRC continuously honed successive generations of FBW.
FBW enables pilots to fly safely, conduct mission-related tasks and simulate different aircraft types. Flight schools send hundreds of pilots to NRC for specialized training on some of the world's most highly modified FBW and research helicopters. They can operate as in-flight simulators to let students practice handling various aircraft, including, more recently, a moon lander. Bell Helicopter released the world's first commercial FBW helicopter in 2012.
Cheating "white death"
Rogers Pass avalanche prevention
NRC researchers helped select the safest route to cut through Rogers Pass and proposed snow sheds and other structures to safeguard particularly vulnerable spots.
Revelstoke Museum and Archives (Peter Schaerer Collection)
Outdoor recreationists who venture into Canada's mountainous areas represent 90 per cent of Canadian avalanche deaths. As builders planned to extend the Trans-Canada Highway through British Columbia's remote Rogers Pass, they recognized that drivers would be at risk of avalanches, often called "white death."
To protect future motorists, the highway builders approached Canadian engineers who had decades of experience in snow and ice research. NRC researchers helped select the safest route to cut through Rogers Pass, and they proposed snowsheds and other structures to safeguard particularly vulnerable spots. The researchers also taught highway operators how to predict avalanches by observing snow cover, temperature and wind conditions.
That training evolved into today's professional courses, which are required for virtually everyone who works in Canada's avalanche-prone zones. Now, Rogers Pass is guarded by the world's largest mobile avalanche-control program. This program includes remote sensors, weather and snowpack observations as well as elaborate defence systems, including artillery to proactively trigger imminent avalanches. Together, these measures have prevented avalanches from killing Rogers Pass motorists since the highway opened.
Telescopic space boom
STEM technology for every Alouette, Mercury, Gemini and Apollo flight
STEM, a unique antenna technology developed by NRC, was used on all of the early Canadian satellites such as Alouette 1 & 2, and was flown on NASA's Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions.
Photo of the Alouette satellite (98-1303) provided by Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada
Canada's first satellite, Alouette, launched in 1962, required antennae to be light but substantial enough to withstand the force of space travel and still send signals back to Earth. Alouette was designed to study the ionosphere, a charged layer of the atmosphere, so it needed several long antennae.
NRC's legendary inventor, George Klein, had designed a storable, tubular, extendible member (STEM) antenna for military purposes. Strong, compact, robust and functional, the telescopic antenna was adapted for Alouette, which successfully carried four antennae into space. The antennae rolled up like a carpenter's measuring tape during launch and flew on all of the early crewed United States space missions: Mercury, Gemini and Apollo. STEM increased the maximum size of satellite antennae from six metres to 45 metres, and was eventually adopted as standard space technology.
As with nearly all space age research, STEM technology was modified for many earthly tasks: in booms to elevate camera and lighting systems, in hydrodynamic winches, as legs on survey tripods, as tools that load industrial ovens, and to move equipment in dangerous mining and nuclear facilities.
Freedom to connect
Devices for children with disabilities
Orest Z. Roy of NRC was responsible for developing a communications device called the COMHANDI, which enabled people with severe paralysis to communicate by building words on an electronic letter board.
Until the 1960s, persons with disabilities faced an absence of assistive products, which limited options for daily activity or even basic communication. Thalidomide and the Vietnam War increased the number of persons, including children, in need of specialized tools—ones to empower active participation in society.
At this tipping point, federal minister Walter Dinsdale and NRC researchers Orest Roy and Raymond Charbonneau championed a unique public-private partnership: Technical Aids and Systems for the Handicapped (TASH). Based in Markham, Ontario, this manufacturer supplied Canadian medical devices initially based on products from NRC's biomedical engineering research. For example, a 1963 innovation called COMHANDI enabled people with severe paralysis to communicate and build words on an electronic letter board using the slightest movement, even from eyelids.
User-friendly assistive technologies and learning tools held children's attention so well that they considered them toys. TASH marketed nearly 200 products in more than 25 countries and earned millions in sales. The human impact was incalculable. Through tools that allow human connections, NRC's biomedical team built a lasting bridge to inclusion.
From undrinkable to potable
Membrane technology for water purification
NRC collaborated with UCLA to make reverse osmosis commercially feasible with a technique (known as the Loeb-Sourirajan method) to purify water using membranes.
Human survival relies upon fresh water. Researchers have long looked to osmosis and membranes to remove impurities from water. However, by the middle of the 20th century, low flow rates and partial filtration still hampered studies underway at universities and government laboratories.
The turning point materialized when NRC's Srinivasa Sourirajan collaborated with Sidney Loeb, a chemical engineer based in California, to make reverse osmosis (RO) commercially feasible. The Loeb–Sourirajan technique purifies water by forcing high volumes of pressurized water through asymmetric, semipermeable membranes made of cellulose acetate—a natural plastic.
Subsequently, NRC designed RO membranes for various industries. For example, by filtering up to 80 per cent of the water from sap before making maple syrup, Canadian producers now save energy costs and reduce consumption. NRC's specialty membranes also concentrated fruit juices and reduced liquid-waste industry discharges.
Growing populations trigger construction of ever more RO treatment plants. Today, the Loeb-Sourirajan RO technique influences thousands of RO plants for water purification and food processing. The filters are also used in environmental and medical applications like dialysis filters.
Breeding canola's billion-dollar industry
In the 1950s, NRC researchers contributed to the development of Canola, a nutritious and valuable made-in-Canada crop grown across the country.
Traditionally, oil from rapeseed plants was a popular industrial lubricant for train and marine uses. After the Second World War and as diesel displaced steam engines, demand for rapeseed oil plummeted. Efforts to re-market rapeseed to consumers flopped; the plant was unfit for human and animal consumption. Consequently, Canadian farmers contemplated rapeseed's worth, even if it meant increasing their over-dependence on wheat crops for revenues.
NRC scientists, Agriculture Canada crop researchers and prairie academics collaborated for decades to make rapeseed palatable by reducing erucic acid and glucosinolate levels. Using plant breeding and other techniques, they created new varieties that minimized unwanted traits, hastened growth, boosted disease resistance, and improved nutritional value and oil yield. Those transformations bred a different plant: "Canadian oil low acid," or canola.
Now, canola is in products such as foods, cosmetics, biofuel and animal feed. Annually, canola contributes more than $19 billion to Canada's economy, while supporting nearly 250,000 jobs. Canada continues to grow the crop by the millions of hectares and serves as the global centre for canola research.