Telephones, instant replay, and the whoopee cushion: New book explores history of Canadian innovation

OTTAWA — To promote a new book on Canadian innovation that he co-authored with Governor General David Johnston, Tom Jenkins is carrying around a $3 bottle of canola oil.

The book, which costs $40 and has just been published by McLelland and Stewart, is called Ingenious: How Canadian Innovators Made the World Smarter, Smaller, Kinder, Safer, Healthier, Wealthier, and Happier. It was written specifically to remind Canadians that despite frequent hand-wringing to the contrary Canada is, in fact, a nation of innovators.

This is where, in a recent interview with the authors at Rideau Hall, Jenkins reaches down and holds up the bottle of canola oil.

“Prior to the intervention of the National Research Council, this was was toxic to human consumption,” Jenkins said. “They basically bred the right strain and it’s now a $26-billion export industry. Not bad.”

Jenkins, it should be noted, is the current chair of the National Research Council, the federal government organization responsible for fostering innovation and cross-pollinating wizards in Canada’s labs with the country’s entrepreneurs. Jenkins, though, is probably best know for his long tenure as CEO of OpenText, a Waterloo, Ont. firm that Jenkins helped build into Canada’s largest software company. No longer CEO, he still serves as chairman of its board.

The story of canola oil’s transition from a product used exclusively as a lubricant in steam engines to a staple in every kitchen is right there on page 135 of the Johnston-Jenkins book. As they note, the innovation happened in the labs at the University of Manitoba, with researchers cross-breeding different rapeseed plants to reduce or eliminate the two acids in rapeseed oil that made it a great lubricant but awful for cooking.

The eureka moment came in 1974. They dubbed the new variation canola, and rest is history.

Flipping through Ingenious, one comes across dozens of these gems.

We learn the backstory on how Canadian innovators have gave us the smartphone, the telephone and the concept of standard time.

Canada came up with the caulking gun, the paint roller and the Robertson screwdriver. Robertson, in this case, was Peter Robertson of Milton, Ont., who did what he did back in 1908 while working for a Philadelphia tool company.

A Canadian innovator developed the whoopee cushion, to the world’s great delight. And a Canadian transformed sports television with the invention of the instant replay in 1955.

And, of course, even before the first Europeans arrived in Canada, Canada’s First Peoples had been innovating for centuries, perfecting means to travel — canoe, dogsled, kayak, snowshoes, toboggan — and hunt. Duck decoys made Cree and Ojibway hunters more productive hunters while megaphones made of birchbark help amplify moose calls First Nations hunters used to lure their prey.

“It’s really telling the story of so many good things that are in this country but are unknown,” Johnston said during a recent interview.

In the book Jenkins and Johnston, whose academic background is in constitutional law, make the case that very act of Confederation in 1867 was an innovation in nation-making.

Johnston and Jenkins have been good friends since they met in the late ’90s in Waterloo, Ont. Johnston had just been appointed president of the University of Waterloo and Jenkins was freshly installed as CEO of Open Text. They would form their own public-private sector partnership to make Waterloo County a global hub of technological innovation, anchored around the work of three regional universities — Waterloo, Wilfrid Laurier, and Guelph.

In addition to listing and explaining the history of Canadian innovation, the books has some practical tips drawn from Johnston’s and Jenkins’ long careers fostering innovation for present-day entrepreneurs. Scattered throughout out the book are short checklists on everything from how to improve a process to how to free your creativity to how to turn your idea into a business.

The National Post interviewed both men at Rideau Hall in a library where a portrait of Lord Tweedsmuir, one of Johnston’s predecessors, hangs over the fireplace.

Tweedsmuir who, as John Buchan, wrote the thriller The 39 Steps and 100 other novels, biographies and non-fiction works, established the Governor General’s Literary Awards in 1937 to celebrate Canadian literary accomplishments. Johnston, whose grandchildren once nicknamed him “Grandpa Book” because of his love of literature and reading, is an admirer of Tweedsmuir’s.

Inspired by Tweedsmuir’s example, Johnston, early in his term in office, established the Governor General’s Innovation Awards to celebrate the work of Canadian innovators.

Throughout his term in office, which began in 2010 and will end this September, Johnston has made innovation a pillar of his mandate.

“This office represents the head of state,” Johnston explained when asked he chose innovation as a pillar of his mandate. “The head of state is about the fundamental elements, the values of the country — our constitution, our rights and liberties.

“What Governors General have done since 1867 is they have been trying to reinforce those fundamental values. And that’s what we have been doing with things like the culture of innovation in the country.”

Innovation as a core Canadian value? Perhaps, not a value that would leap to the top of any list of Canadian values.

And yet, the Johnston-Jenkins book does its level best to argue that, by golly, innovation is as Canadian as snow.

“We hope so!” Johnston said. “We want to inspire the country to take that on as an important fundamental value.”

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• Be active in disciplines other than your own.

• Go for a walk, knowing you’ll get your best ideas away from the computer.

• Doodle. Make a mess and let your mind follow the pen or pencil.

• Write ideas within circles connected by lines to other ideas that relate

• Roll large marbles or pebbles in your left hand to stimulate your creative right brain

• Write on paper first and refine your wording with a word processor only later.

Source: David Johnston and Tom Jenkins, Ingenious: How Canadian Innovators Made the World Smarter, Smaller, Kinder, Safer, Healthier, Wealthier, and Happier


• Identify any series of steps by which something is done repetitively.

• Clearly define an ultimate goal of that process.

• Break the process down into its single steps, and identify who is responsible for each.

• Remove any step that does not contribute to the ultimate goal.

• Add any other steps that helps reach the goal faster or better.

• Reassign any step that could be better done by someone else.

• Automate any process only when it’s outcome is perfectly consistent and desirable.

Source: David Johnston and Tom Jenkins, Ingenious: How Canadian Innovators Made the World Smarter, Smaller, Kinder, Safer, Healthier, Wealthier, and Happier