beginnings of Canadian meteorology // Review, The

Thomas, Morley


On the surface, it seems that the history of science and technology in Canada suffers from a lack of heroes and drama: after all, most world – altering inventions and discoveries seem to have occurred elsewhere, as ground – breaking change seems to have been imported rather than indigenous. Yet this misses the point. Much recent British and American scholarship de – emphasizes concepts of “discovery” and “invention” in favour of new models in which scientific and technological change is a gradual, socially conditioned transformation with few actual points of revolutionary change. One writer disputes the occurrence of intentional discovery, arguing instead in favour of a strict process of natural selection: all ideas or hypotheses are serendipitous, mere random generation; unfit variations are eliminated, for example, within the scientific community; fit variations become discoveries through confirmation by the community. As such, “individual scientists do not, in fact, cannot, make a scientific discovery,” he argues; “scientific knowledge is a socially produced knowledge.”(f.1) The real drama, it could be argued, is in the interplay between scientific concepts and society and how both are mutually transformed.

As the essays in Science, Technology and Medicine in Canada’s Past indicate, science and technology in Canada have been profoundly shaped by their social, cultural and economic contexts. Science, Technology and Medicine in Canada’s Past is a sampling of essays drawn from the first 10 years of the journal Scientia Canadiensis, aimed at high school and university readers. As with other such collections, the quality of papers varies: some are marred by prosaic writing and analysis, but others are more exciting while most have the virtue of introducing readers to prevalent themes among historians of Canadian science and technology.

Discussions of the influences of nationality and colonialism are especially prominent within the collection. In his paper”Between Two Empires: the Toronto Magnetic Observatory and American Science Before Confederation,” Gregory Good contends that national values shaped the institutional character and purpose of the Toronto observatory. English staff used the observatory to seek scientific fellowship with their American neighbours, but for Americans, the observatory primarily offered opportunities for observations on British territory. In his paper, “Colonialism and the Truncation of Science in Ireland and French Canada During the Nineteenth Century,” Richard Jarrell repeats familiar themes, blaming “internal colonialism” for making French Canadians and Irish “inward – looking societies,” financially and socially unwilling to imbed science within their culture. However, in his study of the French – Canadian botanist Louis – Ovide Brunet, the entomologist Leon Provancher and the geologist J.C.K. Laflamme, Raymond Duschene suggests that “colonial” dependence, and Quebec’s place on the periphery internationally, had far less impact on these scientists’ status than accidents of personal career and the differing characteristics of research and publication within varying fields.

Canada’s technological performance has been a favourite theme among historians of technology. Douglas Baldwin’s all too brief account of technological innovation in the Cobalt mining region disputes contentions that technological development in Canada has been a history of failed opportunities. Chris de Bresson uses the emergence of the mass production Bombardier snowmobile as an exceptional case study in analyzing Canada’s failure, despite economic prosperity, to develop an energetic, capital – intensive high technology sector. De Bresson rejects traditional explanations such as capital shortage, Canada’s vast geographic distances, domination by foreign multinationals, timid banking practices and Canada’s small market size. He instead targets failure to move beyond custom and batch – oriented manufacturing to mass production, and crucially, the tendency towards Canadian adoption of technical systems from abroad, thus resulting in limited “indigenous manufacturing know – how” and vulnerability “to quick imitation by low cost producers” (192). Bombardier’s success illustrates what happens when Canadians do it right; elsewhere Canadians have done less well. In “The Bureau of Scientific and Industrial Research and School of Specific Industries'” Philip Enros contributes a solid account of failed attempts by the Royal Canadian Institute of Toronto to foster successful industrial research during World War I. Enros sadly observes that federally supported scientific and technical research is still conducted primarily by government agencies.

There is relatively limited attention within the book to the debate, now more clearly emerging,(f.2) over the extent to which Canadian science has been dominated by practical as contrasted with more purely intellectual goals. However, some discussion may be found in Frances Anderson, Alga Berseneff and Paul Dufour’s analysis of the dramatic shift in the 1950s from scholarly to industrially related research within provincial research councils and their changing relationships with universities. In another vein, the power of the Canadian environment to shape technological practice makes an appearance. Passfield’s richly detailed account of surveying for the Rideau Canal outlines the brute difficulties encountered in applying British engineering methods within a New World environment. Finally, the impact of gender politics on technological adoption is explored. In “The Canadian Birth Control Movement: Two Approaches to the Dissemination of Contraceptive Technology,” Dianne Dodd contrasts the outlooks of two prominent 1930s contraception advocates: Alvin Kaufman, a Kitchener manufacturer, and Mrs. Hawkins, a Hamilton woman. Fears of the social consequences of high birth rates among the poor and dependent led Kaufman to advocate sterilization for the unfit and marginal. Better lives for individual women primarily motivated Mrs. Hawkins. In perhaps the best paper in the volume, Marilyn Barber examines efforts within Saskatchewan women’s and farm movements in the 1920s to place farm women’s work on a level of equality with men’s by promoting domestic science and mechanization in the home.

Science, Technology and Medicine in Canada’s Past suffers to a degree from diffuse themes. It is clearly less than the sum of its parts. Science and Society in the Maritimes Prior to 1914 has the advantages of a narrower focus and more coherent thematic structure. The book draws on papers first presented at an excellent conference at Mount Allison in 1988. Readers will learn a lot about Maritime science as a whole. For example, Paul Bogaard’s introduction suggests that until late – nineteenth – century physics and chemistry dominated science in Maritime universities, whereas the “inventory” sciences of astronomy, geology, botany and entomology were practised outside academe with the support of government and entrepreneurs, reflecting a divide between the theoretical and the practical sciences. Bertrum MacDonald’s solid analysis of pre – World War I scientific and technological publications (there were over 58,000 such works published in or concerning Canada before World War I), provides an additional snapshot of scientific activity in the Maritimes. MacDonald has discovered that just over two – thirds of Maritime science authors resided in Nova Scotia, of whom three – fifths were educators or engineers, and over half of whose publications dated from the 1890s onward. This is richly telling of patterns in Maritime science.

Two papers in the section entitled “The Practice of Science and its Cultural Impact” are really less about science’s effect on culture than how culture shaped science, sometimes in quirky ways. Suzanne Zeller contends that deep seated sentiments – in particular ambitions to cast Nova Scotia in the image of a new, superior Scotland – led botanist George Lawson to argue that isolated findings of heather on the eastern seaboard were not accidental Scottish transplants but native occurrences. Susan Sheets – Peyenson provides an excellent short biography of the young William Dawson’s development as a student at the Pictou Academy and as a youthful administrator of Nova Scotia’s public schools. Of particular interest is an account of the academy’s library holdings, splendidly revealing of Dawson’s early intellectual universe. In “McCulloch, Lyall, Schurman and Keirstead: Four Philosophic Responses to Science, Religion and the Unity of Knowledge,” Leslie Armour argues that Maritime community self – confidence, respect for education, and traditions supportive of individual religious reflection disarmed science as a threat to Maritime religion. Unfortunately, the analysis is not sustained through the body of the paper. The late George Rawlyk contends that Baptist theologians saw science and Christianity as compatible rather than hostile forces.

There are disappointments. Hugh M. Grant’s “Public Policy and Private Capital Formation in Petroleum Formation” is a solid discussion of Maritime government practices relating to the oil industry, but has little to say directly about science and technology. Randall C. Brooks’s “Time, Longitude Determination and Public Reliance on Early Observatories” provides more detail than analysis. While Roy Bishop contends convincingly that the marine surveyor F.F.W. DesBarres established an astronomical observatory near Windsor, Nova Scotia, it is not apparent why this is important – DesBarres’s interests in astronomy seem to have little wider significance.

On the other hand – rightly reminding us of the importance of agriculture in nineteenth – century Nova Scotia and early government science – Richard Jarrell provides a valuable survey of public efforts to promote improved farming. (Unfortunately, the charts on page 239 directly contradict his assertions about the timing of major increases in federal and provincial spending). Science in the Maritimes was often a forum for social assertion and competition. Michael J. Smith provides a fascinating and richly detailed account of turn – of – the – century attempts to promote sanitary science in Maritime public schools. School hygiene, Smith asserts, was central to the medical profession’s drive to win public acceptance as “the legitimate experts on science health care” and to find a secure place for medicine as “a science of prevention” at a time when cures were less than certain (218). In the most sophisticated and most entertaining paper in the volume, Martin Hewitt contends that while science occupied a central place in Maritime cultural life in the 1840s as an arena in which rival social groups could ostensibly cooperate, “group and class hostilities” and “competing claims for social space and self assertion” simmered below the surface (245). The Saint John Mechanics’ Institute became a focal point for tensions between the Saint John Loyalist and mercantile elite and the new “producer alliance” of artisans and industrial entrepreneurs. Ultimately, popular science won and with it “the triumph of the sensual, the simple search for entertainment” (274).

In other publications, efforts to place science and technology in context have been less successful. Morley Thomas’s The Beginnings of Canadian Meteorology, a history of nineteenth century meteorological observatories, does show how isolated political factors influenced the observatory developments, but is a largely narrative history. There is little thesis: Thomas contends only that establishment of the Toronto observatory on the University of Toronto grounds in 1840 was critical to the later emergence of a national meteorological service. Perhaps much of the problem with the book is that so much of the observatories’ work centred on routine meteorological observations, hardly the stuff of intellectual excitement; but also, in focusing hard on the fate of meterological programs as institutional initiatives, the book leaves much of their social and cultural importance unsaid. The book is a good source of factual information and may appeal to meteorologists curious about their profession’s past, but comes alive only in the seventh and eighth chapters, where Thomas describes the arcana of nineteenth – century meteorological practice in Europe and the United States.

A considerably more interesting examination of the growth of a scientific discipline may be found in Yves Gingras’s Physics and the Rise of Scientific Research in Canada. Gingras rejects concepts of “professionalization” and “disciplinization” as inappropriate and ill – defined. The growth of physics in Canada, he contends, was more correctly a process of socialization, which occurred in stages. First came the development of a research practice sparked by the immigration of scientists trained in European laboratories, then the institutionalization of research within universities and the National Research Foundation, and finally the formation of a “social identity” embodied in physics associations (6). Mid – nineteenth – century physics instruction was part of a general arts or cultural education and was more “pedagogical than scientific”(18). Moreover, the Canadian Institute, formed by engineers and surveyors in Toronto in 1849, primarily published papers in the natural sciences, not physics. A new role for physics instruction developed with the rise of engineering education in the 1870s in response to needs for trained personnel created by railway construction and new public works. But at the end of the century, universities still largely remained teaching rather than research institutions. (Ernest Rutherford’s research at McGill was atypical and depended heavily on the generosity of tobacco magnate William Macdonald). In fact, when physics research did eventually become a force, it resulted less from social or industrial demands, Gingras contends, than from the immigration of European – trained scientists drawn to Canada by teaching positions in science created by engineering education.

After 1900 came the creation of Canadian doctoral programs in physics, largely aimed at arresting a loss of students to American universities. Actually, up until the end of World War II, the number of teaching positions available in physics permitted many American – trained Canadians to be repatriated. Many came to expanding western Canadian universities, responsible for almost half the new positions in physics between 1900 and 1914. World War I created a new public awareness of the importance of scientific research; the movement for industrial research led by the Royal Canadian Institute of Toronto and the Canadian Manufacturers’ Association led to the creation of the National Research Council. NRC research grants and student scholarships created rapid growth in scientific research; by the 1920s research was an integral part of university programs. In the 1930s and 1940s employment opportunities in the NRC, industry, government and provincial research organizations expanded rapidly, and in 1929 the NRC founded the Canadian Journal of Research. Yet the full emergence of physics as a social entity required not only that physics research gain institutional recognition, but also that physicists be recognized as a distinct social category. How this came about was not through “professionalization,” for in fact physicists consisted of two broad groupings, industrial researchers and academics; after 1945 this resulted in divisions between physicists who sought professional licensing and those who sought to develop the academic discipline. The latter won. With the creation of the federal government’s Science Secretariat in 1964 and the Science Council in 1966, Canadian physicists gained new opportunities to influence directly national science policy.

Marlene and Geoffrey Raynor – Canham’s Harriet Brooks: Pioneer Nuclear Scientist says rather less about the development of physics in Canada. This is an interesting, but rather slim biography of a pioneering woman scientist. It is intended in part, the authors say, to relate an unknown story in the history of physics, but their main intent is to describe the experience of a woman conducting scientific research at the turn of the century. According to the authors, employment opportunities created by rapid growth in nuclear science during the late – nineteenth century and the special excitement of a new and innovative field drew an “amazing” number of women to the study of radioactivity, although higher positions in academe remained male preserves. Much of the book centres on Brooks’s experience as a woman in science, starting with her graduate studies in 1898 under Ernest Rutherford at McGill. During this time Brooks made a set of crucial discoveries which were to help reveal the phenomenon of nuclear transmutation. Elements were formerly believed to be immutable; Brooks’s discoveries helped show that radioactive elements could change identity during release of radioactivity, what the authors term a “key step in modern nuclear science” (21).

Brooks’s scientific career was short. Studies at Bryn Mawyr College from 1901 to 1903 were followed by appointment as a tutor at Barnard College. In 1906 she became engaged, and Barnard’s administration would not countenance a married woman teaching. While Brooks ended the engagement, the strain of her conflict with the college led her to resign, and a year later she married and left research altogether. She died in 1933, a probable victim of the long – term effects of exposure to radiation whose dangers had not yet been understood when Brooks was actively researching. If we learn less about the intellectual consequences of Brooks’s scientific discoveries or intellectual formation than her personal experiences, these are often interesting: Brooks travelled in Europe in the company of the Russian revolutionary Maxim Gorky and friends after leaving Barnard. Yet lack of available primary sources regarding Brooks’s professional life was clearly a problem for the authors. Even Brooks’s private life and experiences as a woman scientist are dealt with somewhat episodically, the authors often resorting to block quotation from personal correspondence.

Marianne Gostonyi Ainley has been luckier with Restless Energy, her biography of William Rowan, ornithologist and professor of biology at the University of Alberta from 1920 to 1956. Rowan left a large body of papers, and Ainley has been able to draw on interviews. This biography reveals more of the scientist as scientist. Ainley contends that Rowan was a pioneer internationally in transforming ornithology into a hard scientific discipline based on field work, laboratory study and careful experiment. Rowan’s ground – breaking experiments in bird migration are exhaustively detailed, as are his experiences as a scientist in a prairie university and in the politics of scientific funding. Rowan the man also makes for absorbing reading. Ainley provides a skilful portrait of Rowan’s ecological concerns, gender prejudices, professional relationships and eventual realization of science’s social responsibilities. Perhaps more could have been said about how Rowan’s research was received within the wider scientific world and how it actually changed research agendas elsewhere, but otherwise this is a valuable contribution to the history of Canadian science.

Norman Ball and John Vardalas’s history of Ferranti – Packard provides a different form of biography, a richly illustrated and often fascinating corporate history. Unlike most other business histories, Ferranti – Packard places technology at the heart of economic strategy. Moreover the book, although commissioned by Ferranti – Packard, provides considerable critical analysis (even if it does skate over labour strife within the company). Of particular interest are the authors’ explorations of corporate “cultures”: Ferranti – Packard is largely the story of the firm’s two founding companies. Ferranti – Packard did not form until 1954, when a merger united Ferranti Canada, established in 1912 by its British parent Ferranti Limited, and Packard Electric, founded in the United States in 1894. Packard Electric was a small, independent company, wholly dependent on its own resources; it prudently focused its research facilities on practical improvement of market products. While other Canadian companies unsuccessfully attempted to mount a full product line in competition with the massive research and development resources of American companies, Packard Electric wisely specialized. Ferranti Canada was far more adventuresome, a company with a long tradition of theoretical and laboratory research driven less by direct market demand than by the search for engineering excellence.

The authors argue that their findings dispel notions that foreign subsidiaries are passive shadows of their foreign parents. “Intense, bitter conflict between parent and subsidiary” resulted, the authors say, “as Ferranti Canada – Canadian in management and engineering staff – stood up for its own national interests and identity” (xiii). Nevertheless, the tragic failure in 1964 of a 25 – year attempt to establish an indigenous Canadian computer industry was partly due to the refusal of the Ferranti family in Britain to seek needed equity through the issue of public shares. The problem was the brute fact of where economic power lay. To be sure, the authors also blame the failure on “absurd” duties placed on imported electronic components and on the Canadian defence establishment’s reluctance to buy Canadian technology, and acknowledge that it was unlikely that Ferranti could have established field services and the full range of processors, peripheral hardware, operating systems and applications software fast enough to beat giants like IBM. (In fact the company spread itself far too thin in pursuing high technology research, fruitlessly pursuing a stake in everything from fuel cells to magnetic memory drums).

One of the strengths of Ferranti – Packard is its consistent effort to describe technological concepts and creations and examine their significance. This brings a particular depth to the authors’ analysis: analysis from which other Canadian science historians, perhaps intimidated by the difficulty of some scientific and technological concepts, have shied away. The same value is apparent in Bill Rawling’s excellent Surviving Trench Warfare: Technology and the Canadian Corps, 1914 – 1918. Rawling claims that the decisive factors in World War I were less new technology per se than the way in which the Canadian Corps used and responded to it. Early strategies, lasting from 1915 until the Battle of the Somme, emphasized training in the rifle and bayonet and close order mass advances across No Man’s Land. Here soldiers were mowed down by machine guns, often while helplessly snared in barbed wire. Bloody experience with German defensive techniques created a more fluid style of warfare, emphasizing flexibility, intense study of actual ground conditions, technical specialization and increased use of new technologies and tactics. These included increased use of the machine gun over the rifle, the “creeping barrage” (in which artillery fire proceeded forward in a line just in front of advancing troops), and use of small units moving in stages across the battle ground with men, junior and noncommissioned officers given increased discretionary powers on the battlefield. Rawling’s account is rich in detail, showing how the battle experience of everyone from generals to infantrymen and artillery men (“less sheep led to the slaughter than thinking people who set their minds to the challenges of survival” [223]) changed the order of industrial warfare. By the end of the conflict new technology and tactics had increased, if only incrementally, individuals’ survival in the killing fields. With his eyes trained closely at ground level, Rawling makes acute sense of the rationale of battle and provides a moving account of the actual battle experience both as a strategic and human event. I cannot recall ever before seeing it described in so vivid and meaningful a manner.

Close to 20 years after the field of history of Canadian science and technology may be said to have been founded with the creation of the HSTC Bulletin, a pattern continues of a mix of publishing by amateur historians, specialists in history of science and technology, and social and economic historians drawn to examine scientific and engineering themes. Themes and interests are varied; commitment to the types of issues raised in the major international history of science and technology journals such as ISIS and Technology and Culture is comparatively rare; there are wide disparities in the depth and quality of analysis. Although a greater understanding of science and technology’s place in Canadian development seems critical to a more holistic understanding of the historical process, history of science and technology still attracts only a small band of devotees. But it is slowly, but surely being written.


(f.1) Aharon Kantorovich, Scientific Discovery: Logic and Tinkering (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993) 145 – 71, 189.

(f.2) See, for example, Nancy Christie, “Sir William Logan’s Geological Empire and the ‘Humbug’ of Economic Utility,” Canadian Historical Review LXXV (June 1994): esp. 2034.

DONALD MACLEOD Archives of Ontario

Copyright Trent University Summer 1996

Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved

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