The Big 150

Yes, that was invented here — A look at “big, yet little-known” Ottawa inventions

The capital’s tech industry may have expanded and contracted over the years, but its place in Ottawa’s identity is deep-rooted. As far back as the 19th century, entrepreneurs Thomas Ahearn and Warren Soper patented electric heaters to keep Ottawa’s streetcars warm, leading to the invention of the electric stove, which they showcased at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. From the “Ottawa Technology Cluster” heyday of the ’80s and ’90s, to ongoing public-sector R&D, here are some big, yet little-known, inventions from the public-private nexus we call home.

Meningitis & Cytomegalovirus Vaccines

Dr. Harry Jennings, working with a team of NRC scientists, developed the world’s first group C meningococcal meningitis vaccine in the 1980s. Leading vaccine research continues in the public and private sectors, such as VBI Vaccines — a spinoff from CHEO — whose cytomegalovirus vaccine is now in clinical testing and is poised to be one of the world’s first vaccines against this leading cause of birth defects.

Dr. Jennings. Photo: Courtesy of National Research Council
Dr. Jennings. Photo: Courtesy of National Research Council

Hand-Held Digital Calculator

Portable devices got a major boost from an LED technology developed by Bowmar Canada. Their small, red numeric LED displays enabled the first hand-held digital calculator, and the company went on to produce some of the world’s first digital watches with the same technology.

Bowmar-calculator-watches-Photo-EmilyKennedy

Computer Animation

The fathers of computer animation are Ottawa NRC scientists Nestor Burtnyk and Marceli Wein. Their research, which included many firsts in computer graphics, resulted in the key-frame technology that allows the creation of animated sequences by providing the starting and ending points of a motion — and is still used today!

Photo: Courtesy of National Research Council
Photo: Courtesy of National Research Council

Marquis Wheat & Spartan Apple

A long-lasting triumph from the Central Experimental Farm (CEF) was the development of Marquis wheat. The first samples were sent for testing on farms in 1907. By 1909, Marquis wheat was widely adopted in Canada, attracting attention in every wheat-growing country for the high quality of its grain and flour, its early-ripening high yield, and its resistance to disease. The CEF also bred many popular apple varieties, such as Spartan, based on the McIntosh Red — a fellow Ontario creation.

Photo: Courtesy of National Research Council
Photo: Courtesy of National Research Council

Open Source HDTV Signal Processing

This Ottawa invention is such a star, it won an Emmy! Just like IBM’s PC hardware and software became a standard that many companies in the personal-computing industry could build on, Ross Video did something similar with their openGear platform for the television-broadcast industry. Their standard made systems easier to manage and decreased costs for broadcasters and live-video production companies. Ross Video won their Emmy for Innovation in 2016.

Jeff Moore and David Ross of Ross Video at the Emmy Awards
Jeff Moore and David Ross of Ross Video at the Emmy Awards

Fibre Optic Splitting

We have Jozef Strauss and his colleagues at JDS Optics to thank for developing this technology that allows us to enjoy high-speed Internet. In the 1980s, this Ottawa group of researchers expanded the capacity of telephone networks by splitting beams of light into separate wavelengths, each carrying a separate data stream (called wavelength division multiplexing) and allowing for high bandwidth applications, namely the Internet. Needless to say, many of the company’s stock-optioned employees became millionaires.

Bitcoin ATM (BTM)

Although Bitcoin – the world’s first digital currency – was invented in cyberspace, the first physical ATM for the cryptocurrency was invented by Ottawa’s BitAccess Inc. The BTM lets Bitcoin users take Bitcoin out as cash, and vice versa.