Patent index documents history of iconic Saskatchewan inventions
Western Development Museum research project documents history with patents and inventors’ gadgets
Necessity is the mother of invention, so goes the oft-used cliché.
The old adage proves true in Saskatchewan.
With bitter cold, sweltering sun and winds strong enough to tear through sturdy brick churches, the climate here demands invention.
A lengthy research project from the Western Development Museum (WDM) documents part of the province’s history with patents and their inventors’ gadgets. At almost 600 pages and comprising more than 3,200 patents, it serves as a kind of tinkerer-toiling snapshot of how people made a go of it on the Prairies.
Called Made in Saskatchewan: A Story of Invention, the patents index covers 1905 to 1979, and lists patent holders’ name, location, object name and patent date.
Some of the first items patented here in 1905, when Saskatchewan gained status as a province, include things typical of early settlement: A track laying machine by John Oliver in Battleford; a mower and reaper by Jules Gagne in Jackfish Lake; a twine holder, held jointly by Otto and C. Krienkie in Lemburg.
“In the time before mass-produced goods, Saskatchewan came up with solutions that are really rooted in the place. In that way it’s a really interesting document — just to read through to kind of see what people [were] inventing,” said Elizabeth Scott, the curator at the WDM and a historian.
You can easily see the agrarian demands Saskatchewan’s settlers faced. There are 30 different patents for threshers or some additional piece to go with them. Hay movement yielded 11 different patents, like ones for stacking, racking, bailing and loading the gold stuff.
There are plenty more mundane items, stuff you’d likely find in drawers or sitting in a dusty corner in your storage closet: Clothes hangers, wrenches, a screwdriver, a screw clamp to be used with a screwdriver, a hammer, a wash basin holder, two toy guns.
In April 1933 James Langford received his patent for a self-cleaning comb in Saskatoon.
“(It) was a period of great ingenuity … People had to find made-in-Saskatchewan solutions to the problems they faced with their work,” Scott said.
There’s also an inadvertent reference to events abroad.
In November 1939, shortly after the Second World War started, Wilfred McLean and Lewis Sunderland in Congress received their patents for an anti-aircraft shell. The battle of the Atlantic was underway by then.
The index itself also represents a kind of ingenuity.
Headed by Louise Jones, the compilation-documentation project lasted for about a year from 1978 to 1979, finished without the aid of computers.
WDM staff and volunteers had to comb through 400 volumes of Canadian patents, marking down, all by hand, those with Saskatchewan origins.
“It was a big investment for the museum at the time,” Scott said. “They did go through all of the patent records manually.”
In the late 1970s “everything was done by hand-written research. As computers became more normalized … they did transfer the data to computers,” she said.
It’s unlikely such a document could be compiled today. On March 31, 1976, the Canadian Patent Office stopped recording patentees’ addresses, making it all the more tricky to find where an inventor lived. From then until the end of 1979, Jones and her team could only get a partial list of Saskatchewan-based patentees from the national office, making the index technically incomplete.
Aside from its day-to-day items, you can also find its more iconic ones, like the Fudge Snowplane and the Lorch Snowplane, both on display at the museum’s Moose Jaw branch.
The two vehicles give emphatic nods to an oft-cited irritant on the Prairies: snow.
Despite their names, neither one is made to leave the ground. They look like big, curvy, metal bubbles, mounted on wide wooden skis, with huge plane propellers fastened to their rears.
Both painted red, they’re designed for efficient transport over the snow-covered plains, akin to a winterized hovercraft.
Robert Fudge built his first one in 1929 in Moosomin. His patent for it came 29 years later in 1958.
Karl Lorch got the patent for his Lorch Snowplane in Spy Hill in 1935. A chance visit to a nearby airport sparked his imagination, leading him to mount a five-foot long birch propeller on the back.
Nowadays in Indian Head, Greg Miller is like a 21st-century inventor, though his business Film Rescue International is firmly rooted in the past.
He restores, processes and develops decades-old, sometimes damaged, film (still- and moving-image). His clients want images out of stuff that’s been long buried and expired — in closets, under water and elsewhere.
He first developed his processes in Toronto in the 1970s and 80s, but he’s from Saskatchewan, and returned here in 1999.
“For what we do, we are [pioneers in the film industry], which often surprises me, because I’m not a photo-chemist,” Miller, 56, said.
Though necessity to survive wasn’t his main driver, passion and focus keep him going, like the inventors from decades gone by.
“It was always a lot more fun, the work, because you’re dealing with lost and found film, stuff that people have found in cleaning out estates after someone in the family dies,” he said. “It’s more interesting work.”