Skip to content

Burnt Truck from Fort Providence

Here is some photos of the Fort Providence truck fire as reported earlier this winter. (


Gerhard Herzberg and the idea of “Science and Society”

In a 1973  lecture at the University of Saskatchewan for former history of science professor Stewart Baterfield, Gerhard Herzberg – Canada’s third Nobel Prize winner (in Chemistry)-  discussed some ideas surrounding how the federal government ought to go about developing a centralized science policy. Some of the words in this lecture beckon our attention when we think of contemporary issues surrounding science. When we recall. for example, how Stephane Dion and the Liberal Party of Canada ran on the idea of the Green Shift in 2008 and lost to the Harper Conservatives over the idea that the former party’s proposals to address climate change “ screw the economy” it merits our attention to look at the relationship between state funds, the demands of the scientific community, and the possibility of bettering society.
Herzberg pointed out  “the cultural aspect of science” during the post-war period and suggested that the period was one that saw huge government expenditures in science. As a result, he acknowledged that taxpayers weren’t always keen on what they got out of their money. “The cost of scientific research has increased tremendously in the last fifty years and the only way to raise the funds required is from the government, that is, from the taxpayer,” he noted. “Naturally the attitude of the taxpayer is whoever pays the piper calls the tune.”
When we see in our own times government and corporate rebranding of tar sands oil “Ethical Oil” or attacks on the arts community by Sun Media talking head Krista Erickson – some of Herzberg’s sentiments sound pretty familiar when it comes to the worst of taxpayer sensitivities to arts and sciences. Herzberg pointed out, for example, that with the field of science making huge advances in a large number of fields after the war, it became a question for government as to how and where to limit spending.  He suggested that government’s main role was to “find and support good scientists” on an individual basis and to allow for such figures the freedom to see where their experiments would lead them. I’m sure this idea would be torn apart savagely by the Sun Media “news team”.
Herzberg argued, however that it was only through such a process that the ultimate goals of  lifting the human spirit and better understanding nature could ever be achieved.

At the same time, however, Herzberg admitted to the great risks of governments investing in individual scientists and called it “a gamble.” He suggested that this was because the results discovered by a scientist might never return what the governing party or the taxpayer had initially intended. In Herzberg’s words, at least with government control over a scientific project,a thick annual report that can be presented to the taxpayer.”

Other minds from the period made an equally compelling case, however. One of them that I have come across was by Leslie Howlett, the former head of the applied physics division at the National Research Council. In a May 1966 issue of Chemistry in Canada, the author pointed out that taxpayers had every right to choose where their money was going in terms of science research. The only way to properly conduct scientific research, then, was to have a centralized science policy. Further, Howlett suggested that a small country such as Canada had to expect limitations. While “the scientist has the right to all possible freedom in his creative effort,” he added that “society too has very definitely the right, and even the responsibility, to enquire, before giving financial support, as to the purpose and aim of research and its likely profit to society as against the same money spent in other ways.”

The points that both thinkers raised ought to fascinate the follower of Canadian politics and those interested in bettering the environment, the country’s society, and the economy as a whole. On one hand we must be vigilant not to spend too much on huge projects that may go array, but on the other hand we must support our scientists in their efforts to expand research and hopefully attain the ultimate benefits for society’s progression. It is finding the necessary balance and to what extent the government of the day is trying to achieve this point, which has triggered my interest in starting a new blog.
I hope in the following weeks to gather ideas from progressive public figures on how the government can meet these challenges and where we might do better. Hopefully a context can be built through my work which will allow readers to see the need for Canada to uphold its heritage as an Innovation Nation.

Pictured above is a 1971 promotional brochure from the John Arnold Canada Science and Technology Museum Collection. Gerhard Herzberg became a prominent member in the CSTM’s Canadian Science and Engineering Hall of Fame for his work in molecular spectroscopy.

Herzberg’s speech can be found in “Science and Society” (Regina: University of Saskatchewan, 1973).

The debate surrounding the science policy views of Howlett and Herzberg can be found in the A.A. Dunn Fonds, Volume 1, Museum of Science and Technology, 1965-1966, File 2, “Chemistry in Canada” (May 1966).

My letter to the Globe and Mail

Dear Editor,
This piece by Michael Ignatieff was exceptional and a shining example of how we as a Canadian electorate let slip through our fingers a public figure who has the ability to boldly articulate social problems as they really are. I might only add two other examples that stood out for me and which probably complement Mr. Ignatieff’s main assertion. The first has to do with the harm to our civil rights in Canada. Notwithstanding the disgusting deportation of Maher Arar to Syria, the subsequent RCMP raid of Ottawa Citizen reporter Juliet O’Neill’s residence in 2004 stood as a shocking example of what happens when our sovereign (as seen through its agreement in the Charter) does not represent the people’s interest. In a similar instance, in 2010 at the G8/G20 conference, we witnessed the worst of the police state when the Toronto Police Force blatantly beat down its own people in the streets and were followed by our leading public officials responding as if no civil rights abuses took place. The second has to do with the rise of the neo-conservative movement and the ultimate oxymoron of having a government not wanting to really fully govern. This speaks most particularly to the right’s tendency to ignore science, which we see with regards to climate change, continued asbestos exports, the silencing of scientists, and even the belief in creation over evolution.
Ultimately what we had with this essay was the beginning of a great discussion by Ignatieff and hopefully an argument that allows our fellow citizens to reflect hard about what this past decade has meant to Western history.
Thanks Globe and Mail.

Simon Whitehouse
Ottawa, Ontario

IBM Dial Recorders and Labour Day

One of my favourite projects this past summer at the Canada Science and Technology Museum was working closely with a few of the clocks in the collection. I was particularly fascinated with the IBM Dial Recorder, which was manufactured in the company’s former plant in Don Mills.  I was thinking about this object a little today on Labour Day as this type of clock played a significant role in monitoring workers during much of the early 20th Century.

When considering the effects of Scientific Management or “Taylorism” which was a process created by Frederick Taylor to synchronize work performance in 19th Century American steel machine shops, clocks such as the Dial Recorder played a major role in keeping track of overall production.

As historian Carlene E. Stephens of the Smithsonian Institute has suggested, these pieces were seen as a successor to management methods of judging a worker’s tardiness based on whether or not the employee was outside the factory gates at starting time. The Dial Recorders in turn became a prelude to the modern punch card clock; a more modern device which emerged in North America shortly after the Second World War.

Many such objects are fantastic representations of labour history and speak to how the organization of time became  closely associated with the industrialization of the West. It is widely held that engineers and managers often took much tighter control of the output in the workplace by using of timing devices to measure how long it took for each stage of a working process to be completed. This in turn gave managers an understanding of how long it would take for a given product to be finished. Such leaders as Taylor believed that this would drive up production and hence improve the livelihood of everybody at the factory. Of course in reality, it stirred labour unrest in many cases and often led to worker revolts due to the feeling that they were being dehumanized by their bosses.

As for the Dial Recorder’s function, every worker was  given a number, which was indicated on the iron wheel. A large arm (which is missing from this particular recorder) was then swung to the worker’s assigned number, and then the worker would push a pin through the appropriate hole. A bell then rung from the recorder and the employee’s number and time in/out information was printed on a large paper roll inside the recorder.

This particular model is one of the larger versions that IBM manufactured, as is evident by it having over 100 numbers. IBM information sheets show that it typically made Dial Recorders with either 50, 100, or 150 numbers. For numbers reaching as high as this CSTM model, it is probably safe to assume that it was used in a very large factory. Museum records unfortunately don’t reveal where such a location might have been. (As a side note, the Canadian Clock Museum has indicated that it has a similar model which was obtained from a large lumbering camp near Petawawa).


I must offer my utmost gratitude to the advice and information provided by Allan Symons of the Canadian Clock Museum in Deep River, Ontario who made time out of the busy tourist season to address some of my specific questions.  I am developing a paper on this subject in the coming weeks for the CSTM, which  has in its possession at least two of these types of artifacts.

Another great source was Stephens’s book “On Time: How America Learned to Live by the Clock” which was distributed by the Smithsonian Museum’s National Museum of American Heritage. Accompanying online information regarding this clock can be seen here .

My photo collection of this clock and others can be seen here .

IBM, which coincidentally turned 100 years old this year, provided a huge amount of historical information and consultation as well, as can be seen from its Clock Reference Room. Amazing stuff.
More to come on this subject, but for now, some “time” and “working man” related licks….


Woody Guthrie’s Ludlow Massacre

Rush’s Working Man

Pink Floyd’s Time

John Lennon’s Working Class Hero

Rand McNally & Company Geo-Physical Relief Globes

As many of my good friends know, I just can’t shut up about my current historical research project on the Rand Mcnally & Company Geo-Physical Earth globes. I am aiming in the coming months to turn my findings into a unique book which will discuss how these globes fitted into North American Cold War culture and became prominent features of some of our major public institutions. Although these pieces are no longer being constructed, and while Rand McNally is but a shell of what it was during much of the 20th Century as a map-making corporation, the globes that still stand represent the greatness of American cartographic history. Not only did map making reach new heights after World War II due to the highly improved technology of aerial photography and satellite space imagery, but the artistry that went into molding and painting these incredible spheres became much more labor intensive and detailed. The above image shows the topography of much of Central Asia as well as different shades of blue in the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea. Such features reflected the benefits of space rockets and satellites and the new discoveries in tectonics and oceanography that they provided. Indeed, for the first time in human history, post-World War II Earthlings were able to  see with unprecedented accuracy what their Home actually looked like from space.

This particular globe still exists at the Canada Science and Technology Museum after it was erected for the facility’s opening in 1967. Founding director Dr. David Baird’s vision saw that this globe was placed at the center of the museum’s floor in order to teach young visitors the basics of the planet’s function in outer space  and to provide lessons about Earth’s four seasons, different time zones, and degrees of latitude and longitude. Baird believed in this globe as a museum so much that he recycled the same idea when he opened the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology in Drumheller, Alberta in 1985.

Amazingly, American cartographic history during the same period also meant advances in lunar mapping. Just like the Earth globes, Rand McNally was able to construct 6-foot diameter moons that gave viewers an idea of what our neighbouring rock in the sky looked like, right down to its most specific craters and crevices. The pieces were so popular when they were constructed in the sixties and seventies that astronauts from various space missions actually posed with the globes in Rand McNally warehouses . The Canada Science and Technology Museum at some point retained one of these objects and currently has it on display to support its Let’s Talk Energy exhibit.

Ultimately these globes  represent popular artefacts during post-war museum development (especially in the United States and Canada), reveal the extent of detailed mapping data achieved by geographers, cartographers, geologists, photographers and artists, and overall show the benefits that came with exploring outer space. To this day, anywhere that the globes are encountered, they truly evoke the wonder and beauty when science and art come together.

Related Links

Frank Sinatra’s Fly Me to the Moon

Audrey Hepburn’s Moon River

ACDC’s What’s Next to the Moon


Ah, it is that time again when the summer days wind down and the autumn season falls upon us. In Ottawa, the capital of Canada and the greatest nation on Earth it means three main things. First, the return of university students to the city’s two busy campuses. Second, the restart of hockey season. And third, the return of the politicians to the House of Commons.

In many ways September marks the true beginning of the year more so than does January. With this in mind, I’d like to re-instigate my former life as a writer, historian and intellectual.

After a summer working at the Canada Science and Technology Museum in Ottawa and studying a number of obscure or forgotten artefacts from Canada’s Cold War era, my worldview in many ways has broadened. I have become a lot more intrigued with artefact and object history as well as some of the lost stories that mark our greatest period in scientific and artistic achievements.

I am very mindful that studying artefact history as I have described may come off to the reader as an exercise with little relevance or interest to contemporary times.  However as I am hoping to show in future posts, the artefacts which I have been able to examine (seen herehere , and here) as well as the other pieces in the collection that have continued to sit silently on a shelf for over forty years in an industrial park in East Ottawa, have done so to our great misfortune as Canadians. I believe ultimately that if many scientific objects are brought to life by historians and contextualized with today’s technological developments and possibilities, that we can reclaim our true identity as a scientific and innovative nation.

Some may scoff at the suggestion that our great and diverse and pluralistic nation-state could ever be confined to a single definition. In this I somewhat agree. However in many instances there are some contemporary thinkers who do believe that Canada is undergoing an identity transformation as we speak. One of these figures who I have found quite inspiring is Ian Mckay of Queen’s University who has made a pretty convincing case that the federal Conservative government endorses the effort to re-brand the country as a “Warrior Nation.”  Historians with long established careers such as David Bercuson (as seen here )or Jack Granatstein (as seen here)  in many ways have made it a point to show that beyond all else, Canada’s military heritage should be considered foremost when thinking about our national history. Time and again such attitudes have found their way into direct policy action or general atttiudes by the government. In most recent examples, certain arms of the military were given their former designations of the “Royal Canadian Air Force” and the “Royal Canadian Navy”  while the Canadian Forces has been touted as having “punched above its weight” in Libya.

Whether or not the reader agrees with the gripes and connections that I make, my main objective is to deliberately help counter this warrior-identity that some historians are putting forward. Instead I want to offer the idea that Canada, more than anything else, is an innovative, creative, resourceful and especially scientific nation that needs to rediscover its heritage. My inclination is that at no other time in recent memory has the world needed scientific creativity and revolution – whether it be to address climate change, develop alternative energy resources, spur a new economic renaissance in the West, prevent the sale of asbestos to the Third World or ensure that our society remains competitive with rising powers in Asia and the Far East.

Ideas abound for this site and I hope to retain the inspiration and dedication to help readers think about our heritage as a scientific nation and in doing so provide excitement about the possibilities for the future. It would also be great to build interest in getting a new, world-class building for the Canada Science and Technology Museum before it turns 50 in 2017. With this in mind, I am proposing to launch a publication on November 15, 2011 at the CSTM which can first, begin a bi-monthly contribution to reveal our gaps in knowledge about the country’s scientific heritage; and second, to begin my own fundraising campaign toward having a new building in six years.

In the meantime, if you are a scientist that has been recently laid off by Environment Canada and in need of something to do, please feel free to help me build an enterprise that will bring together our most mindful historians with our scientists and celebrate our scientific heritage.

Until next time, I leave with you some news links that have helped me get the juices flowing.


Officials make another pitch for new Canada Science and Technology Museum home

Australian climate Scientists Targeted by Death Threats

Fisheries biologist ends testimony but still cannot speak freely

Science Must be Free From Politics

Harper Defends Asbestos Exports Despite Cancer Risks

Environment Canada to Slash Hundreds of Jobs