History of Engineering | The Canadian Encyclopedia


History of Engineering

With the beginning of sustained European settlement in what is now Canada, a new set of goals, values, demands and expectations was placed upon the land.
Port of Louisbourg
View of Louisbourg from a warship, as it would have appeared in 1744 (artwork by Lewis Parker).
Niagara Suspension Bridge
Finished in 1854, this bridge over the Niagara River in Ontario was a major engineering feat. It linked the Great Western to a great section of the United States (courtesy CN).
Victoria Bridge
The original tubular Victoria Bridge was one of the greatest engineering achievements of the mid-19th century. Spanning the St Lawrence at Montréal, it was completed in 1859 and opened in 1860 (courtesy Library and Archives Canada/C-27985).
Gzowski, Sir Casimir
As a superintendent of public works of the Province of Canada, Gzowski was one of early Canada's outstanding builders. He is shown here with his 5 sons and 3 daughters (courtesy PAO).
John By, engineer
Colonel By was one of Canada's greatest early engineers, building the Rideau Canal in only five summers (courtesy Library and Archives Canada/C-28531).

Engineering, History of

With the beginning of sustained European settlement in what is now Canada, a new set of goals, values, demands and expectations was placed upon the land. The indigenous population had created a material culture and social organization well adapted to the land, and although much of it was of considerable use to the settlers, the new expectations were based on another technological tradition, demanding that it be an important platform on which the new society be erected.

Thus, although both societies depended on water transportation and the settlers made good use of indigenous craft, the large sailing ship was the basis of transoceanic and Great Lakes trade. Consequently the settlers needed protected harbours, wharves and deeper water along with a different type of knowledge of watercourses. Water more than deep enough for the most heavily laden of the largest of canoes might be treacherously shallow for larger European-style sailing craft. There was a need for different hydrographic knowledge and work in the St Lawrence River by early French hydrographers, trained first in France and then in Québec.

 Early hydrographic surveys clearly demonstrated that differing expectations bring with them the need for different types of engineering and technological knowledge and expertise. An example is the massive masonry FORTIFICATION erected for protection against attackers with gunpowder. Early fortifications such as those at LOUISBOURG and Québec City reflect a high level of military engineering skills.

For centuries "engineer" meant military engineer, one who built defensive works, engines of war and other military requirements. During the 19th century more and more engineering became civil, that is, nonmilitary. This was the beginning of a continuing trend towards greater specialization in engineering. Although the lifestyle and expectations of the newcomers demanded the erection of large sawmills and flour mills, some of which were built by military engineers, these civilian structures were largely built by millwrights and only in the late 19th or early 20th century would industrial structures become increasingly designed by engineers. However, it was the demand for vastly improved transportation systems in the form of canals and railways that brought civilian engineers to the forefront.

Inland Canals

 The need for improved inland water communications led to a period of intense CANAL building during the 19th century that left Canada with such engineering monuments as the Rideau and Welland canals, as well as a host of smaller ones such as the Lachine and Beauharnois. Completed in 1832 under the supervision of Lieutenant-Colonel John BY as part of a defensive military network, the RIDEAU CANAL is one of the continent's major 19th-century engineering achievements.

Perhaps the greatest contribution of the Rideau Canal is that it marked a major benchmark in learning to be a Canadian engineer rather than being an engineer in Canada. Although there are canal sites such as Jones Falls (the largest true masonry arch dam in North America at the time), which represented European technique transported to North America virtually unaltered, much of the canal represented new adaptive thinking to correspond with Canadian conditions.

At the sudden narrowing and precipitous drop in the Rideau River known as the Hog's Back, the violent spring and summer floods could raise water levels as much as 5 m above normal. A dam at this spot would have to withstand these sudden onslaughts both during and after construction. Conventional European construction methods were too slow and the dam was washed out 3 times before it reached a point where it was strong enough to withstand the violence of the floods. On the fourth try traditional European-based approaches were abandoned and the dam was built with stone-filled timber cribs which, although very unattractive to some eyes, could be built quickly using readily available materials.

The Hog's Back embodied an important lesson: engineering is often best when it relies heavily on local materials and labour along with the adaptation of known technology to fit local circumstances. These characteristics were to become hallmarks of Canadian engineering and serve Canadian engineers well in jobs throughout the world, particularly on those requiring flexibility and imagination in the face of unusual circumstances.

 As Canada strove to increase Great Lakes commerce and to compete with the Erie Canal which drew trade through the US instead of Canada, Niagara Falls stood as the most spectacular impediment to trade and prosperity. The WELLAND CANAL bypassed the falls but, as a privately funded exercise in frontier capitalism, it was plagued by financial troubles that resulted in a form of engineering and construction that tried to economize too heavily. Eventually, the canal was taken over as a government project and successive rebuildings attained much higher standards. However, the canal yielded another of the engineering lessons that has served Canada well.

"Sourcing" is the modern jargon to describe the exercise of drawing engineering expertise from various areas for a particular job. Royal Engineers, trained British military engineers, provided most of the Rideau Canal engineering. The first Welland Canal depended on civilian engineers who were hired as needed. When it became a government-owned canal, more options opened up for sourcing engineering talent.

Generally, when Royal Engineers finished a job they moved on, leaving the area as poor in engineering talent as it was when they arrived. Massive engineering projects therefore did little to create a pool of trained engineers who were committed to the area or country and who could be used on other jobs. There were exceptions, as when the Royal Engineers stayed on in BC after the completion of the CARIBOO ROAD.

Officials therefore decided, despite controversy in Upper Canada, that the re-engineering of the Welland Canal would rely on civil servant engineers in key positions who would hire or contract with civilian engineers as needed. As a result, a number of Canadians had the opportunity to work on a major project and to lay the foundations of successful engineering careers.

Roads and Railways

 The same general growth and economic development that gave rise to engineering opportunities on canals also created other needs. In cities such as Toronto, Hamilton, Montréal and Halifax, higher population densities created serious fire hazards as well as medical problems because water supply and sewage treatment and disposal systems were inadequate. As a result, in the mid 19th century various Canadian cities embarked on major water supply engineering projects. Cities such as Hamilton, where Thomas Coltrin KEEFER built one of his numerous water pumping stations, improved the quality of life and also provided engineers with continuing opportunities for further professional development. (See also Charles BAILLAIRGÉ and Casimir GZOWSKI.)

 Railways were the most important single 19th-century training and proving ground for Canadian engineers. The INTERCOLONIAL RAILWAYS and the CANADIAN PACIFIC in particular illustrate a number of major themes in Canadian engineering history. From an engineering point of view, some of the most significant challenges of 19th-century Canadian railways included vast distances; difficult and varied terrain; wide temperature ranges sometimes coupled with hazardous snow loads and conditions; and chronic underfunding, particularly in the initial and early construction phases.

 Consequently, Canadian engineers very early became world-renowned for their ability to build railways quickly and relatively inexpensively and then, as finances allowed, to improve the quality and permanence of the railway after it was operational and generating revenue. One of the ways this reputation was achieved was to rely very heavily on local building materials. In much of Canada this meant using timber and, where this was combined with breathtaking terrain such as in the mountains of BC, it produced spectacular feats of timber construction.

The massive timber trestles of Canadian railways that Canadians took for granted, or even found embarrassing because they were not of iron and steel, were much admired in Europe as engineering feats on a par with the still standing aqueducts of the ancient Romans. When wooden structures had to be replaced they gave both Canadian engineers and manufacturers such as Dominion Bridge the opportunity to employ more modern materials.

While the increasing knowledge and self-confidence of Canadian engineers led to much better value for funds expended, it could also lead to conflict between client and engineer, particularly when the client might not be solely interested in best value as defined by an engineer.

Perhaps the most spectacular and public case of 19th-century engineer-client conflict came from Sandford FLEMING's fights over whether bridges on the Intercolonial should be timber or iron. Fleming saw that, with changing technology and the closeness of much of the Intercolonial route to economical water transportation, it made sense to depart from common Canadian convention and build with iron. His colleagues and masters overruled him. Undeterred, he appealed first to Prime Minister Macdonald and, when that did not have the desired effect, to the Privy Council in Britain which upheld him.

Fleming's dispute emphasized that the rate of change in technology and the circumstances surrounding engineering were beginning to outstrip society's ability to absorb new information and decide on its best utilization. Such conflicts and engineering projects undertaken primarily to make money for unscrupulous promoters illustrated the need for establishing engineering standards to ensure the physical safety of the public and the financial safety of investors. In response to problems such as these a group of engineers in 1887 formed the Canadian Society of Civil Engineers. Although it lacked the power to enforce standards or impose licensing requirements, the new society represented the first and most important step in a long series of events that today has made engineering a highly specialized profession with strict licensing requirements and high standards.

Increasing Specialization and Diversity

 By the late 19th century numerous changes were occurring that accelerated engineering towards ever greater specialization and diversity. The development of electricity as both an industrial force and part of daily domestic life led to specialization in the new field of ELECTRICAL ENGINEERING. The increased demand for electrical service (see ELECTRIC-POWER DEVELOPMENT) demanded that the difficulties associated with ELECTRIC-POWER TRANSMISSION over distances be overcome. Early power users had to be close to the source, requiring numerous generating stations, which in turn became stimuli for local development and for further engineering achievement.

In other areas it was not the field that was new but the way in which things were done. Mining is an excellent example: although mining is almost as old as human technological history, it was radically transformed by new knowledge in areas as diverse as chemistry, metallurgy and electricity. An unequalled need for sophisticated technical understanding in a number of areas was then embodied in the new profession of mining engineering.

Engineering enjoys a reciprocal relationship with society that is often taken for granted. For example, the development of roads led to people travelling farther from their homes for business and personal reasons. Increased travel, coupled with the harsh Canadian climate and vast distances between communities, increased the demand for more and better roads and led to the use of more durable materials, such as concrete and asphalt. Each engineering development leads to increased demand of that development, and thus to further demand for engineering developments. This mutually beneficial system of demand and supply applies to nearly every facet of modern life.

Canada's biggest road-building project is a significant engineering achievement and an important conduit for Canadians across the country. Between 1949 and 1970 Canada spent nearly $1.5 billion to create the TRANS-CANADA HIGHWAY. At a length of 7821 km (4784 miles), it was the longest paved highway in the world. It represented the road traffic equivalent of the building of the transcontinental railways with all the attendant engineering and construction difficulties that had plagued these projects. It also marked a major political achievement, since for the first time all provinces agreed on a joint project involving uniform construction standards nationwide.

The rapid growth of western Canada was another of the major early 20th-century changes transforming Canadian life and economy. Some settled areas required elaborately engineered water storage and irrigation networks. Grain that could not get to market had little or no value and feeder roads leading to rail lines were not enough. Nationwide transfer and storage networks had to be built and this made the modern GRAIN ELEVATOR one of the cultural icons of western Canada.

Early elevators were made of wood, and they were as much monuments to engineering as they were symbols of the West's agricultural significance. However, wood deteriorates, and concrete became the universal building material. The replacement of the wooden "sentinels of the prairie" with concrete storage facilities is a case in which it may be argued that engineering has had a detrimental effect on the symbolism of a socially significant structure.

From an engineering perspective, both material and scale of concrete grain elevators dictated careful engineering. Concrete is a symbol of both the 20th century and of the greater importance of the engineer, for here was a man made material for which there was great potential but no traditional rules of thumb for its use; success came from careful calculation and supervised use by professional engineers who alone understood how to take it to ever-increasing levels of utility.

In western Canada urban growth also required dealing with special problems such as the development of alkali-resistant concrete that would withstand western soils without premature decay and failure. Much of this was achieved under C.J. MACKENZIE, later head of the NATIONAL RESEARCH COUNCIL OF CANADA in Ottawa, while he was dean of engineering at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon.

It was in western Canada where petroleum engineering became a mature professional field both with conventional deposits and with heavy crude deposits long known to exist but difficult to process. Successful processing resulted only after decades of research dating back to early work by the GEOLOGICAL SURVEY OF CANADA and more importantly the ALBERTA RESEARCH COUNCIL.

Although relatively sparsely populated, northern Canada has seen some of the most dramatic 20th-century growth and change. Hydroelectric development, mining and pulp and paper, along with the northward extension of the transportation systems, have been responsible for greater engineering input. The conditions of northern development have required the engineering of specialized tools and equipment, such as special-purpose vehicles like short-take-off-and-landing (STOL) aircraft and all-terrain exploration and service vehicles.

The airplane has been crucial to northern development (seeBUSH FLYING), leading to Canadian leadership in STOL capability. Other requirements were admirably met by the DE HAVILLAND BEAVER, a brilliantly designed and engineered Canadian plane built to meet the identified needs of northern bush pilots. Extensive forested areas of northern Canada have led to world renown in the engineering and production of water bombers.

As an eminently suitable engineering response to Canadian needs, the de Havilland Beaver is the spiritual brother of the BOMBARDIER snow vehicles, which range in size from single to multipassenger. Both of these vehicles embody innovative original engineering and have spread worldwide after proving themselves in Canada. Perhaps even more unique are the off-road and specialized exploration and service vehicles manufactured in Calgary by Canadian Foremost Ltd.

Engineering Contributions During World War II

War has traditionally provided an impetus for engineering development. Canada's industrial contribution to the war effort in WWII ranged from socks and boots to explosives, tanks, ships and airplanes. In many instances Canadian engineers converted existing factories into units capable of producing war materials unlike anything they had ever built before, such as precision-made automatic weapons.

In other areas pre-existing industries were force-fed into growth. The Canadian aircraft industry, with 4000 people, 8 plants and 46 500 m2 of floor space and annual production of 40 airplanes, increased by the end of the war to 116 000 employees, 1.4 million m2 of floor space and annual production of 4000 airplanes.

Part of that impressive growth and production record represented a then scarce and relatively new component in Canadian engineering history: female professional engineers. Elsie MACGILL was the chief aeronautical engineer at Canadian Car & Foundry Co in Fort William, Ontario. She had designed the Maple Leaf Trainer, and with a work force of up to 4500 managed the production of approximately 2000 Hawker Hurricane fighters. A rarity when she graduated from the University of Toronto in 1927, Elsie MacGill was one of the pioneers of an important trend that would not begin to make significant inroads until several decades after the end of the war.

Other engineering needs of WWII demanded the creation of entirely new production facilities. Special aluminum alloys and forms were required for aircraft, and in Kingston the Aluminium Co of Canada (ALCAN) built an entirely new plant in only 13 months to supply aluminum alloy sheets, tubes, forgings and extrusions for aircraft builders in Canada, Britain and the US. In Québec, where the world's largest hydroelectric power installation had been completed at Isle-Maligne in 1925, the giant Shipshaw generating station was designed by the consulting engineers of H.G. Acres and Co and then built in only 18 months by The Foundation Co of Canada. It was a remarkable feat of construction - but Canadians were well known for speed.

By the end of WWII Canada had endured over a decade and a half of deprivation and much of the country's roads, sewers, communications systems and housing stock were inadequate. The massive postwar immigration to Canada added to the pressure on these inadequate facilities and helped to fuel a major construction boom.

Communications Technology

The post war boom demanded an increased volume in telecommunications technology far beyond the capabilities of existing technology and systems. During the war microwaves had proven themselves for communications but never on a scale demanded for a trans-Canada network. In a project marked by significant electrical engineering as well as extremely difficult feats of construction, the Trans-Canada Microwave system was officially completed on 1 July 1958. It was the largest microwave transmission network in the world, placing Canada at the forefront of COMMUNICATIONS TECHNOLOGY.

The microwave system served the major population corridor of Canada very well but was not well adapted to isolated and sparsely populated far northern areas. The solution lay with SATELLITE technology, and in 1962 with the launching of Alouette I Canada became the third nation in space behind the USSR and US.

The Alouette satellites set records for reliability and longevity in the hostile environment of space, a testament to the achievement of their engineers. The careful engineering and high performance of the antennae, known more formally as STEM ("storable tubular extendible module"), set new world standards and led directly to the development of the CANADARM. In the interval between the achievements the basic technology has been adapted for use in other hostile environments, such as the interiors of nuclear reactor fuel cells.

The Microwave System and the Alouette satellites were recognized by the Engineering Centennial Board as among the 10 outstanding Canadian engineering achievements of the last century, as were the de Havilland Beaver and the CANDU Nuclear Reactor System. The latter was another outgrowth of wartime technology, although after the war Canada made a commitment to use nuclear power for peaceful purposes. In so doing Canada was set on the path towards not just establishing a sound nuclear electric generating system but also becoming a major player in the medical and industrial applications of nuclear knowledge.

Another important facet of Canadian engineering is the growing amount of foreign work done by Canadian consulting engineers. Expertise, experience and reputation gained in major Canadian projects has led to opportunities for work abroad. After the completion of the Trans-Canada Microwave System, Canadian engineers went on to build the Panaftel network linking the 5 African countries of Benin, Niger, Upper Volta, Mali and Senegal. Even more dramatically, the experience gained by Canadian engineering firms on the world's largest hydroelectric projects in Northern Québec has been a major factor in the rapid growth of a number of Canadian engineering firms and their ability to gain contracts abroad.

The importance of leading-edge work as the springboard to other work underlies a central but little understood facet of engineering, namely its fragility. Engineering is a demanding discipline and engineers must continue to update their knowledge and skills or risk becoming outdated. A nation whose overall economy is not healthy and balanced is unlikely to be able to create and support a healthy engineering establishment to maintain a profession that has made important contributions to Canada's history and culture and is central to future development.

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