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"Each individual should allow reason to guide his conduct, or like an animal, he will need to be led by a leash."
Diogenes of Sinope

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Thousand Flowers tapestry (15th Century) - Beaune, France (detail)

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Poutine: Canada's Greatest Invention?

The CBC is currently in production for a series called The Greatest Canadian Inventions. Brought to you by the same team that gave us Tommy Douglas: the Greatest Canadian, the producers have narrowed Canada's contribution to the world of technological innovation to 50 "great inventions.", and audience votes will determine the winner. I can't help but cringe when I read the list. The ardox nail? The caulking gun? How about the green plastic garbage bag, or the retractable beer carton handle? The paint roller? There are the obligatory sports contributions: lacrosse, basketball, five-pin bowling and the hockey goalie mask (although to be contrarian, basketball was actually invented in Boston, Mass. by Canadian James Naismith, and lacrosse existed before Canada did as a nation). There are a couple of entries to the culinary world that raise eyebrows: instant mashed potatoes, for instance, or poutine - both of which I think should be banned by the Geneva Conventions.

Granted, there are some significant inventions that we can be truly proud of: insulin, the electron microscope, the snowmobile, or my personal favourite - the Robertson screwdriver. Of course the Canadarm on the U.S. space shuttle is included, as it is everytime NASA does something spectacular, as if the entire U.S. space program wouldn't exist without this piece of Canadian hardware.

But compare our list to one compiled by the Encylopaedia Britannica : there, the monolithic domination by American inventors is apparent. Of over 320 inventions listed, 157 are American and only four are Canadian (the quartz clock, the personal watercraft, the snowmobile, and insulin). America's contibutions include the engine-powered airplane, the motion picture, the atomic bomb, the personal computer, genetic engineering, the electric motor, the microwave oven, the skyscraper, the steamboat, the transistor, Prozac and Viagra.

Yes, yes, the U.S. has ten times our population. But if Canada has four entries on this list, shouldn't the U.S. then have around 40, not 157? The imbalance is startling. America has a culture that encourages innovation and entrepeneurship, and the rewards are potentially immense. Canada's culture smothers innovation in its crib. Canadian inventors depend on government coddling and handouts, and real innovators depart quickly for the promised land south of the border. Name three famous Canadian inventors (and I don't mean guys like James Naismith or Alexander Graham Bell, who did most of their work in the US) - Frederick Banting, maybe? Can you think of two more? Now do a similar exercise for American inventors: Thomas Edison, Benjamin Franklin, Eli Whitney, Robert Fulton, Jonas Salk, Enrico Fermi, Henry Ford, Bill Gates - I could go on and on.

This isn't just a matter of Canadians not knowing their own history. When the CBC has to pad its list with bogus inventions like the birchbark canoe, the Wonderbra or the Bloody Caesar just to come up with fifty contributions, one can safely say that this country is not a fertile breeding ground for inventors. By the way, if you feel inclined, PLEASE vote for the electron microscope on the CBC's website so we don't have to listen to Rick Mercer extolling the virtues of the zipper.


PGP said...

Sad but true....the culture of dependency has destroyed many creative spirits in this land.

And yet despite all the evidence pointing to this poisonous result of government meddling so many poeple still think the answer is more government.

Benjamin said...

Speaking of James Naismith, I think its very interesting. I mean can James Naismith really truly be considered a Canadian inventor except as a technicality (Same for Bell)? True,neither became citizens of the US AFTER their various inventions but it was the US that provided the opportunity not Canada. Not to mention Naismith never returned to Canada, and that Gram considered himself a US citizen rather than Canada or even duel.

I quote from Bell himself: "I am not one of those hyphenated Americans who claim allegiance to two countries."

Now, I'm not trying to dig at your country as I think Canada and the US have a very truly symbiotic relationship but that kinda seems like winning by default to me with those two. Anyway, just one of those interesting questions which doesn't really have one answer I imagine or even a clear one at that.