Canadian Achievement

The abolition of slavery, the first European overland crossing of North America, a home of liberty and freedom for American slaves delivered on the underground railway, the birth of the global petroleum industry, a billion lives saved from premature death with the discovery of insulin. These are among Canadian achievements and inventions worth celebrating.


First social club in North America established by Samuel de Champlain at Port Royal, Nova Scotia. Port Royal, France’s first successful settlement in North America was founded the year before but many of the settlers died of scurvy during a bitter winter. The following year, members of Champlain’s morale-boosting l’Orde de Bon-Temps served beaver tail, salmon, moose pie, and other wild game at Port Royal’s Great Hall.

SAILBOAT. 1679 January 26

On the shore of Lake Erie, the keel is laid for the first ship built to sail the Great Lakes, the 44-tonne Griffon.
SHIP CANAL. 1781 February 15. First lock canal on the St. Lawrence River built by William Twiss at Coteau du Lac.

FIRST CROSSING. 1793 July 22

First Europeans to cross America, north of the Rio Grande, Alexander Mackenzie (1764-1820) and eight companions marked their trek with an inscription on a large rock at Bella Coola: “Alexander Mackenzie, from Canada, by land, the twenty-second of July, one thousand seven hundred and ninety-three.” The Lewis and Clark expedition across the United States followed 13 years later.

ABOLITION. 1793 August 23

Abolition law passed by the legislature of Upper Canada prohibited importing slaves but allowed owners to retain existing slaves. Slavery was abolished in Britain and its empire in 1834 and in the United States in 1863.


First vaccination for smallpox in North America administered by medical missionary John Clinch at Trinity, Newfoundland.


Josiah Henson (1789-1883), his wife and four children, ferried by rowboat across the Niagara River to Kent, Upper Canada, were among the first of as many as 90,000 American fugitive slaves to find freedom in Canada by travelling secretly by night on the “underground railway,” in which they, and the “agents” who helped them, risked their lives.

STEAMSHIP. 1833 September 11

SS Royal William, first ship to cross the Atlantic under steam power alone, docks at Gravesend on the Thames, carrying a load of coal and seven passengers on a 25-day voyage from Pictou, Nova Scotia. The ship was built at Cape Blanc, Quebec.

COAL OIL. 1846 June 19

Nova Scotia physician, geologist and inventor Abraham Gesner (1797-1864) demonstrates his kerosene fuel at Charlottetown. Produced initially from bitumen and coal, kerosene—a.k.a. “coal oil”—became the principal source of light for the lamps of the world for more than half a century, until the advent of Thomas Edison’s electric light bulb. In 1854, a New York refinery designed by Gesner was the first to commercially produce kerosene. Within four years some 70 U.S. coal oil plants were producing “coal oil.” The Gesner plant was still the largest, employing 200 men who refined 30,000 tons of coal a year to turn out 5,000 gallons of kerosene per day. The coal oil industry was short-lived but built the foundation for the petroleum industry. That awaited the discovery of North America’s first commercial oil field at Oil Springs in Canada West. The coal oil refineries switched to oil to produce kerosene at much less cost.


Associated Press, established by six New York daily newspapers, relied on a complicated Canadian route for delivery of European news: by ship to Halifax; Pony Express to Digby, Nova Scotia; by steamship to Saint John, New Brunswick, and finally by telegraph to New York.


Mary Ann Shad (1823-1893) is North America’s first black newspaperwoman with the 1853 publication of The Provincial Freeman in Windsor. The daughter of a Wilmington, Delaware shoemaker and a leader of the Underground Railway, she moved to Windsor, Canada West after the 1850 U.S. Fugitive Law threatened to return free blacks and escaped slaves in northern states to southern bondage. At Windsor, she founded a racially integrated school. When The Voice of The Fugitive, the leading black newspaper in Canada, attacked her ideas and character, Shad established the Freeman. The paper soon folded but a year later it was re-established in Toronto, later moving to Chatham. She was editor for five years, until The Provincial Freeman folded permanently.

FIRST OIL COMPANY. 1854 December 18

First incorporated oil company, International Mining and Manufacturing Company, organized by prospector and mining promoter Charles Nelson Tripp (1823-1862). Chartered in Canada West (Ontario) to manufacture oils, naphtha, paints, burning fluids, varnishes and related products, its principal product was paving material, manufactured from a bitumen deposit 40 kilometres southeast of Sarnia. Tripp’s bitumen won an honourable mention at the Paris Universal Exhibition in 1855 and was used to pave Paris streets. Two years later, IMM was bankrupt and Tripp returned to seek his fortune in the United States. He died in a New Orleans hotel room at age 43, reportedly of “brain congestion.” His obituary said he been busy organizing companies to develop “on a gigantic scale” deposits of “oil, copper, lead, zinc and iron” that he had discovered in Louisiana and Texas.


Workmen digging for water near the bitumen deposit mined by Charles Tripp, found a “flow of almost pure oil,” predicted to yield “not less than one thousand dollars per day of clear profit.” It was North America’s first commercial oil discovery, more than a year before the Titusville, Pennsylvania oil discovery launched the U.S. petroleum industry. The workers were digging for James Miller Williams (1880-1890), a Hamilton carriage maker, who refined kerosene from the bitumen before the liquid crude oil was discovered. J.M. Williams & Co. became the world’s first integrated oil company, with crude oil production, refining and marketing. Williams & Co. (later renamed Canadian Oil Company) sold its Victoria Oil kerosene in Canada, the United States, Europe and Asia for more than 20 years before it disappeared in a merger with another firm.

UNDERSEA CABLE 1858. August 16

First trans-Atlantic telegraph sent from Trinity Bay, Newfoundland to Valentia, Ireland, the culmination of undersea telegraph cable developed by Newfoundland engineer Frederick Newton Gisborn (1824-92).

ROWING CHAMPS. 1870 September 15

A four-man English rowing crew defeats the much-favoured Canadians, in a race at Montreal that drew 45,000 spectators. A year later, the Canadian crew beat the English for the world title. Ten years later, in a race on the Thames, Edward Hanlan of Toronto beat E.A. Trichett of Australia for the world’s singles rowing championship with such ease that the London Times dubbed the race “a mere farce.”

RODEO. 1872 August 28

First wild west show staged at Niagara Falls, Ontario features James Butler Hicock as “Wild Bill Hicock.”


In Flanders Fields, the most widely known poem of the First World War, composed in 20 minutes by Dr. John McCrae (1872-1918) of Guelph, Ontario.

A PAIR OF AIR ACES. 1918 April 21

The Red Baron, Manfred von Richthofen, Germany’s top First World War air ace, shot down in a dogfight by Canadian airman Roy Brown (1893-1944). William Avery “Billy” Bishop (1894-1956) was Canada’s top air ace in the war, shooting down 72 enemy aircraft, exceeded among allied forces only by French aviator Rene Fonck, who shot down 75.

MUSICAL RADIO. 1918 December

First music broadcast by radio transmitted by Marconi Wireless Telegraph Co. of Canada from Montreal to the Chateau Laurier Hotel in Ottawa.

BLUENOSE. 1921 March 26

Canada’s most famous ship, launched at Lunenburg, Nova Scotia. The 40-metre schooner won four of six contests for the International Fisherman’s Trophy from 1921 to 1938. Bluenose was sold in 1942 to a West Indies trading company, hauling scrap, and wrecked in 1946 after hitting a reef off Haiti. A replica, Bluenose II, was launched in 1963.

NO BATTERIES. 1925 April 08

First radio to operate on common household electric AC power, in place of batteries, built by Edward Samuel Rogers (1889-1953) and his two chief engineers. To promote sales of his radio, Rogers established Toronto radio station CFRB, which stood for “Canada’s First Rogers Batteryless.”


Battlefield medical care is revolutionized by Canadian physician Norman Bethune (1890-1939) with the development of the first mobile blood transfusion service, while serving as a medical officer with Republican forces during the Spanish civil war.

SUPERMAN. 1939 January

The comic book hero is born in the pages of Action Comics, the creation of Toronto-born artist Joe Shuster (1914-1992) and writer Jerome Siegal. Receiving very little financial reward for their creation, they were impoverished for years. A copy of the first issue of Action Comics with the Superman was sold in 2010 at an auction for $1. 5 million.

PILOT TRAINING. 1939 December 17

Air crews from Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Canada to be trained in Canada by RCAF for service in Second World War, under the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan. By war’s end, 130,000 airmen had been trained.

JET TRANSPORTER. 1949 August 10

Inaugral flight of the AVRO C102, North America’s first jet transport aircraft, built by Avro Canada in Malton, Ontario. The C102 flew for seven years, setting many records.

SWIMMING CHAMPS. 1954 September 9

Toronto’s 16-year-old Marilyn Bell is the first to swim across Lake Ontario, from Youngstown, New York to Toronto, a distance of 54 kilometres. Twenty years later, Cindy Nicholas, also of Toronto, sets the speed record for swimming across the lake in 15 hours and 18 minutes, beating the previous record by almost three hours. In 1977, Nicholas set the record for a non-stop return swim across the English Channel, beating the previous record by almost 10 hours.

OIL SANDS. 1967 September 25

Start of synthetic crude oil production from the world’s largest petroleum deposit, the Athabasca oil sands in northern Alberta. By 2015, the oil sands are expected to account for one-fifth of all North American oil production.

UNDERGROUND WALK. 1967 December 06

World’s longest underground walkway, 4.8 kilometres, opened in Montreal. It connects Place Ville Marie, Place Bonaventure, and Central Station.

EYE SURGERY. 1968 November 06

Toronto surgeons perform first plastic cornea implant in a human eye.

DIGITAL TALK. 1973 January 19

Data-route, world’s first commercial digital telecom system, inaugurated by Trans-Canada Telephone System.

SPACE ARM. 1983 June 22

Canadarm is used on a U.S. space shuttle for the first release and recovery of a satellite in space.

CANCER HIKE. 1985 May 29

Steve Fonyo, a one-legged cancer victim, dips artificial leg in the Pacific Ocean after completing a 14-month, fund-raising walk across Canada. Terry Fox attempted the feat in 1980 but was forced to halt his journey in Sudbury after cancer had spread to his lungs.

BASEBALL CHAMPS. 1992 October 24

Toronto Blue Jays team becomes first non-American team to win the World Series title, defeating Atlanta Braves in game six. The Jays won the title again the following year.


MV Umiak I, world’s most powerful ice-breaker bulk carrier, is launched in Japan for Fednav Limited of Montreal, to haul nickel concentrates from the Voisey Bay mine in Labrador to Quebec City. Its 30,000 hp diesel engine is designed to break through ice as thick as 20 metres. From Quebec the concentrate is moved by railway to Sudbury for refining.

EASY RIDER. 2009 July 28

Fastest bicycle trip across Canada, Vancouver to St. John’s, completed by Cornel Dobrin. of Langley, B.C. Dobrin made the trip in 27 days, 5 hours and 30 minutes, beating the previous record by more than one day.


HELLO! 1876 March 10

Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone launched in Boston, when Bell calls his assistant in a nearby room, “Mr. Watson, come here, I want to see you.” On August 3, Bell made the first ‘phone call between two buildings at Mount Pleasant, Ontario; and on August 10, the first long-distance call, 13 kilometres, from Brantford to Paris, Ontario.

CHECK YOUR CLOCKS. 1879 February 8

Standard time, dividing the world into 24 zones, proposed by Sanford Fleming (1827-1915) to end the chaos of varying local times. His Standard Time was adopted by all North American railways in 1883 and implemented by 25 countries on January 1, 1885.

SLAM DUNK! 1892 December 15

First game of basketball—invented by Canadian physician and physical education instructor James A. Naismith (1861-1939)—played in the gymnasium of the YMCA International Training School in Springfield, Massachusetts, using peach baskets nailed to the balconies at either end of the gym.


Fifteen-year-old Joseph-Armand Bombardier builds world’s first snowmobile: a sled with a Ford model T engine that drove a rear-mounted wooden aircraft-type propeller. His father orders it dismantled, fearing that the propeller is too dangerous. In 1935 Bombardier built the first commercial snowmobile, in Valcourt, Quebec, a track-driven passenger vehicle steered by skis in the front, the prototype of vehicles that revolutionized travel in snow, swamp and muskeg conditions in oil, mining, and forestry operations. In 1959, Bombardier built a one- or two-passenger snowmobile intended for use by hunters and trappers as an alternative to dogsleds. He called his new machine Ski-Dogs but a painter misread the instructions and painted Ski-Doo on the first machines.

A BILLION LIVES SAVED. 1922 February 11

Discovery of insulin announced. Patent rights were soon sold for $1 to the University of Toronto, to make the new diabetes treatment widely and cheaply available. The discovery was made by medical researchers Frederick Banting (1891-1941), Charles Best (1899-1978), James Collip (1892-1965) and James Macleod (1876-1935). Ninety years later, almost 300 million people worldwide were diabetic, of whom about a quarter, or some 70 million, were treated with insulin. Insulin is thought to have saved as many as one billion lives from premature death.


1797: McIntosh apple, John McIntosh…1833: Ship screw propeller, John Patch. Newsprint, Charles Fenerty…1854: Odometer, Samuel McKeen… 1857: Railway sleeper car, Samuel Sharp… 1858: Air-conditioned railway coach, Henry Ruttan… 1859: Automatic foghorn, Robert Foulis… 1862: Green currency ink (causing U.S. dollar to be called a greenback), Thomas Sterry Hunt… 1869: Half-tone engraving, Georges Edourad and William Leggo… 1869: Rotary railroad snowplow, J.E. Elliott… 1882: Electric car heater, Thomas Ahearn… 1889: Gramophone, Alexander Graham Bell and Emile Berliner… 1890: Electric cooking range, Thomas Ahearn… 1900: Wireless radio, Reginald A. Fessenden… 1904: Acetylene, Thomas L. Wilson… 1908: Hydrofoil boat, Alexander Graham Bell and Casey Baldwin… 1909: Five-pin bowling, Thomas F.Ryan. 1913: Zipper, Gideon Sundback… 1925: Snowblower, Arthur Sicard. Wirephoto, Edward Samuel Rogers… 1928: Electric organ, Morse Robb… 1934: Television camera, F. C. P. Henroteau… 1937: Electron microscope, Cecil Hall, Eli Franklin Burton, James Hiller, and Albert Prebus… 1940: Paint roller, Norman Breakey… 1941. Anti-gravity suit, Wilbur Rounding Franks…1942. Walkie-Talkie, Donald L. Hings… 1950: Heart-pacemaker, John A. Hopps… 1957: Analytical plotter, 3D map-making system, Uno Vilho Helava… 1959: Jolly Jumper, Olivia Poole… 1960: Bone marrow compatibility test, Barbara Bain… 1971: Electric Prosthetic Hand, Helmut Lucas… 1971: Ultraviolet degradable plastic, James Guillet… 1972: Computerized Braille, Roland Galarneau… 1990: Explosives Vapour Detector, Dr Lorne Elias.