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Canada’s closet of colossal failures with Tom Villemaire

With great ideas, come great failures. And Canada has had plenty of failures.

But that’s really no surprise given Canadians’ entrepreneurial spirit. Tom Villemaire is the co-author of Colossal Canadian Failures: A Short History of Things That Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time, and an expert on Canada’s great innovative spirit gone haywire.

Metro spoke with him about why failure is an important step in the innovative process.

Q: Where did the idea for these books come from?

A: I grew up in Barrie and Simcoe County and in the early 1990s I was working on a book about offbeat stories in that area that would help interest people in history - but the publisher went down the tubes. A while later, my buddy, Randy Richmond, pitched his publisher, Dundurn, on the idea. They liked the idea, but wanted something more national in scope.

So we both started looking for weirdness across the country - and found it - in history books, newspapers, auditors' reports, interviews with museum curators and historians.

In the end, we had over 300 pages of stories and we had a really good response. In fact the first book was mentioned in the House of Commons in regards to the gun registration debate.

The first book came out in the fall of 2002 and the second came out in the spring of 2006. They were fun to do. I've since started a podcast in a similar vein - available on iTunes - called 'Seemed like a good idea at the time.'

Q: In terms of innovation, where exactly did most of these ideas fail?

A: A lot of these so-called failures were victims of timing - they were good ideas but out of synch with the times. Some were marketing failures - the consumers just weren't convinced of the potential. Others were situations where the inventor was the victim of backers who lost confidence too early, or got greedy. And some were just weird.

An example of a good idea not quite right for the times is the story of steam power and diesel. Canada had an opportunity to take the lead in North America with high speed diesel. As early as November 28, 1928 the first diesel-powered train pulled into Kingston station.

America was still years away from bringing diesels into use. Canadian National Railways had started testing the new engines in 1925 and were impressed with the higher speeds. But the Great Depression was just starting to cast its shadow over the economy and the idea of spending money on these new trains, well, it scared some people.

The head of CNR, Sir Henry Thornton argued with federal politicians about the need to spend money to make money. They didn't like what they were hearing so they fired Thornton and replaced him with Samuel Hungerford. Hungerford slashed jobs and made other cuts to the business instead of spending money.

By 1929 both Hungerford and Thornton were dead and so were any plans for modernizing the rail service. CNR didn't upgrade to diesel until the 1940s and didn't finish until 1960. CNR's rival, Canadian Pacific Railway was even worse. The same year CNR unveiled its new diesel locomotive, CPR was reinforcing its bridges to be able to carry bigger, heavier steam engines, um, because they were the future.

As another example, in 1960 Famous Players came up with an early form of pay TV - a coin-operated at-home system to watch movies, but it just didn't appeal to consumers.

On the other hand, George Brown, the father of Confederation, got cold feet at the worst moment. He met a brilliant Scotsman who'd come to Canada to develop some of his great ideas. The inventor's name was Alexander Graham Bell.

He had the absolutely mad idea of hooking up some electronic gizmos and wire and talking into it. Sure, it was crazy, but Brown decided to help the Scot out with $25 a month, a respectable amount of money back then. The deal was for six months and in exchange, Brown was to get a half-interest in the British and foreign rights in the invention - it was to be called the telephone.

Bell asked Brown to register the invention at the patent office in London, England. But it was a long journey by ship and by the time he got to England, Brown convinced himself the whole idea of talking through wires was daft. He delayed registration so much that Bell's registration was almost beat out by competitors but Brown finally did register just ahead of them. Brown made only one payment in his six month promise of support and pulled out.

Bell, the brilliant Scot, would always love Canada, but not so much the Canadian investors. He was so soured by the whole process, he never sought Canadian backing again and moved to the U.S. (although he kept a vacation property in Canada).

So we sort of got the phone, but the Americans got Bell and his later inventions.

On the other hand, George Kavanaugh's idea to use carrots for rectal treatment (with a recess in the carrot for medication) was really an odd idea from the start. And the idea of a perpetual motion machine made from wood - which as we all know creates sparks when two pieces of it are rubbed together and which as we all know burns very easily - was just plain wrong.

Q: What was the best idea that went wrong? Why? And could it have worked if the situation was different?

A: Well, there are a few contenders but I think ultimately it has to be the Avro Arrow - a subject of interest and controversy in Canada to this day.

A.V. Roe Canada built the first jetliner flown in North America, which impressed the US media but not many others. They never built a second.

They did, however, eventually build a new fighter jet - the Avro Arrow - a supersonic, all-weather jet fighter that did very well in test flights with pilots.

But like almost every other government project, the costs were significantly higher than had been initially estimated ($1.5 million vs $400 million to $700 million).

The Liberals were in power when the Arrow was built and had to defend the expense - even against army and navy commanders who saw their own budgets shrinking. When John Diefenbaker's Conservatives defeated the Liberals in 1957, it took them under two years to cancel the Arrow program.

But Diefenbaker also ordered the destruction of everything Arrow - the planes and all the technical drawings and designs, and all the knowledge that had been developed.

It could have been Canada's technological edge and part of a national dream. People still argue - passionately - about whether it died because of politics and spite or because it was a waste of money.

Q: Could it have been different? Maybe. But politics and budgets are always with us.

A: Were these mostly bad ideas, or were they just developed wrong?

Some were bad ideas from the start but in a lot of other cases, the inventors - or their backers - just lacked the self confidence or resources to follow something through.

For example, Thomas Ahearn has been called the Canadian Edison. He was the founder of the Ottawa Electric Rail Company and he was the first person to build an electric stove and the first to cook a meal on it. The Ottawa Journal described the 1892 meal as "cooking by the agency of chained lightning".

Ahearn sold his patent rights for his 'food heaters' to the American Heating Corporation in exchange for stock in the company. Unlike Westinghouse or General Electric, you've probably never heard of American Heating Corporation. It went bankrupt before Ahearn made any money.

Similarly, two guys from Toronto had a working light bulb before Thomas Edison. They couldn't raise money to develop it, so they sold the patent to Edison who was working on something similar and just rolled their idea into the mix.

Arthur Williams McCurdy invented the technology that led to the Polaroid camera; he sold the patent to Eastman Kodak.

Reginald Fessenden did a radio broadcast a year before Marconi - the man credited with inventing radio - but Fessenden's financial backers took his patents and he was sidetracked by litigation for two years.

Q: Would you still call these inventors innovators just because they were willing to try something new and different?

A: Many of these people were innovators and were brilliant. Not all, however.

You do have the enthusiastic amateur, much like Cecilia Gimenez, the octogenarian DIY masterpiece restorer who recently destroyed the classic painting Ecce Homo while trying to save it.

We had a guy - more innovator than inventor - who likely saw himself as state-of-the-art and a supporter of the Canadian Forces but who just showed poor judgment time after time.

Samuel Hughes was a Conservative minister in charge of getting Canada ready for the First World War. Among his other questionable decisions, he registered a patent in his secretary's name for a new and improved shovel and ordered the shovels for his troops.

In fact, the soldiers needed shovels to dig the foxholes and trenches that would help protect them in battle. But Hughes' secretary suggested they could use the shovels as shields, and put holes in them so the soldiers could shoot from behind them. A shovel with a hole in it just isn't the most effective shovel.

He also ordered a new kind of webbing that would strap onto the soldiers and hold equipment but it turned out that when it got wet, it just fell apart.

In short, there may be a time and a place to try something new and different. And other times, not so much.

Q: Has Canada learned from these mistakes?

A: I think Canada has a learned a little, but there are still plenty of Canadians who head south to 'make it big' and that is a symptom of a problem. And some might say Canada doesn't always have the confidence and boldness to support its inventors and innovators.

Q: Can future innovators learn from them?

A: I think future innovators can draw inspiration from even the failures. Anyone who wants to try something new is daring to break new ground. That's a scary thing. Failure and doing something new are roommates, they're twins.

You can't have one without the other. Even Alexander Graham Bell had failures - like the Cygnet II, a plane he designed with wings created from a wall of kites. At the time, there was nothing that had enough power to get the plane airborne in the first place. But he's not remembered for that; he's remembered for his successes.

Q: How do you see Canada in terms of innovative thinking these days?

A: We have pretty amazing technology people in Canada. You look at the BlackBerry and the Canadarm and even the arms industry with the LAV3 or Stryker.

High tech means high pay and good jobs, so it's important to keep that kind of thing in the country. We need to invest in education and in research and development and this will sound odd, but in the arts, because creative minds are an important component to the puzzle of high tech.

If you look at the great inventors of the past, many had an artistic side. Balance, I guess, is what I'm suggesting.

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