Though most Canadians have heard of Thomas Edison few are familiar with Canada’s own Thomas Edison, design engineer George J. Klein.
Born in Hamilton, Ontario in 1904, Klein could count to his credit such inventions as the first electric wheelchair, the first micro-surgical staple gun, Canada’s first nuclear reactor, the ZEEP, a pre-cursor to the internationally famed CANDU reactor, the Weasel all-terrain vehicle, the STEM antenna, crucial to the American space program, and the Canadarm device used in the space shuttle for remote manipulation. He was even summoned out of retirement at the age of 72 to work on the latter device due to his incomparable knowledge of gears.
Klein was indisputably the most prolific Canadian inventor of the twentieth century. He graduated from the University of Toronto with a Bachelors Degree in Applied Science in 1928, but never did a postgraduate degree.
While working with the National Research Council in the 1950’s he developed the first practical electric wheelchair for veterans of the Second World War. Few spinal cord injured soldiers of World War I survived, but due to medical advances 90% of those so-injured in World War II did survive, hence the need for a device which would enhance their mobility and independence.
Klein donated his prototype electric wheelchair to the United States as a gesture of good will in 1955, but it was repatriated exactly 50 years later and now rests in the Canadian Science and Technology Museum in Ottawa. The device proved a godsend for paraplegics, quadriplegics and other whose injuries would formerly have kept them confined to beds or dependent on others for transportation. The joystick control which Klein also invented is still seen in common use today.
Klein’s micro-surgical staple gun was the first to successfully suture blood vessels. Outside of the medical field his STEM (storable tubular extendible member) used in the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs effectively allowed compact antennas to be extended to up to 40 meters in length. His Weasel tracked ATV was used by the U.S. military in venues as different as the Arctic and the tropics.
The Canadarm has been used since 1981 aboard the space shuttle for such diverse tasks as repairs to the Hubble Telescope, launching new satellites and retrieving old ones. An updated version of the Canadarm was used on the International Space Station for numerous tasks.
In his spare time Klein played violin for the Ottawa and Hamilton symphony orchestras. He was also an expert woodworker.
A true polymath, Dr. Klein was initiated as an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1968 and was also a member of the Order of the British Empire. He died in 1992 at the age of 88 and was posthumously named to the Canadian Science and Engineering Hall of Fame in 1995.
What was the motivation that drove Klein to such heights of creativity and inventiveness?
In his own words: “It was wonderful to have been at the lab because it was fun. Serious fun.”
George J. Klein – Public Domain From ookaboo.com
Canadarm – Public Domain From Wikipedia