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Bottled Sunlight: Thomas 'Carbide' Willson

For the week of Monday May 1, 2006

On May 2, 1892, after endless experiments to develop a cost-effective method to produce aluminium, Thomas Leopold Willson unexpectedly created a metallic substance that ‘when immersed in water’ produced a curious flammable gas smelling of ‘garlic’.

Thomas 'Carbide' Wilson (1860-1915)
© Library and Archives of Canada / C-53499
Earlier, Willson had failed several times to commercialize and market his electric dynamo and arc-light system and other inventions. For 10 years, these setbacks forced him to move from place to place, eventually leading him to Spray, North Carolina, where he achieved his first major success. The mystery compounds had been identified as calcium carbide – “grey gold” – and acetylene gas. Both had been discovered in 1828, but Willson had discovered a method of synthesizing calcium carbide that was one million times more productive than any other.

Thomas ‘Carbide’ Willson returned to Canada in 1894 and established the Willson Carbide and Acetylene Works at Merritton, Ontario (now St. Catherines), Canada’s first electrochemical plant. Similar plants were also erected in Shawinigan, Que. and Ottawa. Acetylene’s pure white light became the lighting of choice for trains, lighthouses, buoys, bicycles, mines, and automobiles, often competing head-on with Edison’s incandescent lighting systems. However, its real value lay in welding and cutting steel. The 3300° Celsius oxygen-acetylene flame – twice as hot as prevailing welding technology – greatly assisted in the mass production of ships and heavy industrial equipment and was integral in making the automobile assembly line a reality. 

Carbide Mill, Victoria Island, Ottawa
© CMCC, photo: H. Foster, no. D2005-00061

Willson’s confidence, enterprise and inventive drive contributed greatly to the growth of Canadian science and technology. He hired young scientists and encouraged them to explore and develop new processes that went beyond his own discoveries. He left the management of his established enterprises to the experts and returned to his laboratory to work on such diverse projects as aluminium naval cannons, super fertilizers, and improving rural telephone systems. While some might see his loss of several fortunes as failure, Willson lived a life sustained by experiment and discovery.

Thomas Edison, perhaps the most famous inventor of that era, once said, “I have not had a 1000 failures. I have merely found 1000 ways that it cannot be done.” He could well have been describing Willson’s optimistic pursuit of scientific discovery. Thomas ‘Carbide’ Willson, the man who sparked an international electrochemical industry by transforming “water into light,” was designated a National Historic Person in 1972. Now abandoned, Willson’s Ottawa mill still stands on Victoria Island, a reminder of that era of invention and enterprise.

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