This Week in History


Canada's Inventor of the 20th Century

For the week of Monday, October 30, 2017

On November 4, 1992, George Johann Klein died in Ottawa, Ontario. Klein had a long and successful career as a design engineer and was involved with dozens of inventions including the electric wheelchair and the CANADARM.

A stamp from 2000 commemorating “George Klein: Canada’s Inventor of the 20th Century”
© Library and Archives Canada, R169-5

Klein joined the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) in 1929, where he worked until his retirement in 1969. He developed the NRC’s first wind tunnels, and his research on the mechanics of snow led to a system of classifying snow and its diverse qualities. He also researched fitting skis to aircraft, which led to the development of the Weasel Army Snowmobile that was mass-produced in the United States.

During the Second World War, Klein designed aiming systems for artillery and naval anti-submarine mortars. He headed the team that designed the ZEEP, the first atomic reactor outside the United States. Following the war, Klein made significant contributions to medical technology. He developed a device to suture blood vessels, making complicated surgeries and transplants possible. He also changed the lives of millions with the invention of the electric wheelchair, which was powered by battery and controlled by a joystick.

The CANADARM deployed from the space shuttle
© Canadian Space Agency

In 1962, Klein’s inventions reached outer space. The Storable Extendible Member (STEM) radio antenna could reach 45 metres and be retracted into a flat reel. First used on the Alouette 1 satellite, STEM became standard space technology. At 72, Klein was called out of retirement to be the chief consultant on gear design for the CANADARM. The CANADARM was sent to space in 1981 and was used for 30 years. Fifteen metres long, it was controlled by astronauts inside the space shuttle and acted like a human arm with a shoulder, elbow, and wrist. Without gravity, the CANADARM could lift 266,000 kilograms.

In 1995, George Johann Klein was inducted into the Canadian Science and Engineering Hall of Fame. The Alouette 1 Satellite Program is a national historic event and The National Research Council of Canada Laboratories is a Federal Heritage Building. On June 6, 2016, the NRC celebrated its 100th anniversary! To learn more, read Canada Joins the Space Age, and An Educator Through and Through in the This Week in History Archives.

Follow us on Twitter @ParksCanada, and be sure to visit the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada webpage. Explore Canada 150!

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