This Week in History
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’ 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.
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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