My dad grew up on the bald Saskatchewan prairies, a son of pioneers. It was an isolated existence with few accessible amenities and if you couldn’t make or repair something yourself, you had to do without.
Dad was not one to brag about his successful innovations but he sure enjoyed sharing a good laugh with the rest of the family when we reminisced over some of his more outrageous endeavours.
My long-suffering mother did not really see the humour in these recollections because she was the one most adversely affected by his flights of fancy. My sisters and I would split our sides laughing when Dad told the story of how he brought electricity to their log cabin he had just finished building near Cold Lake Alberta.
An old 6-volt generator and battery had come into Dad’s possession—probably salvaged from one of the many cars that during Depression had been stripped of their motors and other equipment and converted into horse-drawn Bennett buggies.
The story went that Dad had a lot of time on his hands that winter so he thought he might have a go at using it to rig up some electric lights. If he could make them work in their little dwelling it would be a first in their neck of the woods and a great family Christmas present. The problem was how to power the generator. He was familiar with wind turbines. There had been a few of them back on the prairies, but that was not a practical idea in the still-deep woods where he now lived.
There were no fast-flowing streams nearby so water power wasn’t an option either. For a time he was stymied but he did eventually come up with a plan. He knew that his idea might not be all that well-received by my mother so he waited for just the right moment to spring it on her. One morning he found Mom cleaning the soot out of the oil lamp chimneys, a job she hated, and figured the time was right. He seated himself at the table across from her and began pleading his case. He opened with, “If my idea works out, you won’t have to do that for much longer.” As he described what he had in mind, Mom’s jaw started to drop in disbelief, and by the time he finished twenty minutes later, her mouth still hadn’t closed. When she could bring herself to speak, she began her tirade.
“Let me see if I’ve understood you correctly. You propose to generate electricity using our pet dog running on a treadmill and because of the small amount of wire you have at your disposal, it will be necessary to have that equipment located in the corner of my kitchen?” She sobbed audibly and was just about to scream at him when suddenly a perverse notion came over her and she changed her mind. They had been stormbound for several days and cabin fever was taking its toll. Maybe watching Dad fail at yet another crazy project would be amusing and fill in some of those endless winter hours. “After all,” she thought to herself, “He thinks he can have our lights working before Christmas and that’s not likely to really happen; he doesn’t have anything to work with and hell, there isn’t a light bulb within a hundred miles of here.” So, feigning enthusiasm, she agreed that he should give it a go.
Dad began scrounging around the countryside looking for the bits and pieces he would require to build his little treadmill. He was looking for broken-down equipment with suitable chains and cogs but things were not going too well for him. A couple of days later, after he failed to find what he needed sticking out of the snow banks around his neighbours’ yards, he announced to Mom that he was giving up on the treadmill. She breathed a secret sigh of relief but as he continued to speak, her anxiety was rekindled. He was moving on to Plan B.
“I’ve come up with a better idea,” he said. “It might take up a little more room in the kitchen but it won’t take so many bits and pieces to build and I think it’ll work just fine.”
He went on to explain that one his neighbours had donated a large wheel from a hay rake. It was made of heavy steel and cast iron and was about five feet in diameter. “All I have to do is add some wooden slats for the dog to run on and let the shaft of the generator rest on the rim of the wheel. The ratio should be just about right, providing the dog runs fast enough.” Searching for something, anything she could say that would forestall the madness, Mom asked, “but what if the dog doesn’t want to run?’
“Oh, he’ll run all right,” Dad replied, “I’m mounting the wheel on an angle so the dog will be running slightly uphill and anyway, I’ll have a harness on him so he won’t be able to get off.”
Over the next couple of days things began to take shape. The kitchen table was pushed against one wall to make room and the big wheel was installed. Even before he had attached the generator, Dad had his dog in training on the wheel. Initially there was a lot of barking, howling, and whining and the dog would only run a few steps then flatten down and remain in that position while the wheel returned him to bottom of the circle and rocked him uselessly back and forth. However Dad’s inventing skills were only surpassed by his animal training ability, so it wasn’t long before he had the dog trotting like a standard-bred racehorse and the big wheel spinning like a top. A few meaty treats suspended from the ceiling and just out of the dog’s reach had done the trick!
He got the generator hooked up to the wheel easily enough, but finding suitable light bulbs was another matter. They might have ordered a couple from the Eaton’s catalogue but that would have involved money and they didn’t have any. The only useful purpose that publication had served in the last few years had been replacing toilet paper in the outhouse.
That didn’t stop Dad. He reasoned that a light bulb was just a jar with a glowing wire inside so why not make his own? He needed some really fine wire to make the glowing filament for the inside of the jar and short pieces cut out of the mesh on the chicken pen seemed to fill the bill. In fact, when he connected his first prototypes up to the generator and clucked the dog into action, they lit up like the real thing. The only problem was that after a few seconds the thin wire would burn out and he would have to try again. Despite several days of experimenting with different jars and wires he was about ready to give up. The only fun he was having with his new contraption was when he tricked his curious neighbours into holding the ends of the lead wires. He would then give the wheel a spin and it would shock the hell out of them. He was just about to dismantle the apparently useless apparatus when inspiration struck. “Vacuum,” Dad thought to himself. “There has to be a vacuum in the jars. If there is no air the filaments won’t burn out.” He had no way of knowing that Edison had run into the same problem when he invented the light bulb and had corrected it in the same manner he was considering (mentes magnae pariter cogitant).
I won’t pretend that I know how Dad created the vacuum or maintained it in his crude jars and bottles, but I have it on good authority that on Christmas Eve of 1937 a strange glow began emanating from the windows of a little log cabin, lighting up a snow-covered clearing in the backwoods of Alberta.