Thursday, March 16, 2017

Part 1: 150 Years of Canadian Aerospace History

Before Canada: HMS Agamemnon, the Telegraph Cable, William Leitch & "The Fur Country"




Graphic c/o Pixabay.
         By Robert Godwin
Canada's aerospace raison d'être has always derived from its immense size, its location in the far north as a vast, barely-tracked wilderness of incalculable resources and the logical requirements relating to defence, communications, utilization and exploration which naturally follow from its size and location. 
It's also worth noting that the beginnings of Canada's aerospace history predates Canada itself...
Just over 150 years ago His Majesty's Ship Agamemnon took on the daunting task of trying to lay a telegraph cable across the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. It was one of the most ambitious engineering projects ever undertaken, and if it worked, for the first time in history there would be almost instantaneous communication between Europe and North America. 

At first, both the British and United States' governments saw little purpose to the project, but several years later, when the first telegraph message arrived via the eastern coast of Canada, an awakening took place, and politicians and businessmen alike suddenly realised the power and benefits of instant communication over ocean-spanning distances. 

HMS Agamemnon, a 91-gun Royal Navy battleship ordered by the Admiralty in 1849, was part of the British contingent of the 1857-1958 cable laying expedition, along with HMS Leopard and HMS Cyclops. As outlined in the undated Atlantic-cable.com post, "Cabot Strait Cable and 1857-58 Atlantic Cables," the United States Government provided USS Niagara as their cable layer with USS Susquehanna to assist. Although their first attempt in 1857 was unsuccessful, the project was resumed the following year and Agamemnon and Niagara successfully joined the ends of their two sections of cable in the middle of the Atlantic on July 29th, 1858 . Graphic c/o Atlantic-cable.com.

Still living under the rule of British authority, Canada was a vast barely-tracked wilderness of incalculable resources - almost ten million square kilometres of ice, trees, rivers, lakes and granite. It was divided into Lower and Upper Canada and had yet to combine into the Confederation that exists today. The cable across the Atlantic was successfully laid and by 1866 it had begun to earn money, but it would be decades before the great Canadian wilderness would relinquish its secrets and allow similar telegraphic communication to pass from coast to coast. 

During the 19th century thousands of immigrants from Scotland and elsewhere came to British North America to find a better life. One of the biggest obstacles to overcome was the fragmentation of the country into different jurisdictions. Two émigrés from opposite sides of Scotland, fought on opposite sides of the political aisle, until it became clear that the only way to truly breach the wilderness was the grand vision of a united country. Those two men, John Alexander Macdonald and George Brown, put aside their differences, and along with the native-born Canadian George-Étienne Cartier, set about confederating the disparate parts of an immense country. 

Another Scottish émigré, and a friend of Macdonald's, was a minister named William Leitch. Leitch was that most unusual of things, a Presbyterian scientist; a man of God and a polymath who was steeped in the lessons of natural philosophy, physics, chemistry, biology and astronomy. In 1859 Leitch was invited to come to John Macdonald's hometown of Kingston Ontario to take on the role of Principal at one of the new Canadian universities — Queen's College.  In 1860 he arrived with his telescope and books and set about the task of bringing science to his small roster of students. 

William Leitch (ca. 1861). For more on Leitch, check out the October 4th, 2015 post, "Rocket Spaceflight Accurately Described by Scottish-Canadian Scientist in 1861." Image c/o The Space Library

Leitch had worked and studied at the Horslet Hill optical and magnetic observatory in Glasgow at a time when a global initiative had been undertaken by the Royal Society to try and understand why the earth's magnetic field seemed to fluctuate and change over time. The Royal Society established a string of magnetic observatories around the Empire and built one of them in Toronto — it was Canada's first observatory. 

As this research program began to bear fruit in the early 1850s it became apparent that Canada played a unique part in this great cosmic puzzle. The north magnetic pole was located somewhere in the frozen wilderness of Canada's arctic. This random quirk of fate would be a major factor in everything that was to come in Canada's aerospace future. 

To tame such a huge swathe of our home planet was going to take generations of work by scientists and engineers, and the key to success was being able to communicate over wide tracts of territory, when much of it had never even been explored. New technologies like the telegraph would have to be deployed, but it was soon learned that the long cables, even those laid in the dark depths of the ocean were subject to interference from cosmic sources, in particular the cycles of the sun. 

Astronomers like Leitch had been lecturing for years on astronomy and also on the sun's disturbing prominence's, and he had even had a hand in teaching astronomy to Lord Kelvin, the man who had been responsible for laying that first cable across the Atlantic from Ireland to Canada.  


After it had been determined that the sun was interacting with the earth's drifting magnetic fields it was not long before those same fields were also proven to be the source of that most magnificent aerial display, the Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights.  The first peoples to arrive in Canada in prehistoric times had marvelled at these displays of ionized particles, and their oral history attributed them to the place where their ancestors went to play a sort-of primitive version of soccer. 

Another story suggested that the fall of night was caused by a huge animal skin being drawn across the sky and the auroral lights were the skin catching fire. As terrifying a prospect as that might seem, the enigmatic lights would prove to be a somewhat less lethal but much more intractable problem to solve. 

When William Leitch arrived in Canada he had already begun to imagine a future where it might be possible to investigate solar prominences and other phenomena by travelling into space. In the late summer of 1861 he wrote an essay entitled "A Journey Through Space" in which he postulated that the best way to make such a journey would be by using a rocket, operating under the simple principals of action and reaction. 

Leitch realised that a vehicle powered by such a device would be more efficient in space. His insight seems to represent the first time that anyone had considered such a trip, using the right device, for all of the right reasons. William Leitch would not live to see his imaginary rocket-ship venture into the cold depths of space. He died at the age of 49 and was buried with honour in Kingston Ontario exactly 93 years to the day before the first real spacecraft would fly.


Six years after Macdonald, Brown and Cartier had agreed on a vision of a united Canada, the great French novelist Jules Verne wrote a book about scientists exploring the untracked Canadian wilderness. It was called "Le Pays des Fourrures" (The Fur Country) and it told the story of a group of adventurers who are sent above the 70th parallel to a location named Cape Bathurst, where the astronomer in the group is seeking out information about the night sky. Like so many of his other stories, Verne seemed to have an uncanny knack for recognizing the best places to set his scientific romances. 

Just seven years after his novel, in 1879, a group of scientists gathered in Germany to propose just such a campaign, but it would involve contributors from around the globe travelling and establishing research stations in the Polar Regions. By the summer of 1881 the newly united country of Canada was being asked to contribute to this great undertaking. 

The year of 1882 would be designated the first International Polar Year and its legacy would ultimately herald the space age. 
Robert Godwin.
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Robert Godwin is the owner and founder of Apogee Space Books. He is also the Space Curator at the Canadian Air & Space Museum
He has written or edited over 100 books including the award winning series "The NASA Mission Reports" and appeared on dozens of radio and television programs in Canada, the USA and England as an expert not only on space exploration but also on music.  
His books have been discussed on CNN, the CBC, the BBC and CBS 60 Minutes. He produced the first ever virtual reality panoramas of the Apollo lunar surface photography and the first multi-camera angle movie of the Apollo 11 moonwalk. His latest book was written with the late Frederick I Ordway III and is called "2001 The Heritage and Legacy of the Space Odyssey" about the history of spaceflight at the movies.
Next Week, "The International Polar Year, the Silver Dart, Canada's First Air Show and Aerospace Becomes Serious Business," in part two as "100 Years of Canadian Aerospace History" continues.

On sale now, at Apogee Books.

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