Many Years From Now

Martin Grant, Dean of Science

Martin Grant, Dean of Science

More than 100 years ago, the 20th century ushered in a golden age of science, technology, and scholarship. This golden age was so deep that it is almost incomprehensible to think many key figures of the time—such as Albert Einstein, Vladimir Lenin, Sigmund Freud, and Marie Curie—were contemporaries, sharing their views and rubbing elbows together, in the same cafés, conferences, and colleges.

However, the luminaries involved in all that change at the cusp of the 20th century were not all European. Indeed, one of the brightest stars of the time was a Canadian from Knowlton, Quebec named Reginald Fessenden. Fessenden was an inveterate tinkerer, an inventor almost without parallel. Among his hundreds of patents, the most famous was his method of down-shifting radio waves, improving their resolution and strength, thereby allowing radio to be used for the first transmission of voice over the ether, the progenitor of modern telecommunications.

Fessenden rubbed elbows with other giants of the age. One of his mentors was Thomas Edison, with whom he worked on rubber and its susceptibility to heat. He worked with George Westinghouse, the inventor of air brakes for trains, on electrical generation. He was a good friend of the Wright Brothers, and worked on a lightweight internal combustion engine.

The distinction now sometimes made, between those who theorize and those who invent, was absent then. At the time, people would move in and out of the ivory towers of universities. In 1900, for example, Fessenden advanced the theory that matter was wholly electrical; a theory which J. J. Thomson noted at the time was congruent with the observed increase in mass at high speeds. This latter phenomenon is now known to be explained by the theory of relativity, which Einstein based on the electrodynamics of moving bodies. And, indeed, despite Thomson’s early favor of Fessenden’s theory, he later acquiesced to the nuclear model of the atom, which was invented by Thomson’s famous student Ernest Rutherford.

Later, during the First World War, both Fessenden and Rutherford worked on sonar for communication between ships and for the detection of submarines. As I said, people would move in and out of the ivory towers of universities at the time.

At the turn of the last century, McGill University was experiencing its first golden age of science. Our Nobel Laureates, the interdisciplinary collaborators Ernest Rutherford and Frederic Soddy, for example, studied the transmutation of the elements. Their research was enabled by state-of-art scientific complexes—which attracted Rutherford to McGill in the first place—funded by the generous and visionary philanthropist, W. C. Macdonald.

A century later, McGill has been enormously strengthened by academic renewal. Since the turn of the 21st century, we have been hiring almost 100 professors per year. This is without precedent in McGill’s history: most of our scientists are at the beginnings of their careers. I believe we are about to enter another golden age of science.

What of lessons learned? Yes, the story of Reginald Fessenden from a century ago is important because he is an inspiring Canadian role model. But there is another side to the story. Fessenden’s successes are almost unrecognized in Canada because he left Canada to follow his muse in other countries, particularly the United States, as there were no opportunities here.

This is the lesson. It is incumbent on us now at McGill, when we have a potential for success that we have not had for a very long time, to take heed; to ensure that our scientists can be successes in and out of the ivory towers of the university, that they can commercialize their ideas, be inventors as well as theorists if that is where their interests lie, within Canada, in Quebec, in Montreal, and indeed, at McGill.

I knew nothing of Fessenden until a couple of years ago, when I met John Blachford for the first time. For four decades, John has led a highly successful business involved in the chemical and acoustics industry which designs, manufactures, and supplies noise control materials for the transportation, construction, and off-road equipment industries. He is a champion of responsible business and demonstrates—by example—that strong ethics and recognition of the importance of the environment go hand in hand in top business environments. As such, he has been recognized as a 2007 Chemical Institute of Canada Fellow. As well, John has been a generous and visionary philanthropist to McGill University.

At our first meeting, John told me about his great uncle, Reginald Fessenden, and his innovative accomplishments, some of which I have detailed above. Then John, a proud McGill graduate, made it very clear to me that McGill should ensure that Quebec produced no more Reginald Fessendens—or rather, no more Fessendens for export abroad!

Last year, McGill celebrated the first two Reginald Fessenden Professors in Innovation, generously financed through an endowment created by John and Janet Blachford. As well, their son Erik Blachford created the Reginald Fessenden Prizes in Innovation. These awards are to recognize and encourage innovative and commercially promising research. To ensure that the next generation of Fessendens will make their impact here.

A century ago we were poised at McGill. We made a great leap in science to become what we are now. We are poised to leap again.

With the support of generous and visionary philanthropists, like the Blachford family, we will make that leap, and many years from now others will look back on this as a golden age of science at McGill.

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