Warsaw Caves, Ontario, 1972—the scene of my first foray into the underworld and my first use of a carbide lamp. Carbide lamps run on acetylene gas, and one way to make acetylene is to put water in contact with calcium carbide. I was the only one at the place who had one of these contraptions. My dad and brother used battery-powered flashlights. Everyone thought I was nuts. But climbing and crawling through the Warsaw Caves, which consist of cold, wet, utterly dark underground passageways through a giant pile of glacial rubble, I was glad for the lamp’s bright light and warmth. I was 12 years old at the time. Unbeknownst to me, 120 kilometers southwest of the Warsaw Caves, on the northwestern shore of Lake Ontario just east of Toronto, a huge industrial project had recently been launched. That project was the Pickering A nuclear generating station.
Now, what does calcium carbide have to do with nuclear energy? I bought my carbide lamp at a now-defunct camping supply place called Thomas Black & Sons. Black’s, as we used to call it, published a catalog that was, to budding environmental adventurers like me, just the coolest thing imaginable. Another ultra-cool publication was the Whole Earth Catalog.
The store used to be at Bank and Strathcona in Ottawa, Ontario. Again, unbeknownst to me at the time, a half-hour walk away from the Black’s Ottawa store location, on Victoria Island on the Ottawa River, is a Recognized Federal Heritage Building called the Willson Carbide Mill. The Willson Carbide Mill used to make calcium carbide, the same stuff that I would put in the carbide lamp I bought from Black’s and used at the Warsaw Caves. Like Black’s, the Willson mill is now defunct. But it was a going concern 110 years ago. It was built by a man named Thomas Willson. Willson was an Ontario boy (from Princeton, west of Brantford). I was very surprised to learn that Willson had invented the process for making calcium carbide. Those who have hiked the trail behind Meech Lake in the Gatineau hills may recall a marker for a trail called “Carbide Willson.” It’s named after the same Thomas Willson.
I had no idea until quite recently that my city of residence was, a hundred years ago, the site of a chemical manufacturing plant that made calcium carbide, or that the guy who invented the process was Canadian, let alone from Ontario. This is apropos to me personally: I have for the past few years been running a project to develop a new chemical manufacturing process. Our first demonstration prototype may be in Ottawa.
In my ignorance of Thomas Willson and his connection to Ottawa, I am probably not much unlike the vast majority of my fellow Canadians, and Ontarians, who are unaware that their fellow Canadians and Ontarians had invented a peaceful way of harnessing the power of the atom. That invention is called the CANDU nuclear reactor. But unlike the Willson Carbide plant on Victoria Island in the Ottawa River, or the Black’s camping supply store on Bank Street in Ottawa, the CANDU is not defunct. A fleet of 18 CANDUs is right this minute making most of the electricity powering Ontario. And in case you didn’t know, Ontario is a modern advanced industrial society, consisting of 13 million people whose GDP in 2013 was $692 billion. That makes Ontario one of the most affluent jurisdictions in the world.
CANDUs, like all nuclear power reactors, make huge amounts of electricity with no carbon emissions. Look at Table A1 in the upper left. All the output from the Nuclear category comes from CANDU reactors—invented, designed, and built right here in Ontario Canada.
The CANDU is also a tangible answer to those among my fellow Canadians who complain that we are, through short-sighted industrial policy, a resource economy. The CANDU represents stunning value-added to uranium. Uranium is a natural resource found in abundance in Saskatchewan. We don’t just mine the stuff then ship it somewhere else for someone else to do something valuable with. We mine it, refine it, turn it into generator fuel, and make electricity with it, in machines we invented and built right here—all within our borders. No other industrial policy in Canada’s history has been as successful.
Thomas Willson’s carbide process also represents an example of Canada’s step away from the hewers-of-wood-and-drawers-of-water mold.
Calcium carbide as I mentioned makes acetylene gas when it is reacted with water. Acetylene was in its early days used as a light source, as in my carbide lamp. But its real significance as an industrial gas was in its use in welding. Acetylene torches are used to cut through steel. The Second Industrial Revolution was based in part on steel.
It was also based on electricity.
Today we still of course use electricity; in fact we use it more than ever. Because of the worldwide phenomenon of climate change caused by man-made carbon dioxide, it is imperative that we humans get our electricity from energy sources that do not involve adding carbon to our atmosphere.
Nuclear energy is the most effective way to make huge amounts of electricity without carbon, and Canada and Ontario have invented an elegant way to make nuclear reactors. I have mentioned in these pages that the Third Wave of Electrification will be based on nuclear (see article). How exciting then that Ontario Canada—my home and the birthplace of Thomas Willson who invented a way to make calcium carbide—could play a pivotal role in another industrial revolution.
Afterword: One of the above links to the life and work of Thomas “Carbide” Willson is courtesy of the University of Waterloo. That institution educated people who went on to invent the Blackberry, a remarkable device that started the smart phone revolution. The president of the United States is an avid Blackberry user. So am I. We Canadians have had an influence on the world that we seem to not like to tout. We seem more comfortable thinking of ourselves as hewers of wood and drawers of water.
Afterword 2: Those who remember the Black’s catalog will surely remember the works of Calvin Rutstrum, a Minnesotan who canoed widely in northern Ontario and wrote some classic books on the subject, including North American Canoe Country and The New Way of the Wilderness. Rutstrum died in 1982 (here’s his obituary in the New York Times). His work and life preceded and overlapped somewhat that of Bill Mason, another iconic outdoorsman and naturalist who is better known to Canadians. Both men were opinionated but enormously influential, in their time and still today.