Science, technology, innovation and catholicism

The wireless telegraphy station of the physics laboratory of the Collège Sainte-Marie, Montréal, Québec. Anon., “Des postes de télégraphie sans fil établis à Montréal.” La Patrie, 3 April 1909, 9.

Ave / hello, my reading friend. I have a confession to make. Err, yes, I am a bit wacky, but this admission is not the one I had in mind. I must confess I have been interested in the history of science and, perhaps even more, to that of technology for many, many years. If it is true that I have a weakness for the history of aviation, I dare to hope I have somewhat catholic, in other word universal, fields of interest, and ... And yes, you’re right, I plan once again to move away from the only true path to enlightenment by using a subject that cannot be found in the astonishing library of the Canada Aviation and Space Museum in Ottawa, Ontario. As you have probably guessed, said subject crossed my path through an illustrated article published in the 3 April 1909 issue of La Patrie, a well-known daily in Montréal, Québec, which has not existed for ages.

As you have probably guessed again, you are really brilliant, wireless telegraphy, or WT, in other words radio, is at the very heart of the article behind this article.

Between 1886 and 1888, the German physicist Heinrich Rudolf Hertz performed a series of experiments that confirmed the existence of electromagnetic waves, predicted as early as 1864 by the United Kingdom’s James Clerk Maxwell. He thus met the challenge launched by his master, a professor at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Hermann Ludwig Ferdinand von Helmholtz, in 1879. Hertz also proved that said waves could travel in air, without the aid of a wire.

In 1894, British physicist and professor Sir Oliver Joseph Lodge demonstrated the transmission of electromagnetic waves over a short distance using an improved version of a device designed in 1890 by French physicist and physician Désiré Eugène Édouard Branly, then professor at the Université de Paris. That same year, Indian physicist Jagdish Chandra Bose also transmitted electromagnetic waves over a short distance. Still in 1894, Guglielmo Giovanni Maria Marconi, a character mentioned in a December 2018 issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee, built a device capable of emitting and receiving electromagnetic waves, or Hertzian waves – renamed in honour of Hertz, deceased at the beginning of the year. The apparatus of the young Italian seemed to be the first to be designed for communication purposes.

In 1896, the Russian physicist Alexandr Stefanovich Popov proved the transmission of radio waves between buildings of Sankt-Peterburgskiy Imperatorskiy Universitet. No later than the mid 1940s, this work, combined with others the year before, led the Soviet government to describe Popov as the inventor of WT. In 1945, for example, a decree established 7 May as radio day, one of the many special days in the calendar of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), in memory of a demonstration made on that day in 1895. As well, a biographical movie, Aleksandr Popov, hit the screen in 1949. This highly propagandistic initiative did not / does not have a leg to stand on.

The promotion of little-known local WT researchers went beyond the USSR. Some argued that the American farmer and inventor Nathan Beverly Stubblefield conducted electromagnetic wave transmission experiments between 1885 and 1892. The available information suggests that these achievements had nothing to do with WT.

Would you believe that a number of Canadian researchers were interested in this new technology before the end of the 19th century, in other words before the end of 1900? One only needs to think of Clarence Augustus Chant, a physics lecturer at the University of Toronto. In 1895, he conducted a series of Hertzian wave experiments at a meeting of the Astronomical and Physical Society of Toronto, today’s Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, an organization mentioned in a December 2018 issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee. In the province of Québec alone, there were 4 or 5 of these telecommunication pioneers, clerics, in virtually every case, who acquired their scientific training in Europe, especially in France.

In November 1899, the director of the physics laboratory at the Université Laval of Québec, Québec, and professor of astronomy at the same institution, Louis Henri Laurent Simard, undertook a series of experiments there. He used instruments brought from Paris by the rector of the university and former director of the laboratory. Joseph Clovis Kemner Laflamme bought this material from an engineer, Adrien Eugène Ducretet, who supplied the precision equipment used by Branly, Hertz and Popov, not to mention the physicist Marie Curie, born Maria Salomea Skłodowska, and the chemist Louis Pasteur.

Simard went to France in 1900. He attended science courses at the Université de Paris and the Institut catholique de Paris for a year. Simard had the opportunity to talk with Branly more than once. Once back at the Université Laval, he resumed his teaching in physics, and his experiences in WT. Simard also began to present public courses / lectures highly appreciated by the general public, on topics of a scientific nature, including WT.

Responding to the wishes expressed by various classical colleges in Québec, the management of the Université Laval gave to Simard the task of writing a physics textbook. The latter spends 6 months in Paris in 1903 in order to polish the text and acquire illustrations. The Traité élémentaire de physique rédigé conformément au programme de l’Université Laval was published in Québec, Québec, in 1903. Updated editions arrived in bookstores in 1907 and 1916. WT occupied an increasingly large place in this book.

Member of the Clercs de Saint-Viateur and professor at the Séminaire de Joliette, Louis Joseph Morin began a degree in science at the Université de Paris in 1899. He soon joined the staff of Branly’s laboratory, at the Institut catholique de Paris, as an assistant. He returned to Québec around 1902 and began a career as a science teacher at the Séminaire de Joliette.

The school community was not the only one interested in WT. In 1900, at the Exposition universelle de 1900, held in Paris, Jean Baptiste Trefflé Berthiaume, owner and editor-in-chief of the Montréal daily La Presse, La Patrie’s great rival, attended a WT demonstration made by Branly. The potential of this new technology intrigued him to the highest degree. In 1904, Berthiaume financed the construction of a WT systems in Montréal, on the roof of La Presse’s building, and in Joliette, Québec, at the seminary located there. This second system, very powerful, allowed La Presse to transmit and receive messages to and from Europe – when everything worked. The aforementioned Morin collaborated on this project, and the creation of a control room in Joliette.

The Montréal daily thus became the 5th institution of its kind to acquire a WT system, after Le Matin of Paris, The New York Times of New York, New York, The St. Louis Star of St. Louis, Missouri, and The Times of London. Would you believe that La Presse published no less than 12 front page articles on “Télégraphie sans fil à Montréal” in the space of 2 months in 1904?

But let’s go back to our story. In the spring of 1909, Jesuits supervised the installation of the first elements of a wireless system in 3 religious institutions, the Collège Sainte-Marie et the Collège Loyola of Montréal, as well as the convent of the Sœurs missionnaires de l’Immaculée Conception in Outremont, a suburb of Montréal. If the WT station of the Collège Sainte-Marie seemed to be up and running by April 1909, the one at the convent of the Sœurs missionnaires de l’Immaculée Conception, one of the most powerful in Canada it was said, was only completed in November 1911. Combining utility with pleasure, this system was to facilitate communications between these 3 sites, in addition to making possible the holding of experiments.

The ultra-modern equipment installed at the Collège Sainte-Marie seemed to be both French and American in origin. The Ferrié type receiver, for example, seemed to be of French origin. The de Forest type transmitter, meanwhile, seemed to be of American origin.

An engineer and officer in the French Armée de terre, Gustave Auguste Ferrié was the founding father of military WT in France. The station he installed in 1903-04 at the top of the Eiffel Tower was the most powerful in the world. Before long, it could communicate with stations as far away as 2 500 kilometres (1 550 miles).

Lee de Forest, on the other hand, was an American inventor whose career was rather tumultuous. His partner in the early 20th century, Abraham White, born Abraham Schwartz, turned out to be a crook. The firm de Forest founded in 1907, Radio Telephone Company, produced a number of systems for the United States Navy and other customers.

In fact, the equipment of the physics laboratory of the Collège Sainte-Marie went beyond WT. Many devices may well have been the only ones of their kind in Canada.

The professor of physics at the Collège Sainte-Marie was Joseph Ernest Gendreau. This Jesuit oversaw the installation of the aforementioned WT station of the convent of the Sœurs missionnaires de l’Immaculée Conception.

Gendreau was born in Coaticook, Québec, in October 1879. He did his classical course at the Séminaire de Saint-Hyacinthe between 1893 and 1899. A natural science professor and cleric, Charles Philippe Choquette, noticed this brilliant young man and encouraged him to pursue a career related to science. Having become a member of the Compagnie de Jésus, Gendreau interned at the provincial house of Montréal before going to France for studies. He obtained a medical degree, a doctorate in philosophy and moral theology and a degree in science at the Université de Paris. Gendreau completed an internship at the Institut Pasteur in Paris, and completed studies in chemistry, mathematics and physics at the Collège de France, in Paris, as well as at the Université de Paris and the Université d’Angers. Gendreau also crossed the Channel to spend time in London, at Imperial College London, King’s College London and University College London.

At the beginning of the First World War, in 1914, Gendreau left the Compagnie de Jésus and went to France. He took courses at the Université de Paris and learned about radiology. In 1917, Gendreau was both a radiology assistant in a Paris hospital and head of the Paris laboratory. He became head of the laboratory of the military government of Paris in 1918. Gendreau returned to Montréal after the signing of the Armistice in November.

Gendreau taught chemistry at the École des hautes études commerciales, as well as chemistry and physics, at the Université Laval de Montréal. In 1920, he became director of studies at the faculty of medicine of this institution, renamed Université de Montréal when it became independent. Gendreau quickly gained the position of director of studies at the faculty of science at the Université de Montréal, the first of its kind in a French-language Canadian university. He actually had the task of organizing this faculty. Gendreau recommended that the aforementioned Morin be appointed dean.

Having reserved the teaching of physics for himself, Gendreau looked for competent teachers in other fields of activity. He entrusted the teaching of chemistry to Dr. Georges Hermyle Baril, a Montrealer who had studied at the Université de Paris and the Institut catholique de Paris before teaching chemistry at the faculty of medicine of the Université Laval de Montréal. Gendreau called on another Quebecer, Arthur Léveillé, a bachelor of mathematics from the University of London who worked at a Montréal bookstore, to teach mathematics. A professor at École Polytechnique de Montréal trained at the École nationale supérieure des mines de Paris and the Muséum national d’histoire naturelle, in Paris, Joseph Adhémar Mailhiot, also joined the team. He taught mineralogy and geology.

Unable to find a qualified biologist in Québec, Gendreau recruited a professor at the Collège Stanislas, a Parisian educational institution mentioned in December 2018 and January 2019 issues of our blog / bulletin / thingee. Louis-Janvier Dalbis later founded and led the Institut scientifique franco-canadien, the first scientific cooperation body between Canada and France.

To teach botany, Gendreau recruited Brother Marie-Victorin, born Joseph Louis Conrad Kirouac. Author of numerous articles and 2 important books, the latter did not hold any university degree. Even worse, the congrégation des Frères des écoles chrétiennes limited its activities to primary and secondary levels only. Gendreau first obtained a special permission for Marie-Victorin which opened the doors of the Université de Montréal for him. The famous botanist also completed a doctoral thesis there in 1922.

In May 1923, 20 or so representatives of the few French language Canadian learned societies of the time, including Dalbis, Gendreau and Marie-Victorin, met in Montréal to discuss the possibility of creating a federation bringing them all together. The Association canadienne-française pour l’avancement des sciences, today’s Association francophone pour le savoir, an organisation mentioned in December 2018 and April 2019 issues of our blog / bulletin / thingee, was born.

Would you believe that Gendreau launched the idea of ​​a provincial research council in Québec in 1921? The aforementioned Dr. Baril officially presented a project to the government led by Louis Alexandre Taschereau in September 1931. He was preaching in the desert. The Office provincial des recherches scientifiques only saw the light of day 1937, after Maurice Le Noblet Duplessis came to power. And yes, this provincial research council was mentioned in a July 2018 issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee. Duplessis, on the other hand, was mentioned in January, July and December 2018 issues of that same blog / bulletin / thingee.

Also in 1923, Gendreau became the founding director of the Institut du radium de Montréal et de la province de Québec, the Montréal equivalent of the Paris-based Institut du radium, a world-renowned organisation which had used X-ray equipment and radium to treat various forms of cancer since 1914. The 2 institutes actually became affiliated in 1923. Subsidized by the government of Québec, the Institut du radium de Montréal et de la province de Québec was the first organisation of its kind in North America. Made somewhat obsolete by progress in medicine, it closed up shop in 1967.

Would a brief digression be acceptable at this point? No? Would an even briefer question be acceptable at this point? Maybe? Yes! Did you know that the only place on Earth where radium was available in 1923 was the Belgian Congo? This monopoly was ended a decade or so later when Eldorado Gold Mines Limited began to produce radium torn from the bowels of our planet near the shores of Great Slave Lake, in the Northwest Territories, in 1933. There was / is so much to say (type?) about this mine and its commonly accepted discoverer, Adélard “Gilbert” LaBine, and… Your answer is no, I guess. Let us therefore go back to our story.

Gendreau’s expertise was gradually recognized on the American continent and in Europe. He was the president of the Canadian Association of Radiologists, a vice-president of the American Radium Society, and a board member of the Union for International Cancer Control in the 1930s and / or 1940s, for example.

Gendreau abandoned most of his international activities around 1945-46. He seemingly continued to teach, however. This great Quebecker died in June 1949, at the age of 69.

I hope that this brief foray into the world of science, technology and innovation did not bore you too much. See ya.


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Rénald Fortier