“The pioneer of television preferred radio to a new bicycle:” An overview of the career of Joseph Alphonse Ouimet, a founding father of Canadian television

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Joseph Alphonse Ouimet. Anon., “Le pionnier de la télévision préférait la radio à une bicyclette neuve.” La Patrie, 5 November 1961, 26.

Given the situation which has prevailed for 20 months (!?), that is since March 2020, yours truly must admit having spent many hours, very many hours, too many hours, in front of my boob tube. Finding content that was / is worth seeing was / is not always easy. This being said (typed?), the fact is that a television set is one of the most important items in most North American homes.

I would like to bring to your attention on this autumn day the life and times of a pioneer of Québec / Canadian television.

Joseph Alphonse “Al” Ouimet was born in Montréal, Québec, in June 1908. His interest in electronics may, I repeat may, date from the very beginning of the 1920s. In 1921, after asking his parents to give him a bicycle, Ouimet changed his mind and asked for a radio receiver, then just as expensive as a bicycle. The budding teenager then had fun taking that high-tech toy apart to understand how it worked.

A brilliant student, Ouimet graduated in electrical engineering from McGill University of Montréal, Québec, in 1932. Apparently at the top of his class, he wasted no time in finding an interesting job. Mind you, he also seemed to study at the Université de Montréal, in... Montréal.

A Québec / Canadian firm holding the exclusive and perpetual television related rights for 2 of the most important firms of the time, one British and the other American, Baird Television Limited and Jenkins Television Corporation, was created in February 1932, under a federal charter. Based in Montréal, Canadian Television Limited hoped to establish television stations in major Canadian cities and, once a television network was in place, sell television sets to the rare Canadian families which could afford them. There was after a major economic crisis at the time, let us not forget, which had left countless families in dire straits.

The firm’s chief executive officer, Douglas L. West, was the former chief engineer of Baird Television’s American subsidiary, Baird Television Corporation of America.

And yes, Baird Television began to broadcast experimental television programs in November 1929 (picture only) and March 1930 (picture and sound). A well-known British crown corporation, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), then took over and began broadcasting its own talky programs in August 1932.

In France, experimental but regular broadcasts began in December 1931 (image only) and December 1932 (image and sound) using cameras and televisions incorporating Baird Television technology.

Aware of the interest of a segment of the population of the metropolis of Canada in the new invention that was television, Canadian Television published, in May 1932, a pamphlet entitled Television, A Revolutionary Scientific Achievement – a title a tad inaccurate considering the fact that said invention owed more to technology than to science, but anyway, let us move on. Before we do that, you will have noted that said pamphlet was in English only, and this in a city where a majority of the population, the poorer majority actually, spoke French

Said pamphlet mentioned the names of the pioneers whose patents were of particular interest to Canadian Television, the Briton John Logie Baird and the American Charles Francis Jenkins, a duo of engineers who had developed mechanical televisions, not electronic ones.

The so-called mechanical or mechanical scanning television is a system which uses

- a camera equipped with a mechanical scanning device, a rotating disc with holes or drum with a rotating mirror for example, to scan what one wants to broadcast and generate the video signal, and

- a television set equipped with an identical mechanical device which allows said signal to be transformed into an image.

Following its path, the management of Canadian Television invited representatives of the Montréal press to one of the first demonstrations of a television set on Québec / Canadian soil, in June 1932.

The honour of broadcasting the first television program on Québec / Canadian soil actually went to the James A. Ogilvy’s Limited department store in Montréal. Its station, VE9AF, went on the air experimentally in September 1931. The television set was in one of the store’s rooms. There was great public interest in it, but back to our story.

Another Canadian Television demonstration took place in July at the offices of Montréal radio station CKAC, then owned by the major daily La Presse. About 30 journalists and radio store owners could admire the performances of a few local artists (artist / cartoonist from La Presse, entertainer, singer with pianist and violinist with pianist) who were located in another Montréal location. Said admiration was complicated by the fact that the television screen measured approximately 20.5 x 25.5 centimetres (8 x 10 inches).

Imagine about 30 people trying to admire the performances, in black and red, of a few local artists on the screen of a laptop computer, a small laptop computer, whose screen did not work too well, and ...

You have a question? You do not understand the expression black and red? Let me enlighten you. The presence of the colour red was due to the fact that the television set used included a neon lamp which produced a red light.

By the way, the entertainer mentioned above was named Sydney M. Nesbitt. That Briton was a member of the management of the Montreal Light Airplane Club. And there will be no other aeronautical content in this article. Sorry.

One of the 3 engineers from Canadian Television who came to help the 2 engineers of CKAC was none other than, you guessed it, Ouimet. He actually held the post of research engineer. In fact, it may well be that Ouimet built at least in part the television set used by CKAC.

Would you believe, my reading friend, that, before or after the presentation, Ouimet may have adjusted the quality of the image produced by the television set by making use of the pronounced gap between two of his incisors? I kid you not.

Even before the end of July, the staff of CKAC’s television station, VE9EC, broadcasted an episode of the radio program Radio-Théâtre, broadcasted by CKAC.

Before I forget, the set-up of VE9EC’s equipment began around October-November 1931 – roughly the same time as James A. Ogilvy’s station arrival on the air. Yours truly wonders if that was just a coincidence.

I see your hand waving in the ether, my reading friend. Ask your question. How many television sets were there in Montréal at that time? Ahh, good question. There was a large (small?) total of 3 television sets in the Montréal area in mid-1932:

- one at the home of Leonard “Len” Spencer, chief engineer of CKAC / VE9EC, on the island of Montréal,

- one at the store of the well-known music store chain C.W. Lindsay & Company Limited in Montréal, and

- one at the record company and phonograph manufacturer Victor Talking Machine Company of Canada Limited plant in Montréal.

It should be noted that Spencer made his own television set.

One might have needed a radio receiver to hear the sounds made by the televised people or objects which was not necessarily very practical.

In November 1932, Canadian Television helped James A. Ogilvy’s present a television set in action to customers visiting the store. These presentations went on for several days. According to some commentators, thousands of people showed up at James A. Ogilvy’s to see what this was all about. The number of people involved alone turned the presentations offered by the Montréal store into one of the most, if not the most important televisual demonstration in Québec, if not Canada, before the 1950s.

Encouraged by the public interest, James A. Ogilvy’s apparently asked Canadian Television to deliver 100 television sets of a model the latter had developed. Two other well-known Montréal department stores, Henry Morgan & Company Limited and Dupuis Frères Limitée, also ordered a number of television sets. Ditto for the aforementioned C.W. Lindsay & Company.

Encouraged by that interest, Canadian Television asked Canadian Marconi Company Limited of Montréal to produce the television set it had developed. That subsidiary of the important British firm Marconi Company asked for a rather exorbitant deposit before undertaking that project, however. More or less riddled with debt, let us not forget, Canada was then under the heel of the Great Depression of the 1930s, Canadian Television had to throw in the towel.

Canadian Television seemed to close its doors even before the end of 1933. This being said (typed?), an experimental television station, in all likelihood that of CKAC, operated in Montréal until 1934 or 1935. To answer the question which is forming in your hazy mind, there were perhaps 20 television sets in the Montréal area at that time.

The Canadian Television Limited-linked television set of the Canada Science and Technology Museum. CSTM.

The collection of the Canada Science and Technology Museum in Ottawa, Ontario, a sister / brother institution of the Canada Aviation and Space Museum, also in Ottawa, includes a television set linked to Canadian Television. Said television set seems to have been manufactured by Ouimet himself. The sleek and understated Art Déco style of the Canadian Television television set was very much of its time.

Another firm with an interest in television, Canadian Electronics Limited, was founded in Montréal in November 1933 under a federal charter. If I am not mistaken, its address was identical to that of Canadian Television. Ouimet was one of its employees. Canadian Electronics closed its doors no later than November 1934.

Ouimet’s career did not seem to suffer too much from the demise of Canadian Television or Canadian Electronics. At the end of 1934, the engineer joined the staff of the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission, a federal agency created in 1932 which became, in 1936, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) / Société Radio-Canada (SRC), a crown corporation mentioned many times in our blog / bulletin / thingee, and this since September 2018.

Still and always fascinated by television, Ouimet directed various CBC / SRC services linked to radio between 1937 and 1941. As the engineer in charge of operations then general supervisor engineer, he was responsible for all CBC / SRC studios and radio stations, and this both on the French-speaking and English-speaking sides of that crown corporation.

And yes, it was in November 1936 that the aforementioned BBC launched the first public television service using electronic, rather than mechanical, high-definition cameras and television sets.

Would you believe that it was Ouimet who oversaw the technical organisation of the series of radio broadcasts which covered the visit of George VI, born Albert Frederick Arthur George “Bertie” of house Windsor, and his spouse, Elizabeth Angela Marguerite Bowes-Lyon, to Canada, in May and June 1939 – the first visit of a reigning monarch to North America? Said series was undoubtedly the most ambitious and difficult project accomplished so far by the CBC / SRC.

And yes, the royal couple also travelled to the United States, to create bonds of sympathy and friendship between that country and the United Kingdom. Let us not forget, Europe was on the brink of war, a war which would begin in September 1939.

American President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a gentleman mentioned in May 2019 and March 2021 issues of our you know what, may have had a bit of fun at the expense of the British monarch by giving him hot dogs during a picnic. If I may paraphrase the British super spy James Bond in the 1967 film You Only Live Twice, what would George VI not eat for England?

I would be remiss if I did not mention here that the dining and sleeping cars used by George VI and his spouse are part of the collection of the Canada Science and Technology Museum.

In May 1941, Ouimet became the deputy chief engineer of the CBC / SRC. By virtue of his functions, he played a key role in the administration of the technical services of the state broadcaster. And yes, he enthusiastically followed television research in Europe and North America.

After the Second World War ended, in 1945, Ouimet devoted more and more time to studying television, with the blessing of his employer. In fact, he was virtually the only person in Canada with any real television experience.

From August to October 1947, for example, Ouimet visited the television studios of the BBC in London, United Kingdom, and of Radiodiffusion française in Paris, France. A colleague, the director of the national radio network, Herbert G. Walker, accompanied him on that journey. The 2 men apparently also visited factories of television set manufacturers.

The report detailing the state of television on planet Earth that Ouimet submitted in 1946 or 1947 played a crucial role in the development of CBC / SRC projects.

Before I forget, the broadcasting of post-war television programs began in June 1946 in the United Kingdom and in June 1949 in France.

In March 1949, the federal government gave the CBC / SRC the mandate to create a network of television stations in Canada. In April, the managing director of the crown corporation, long skeptical about the new medium, entrusted Ouimet with the brand new and very important position of television coordinator. Augustin Frigon and Ouimet were aware that thousands of Canadian families living near the Canada-United States border, in Ontario and British Columbia, could receive American programs without too much difficulty, using television sets meeting American standards.

That state of affairs worried the federal government, which did not however seem to deem it necessary to give the project a high priority. And that is why the first 2 Canadian television stations, CBFT in Montréal and CBLT in Toronto, Ontario, did not officially go on the air until September 1952, nearly 30 months after the federal blessing of March 1949.

Ouimet supervised the construction of these stations equipped with cameras which also met American standards, the adoption of standards other than those of the United States being obviously unthinkable given the proximity of Canada to that country.

This being said (typed?), as you can imagine, experimental shows were broadcasted before September 1952, in order to break in the equipment. The first of these was a transmission of a doubles program between the Montreal Royals of Montréal and the Springfield Cubs of Springfield, Massachusetts, two International League teams. Each of these baseball teams got a victory.

It should be noted that CBFT offered bilingual content (60% French-language content and 40% English-language content) from September 1952 to January 1954. The arrival on the air of the English-speaking Montréal station CBMT then put an end to that practice.

Frigon having fallen ill, Ouimet acceded to the post of general manager of the CBC / SRC at the very end of 1952. He became president of the crown corporation in January 1958. Ouimet replaced Arnold Davidson Dunton, an intelligent and tactful administrator that some (paranoiacally?) considered a tad too close to the political party defeated in the general election of June 1957. Ouimet held that presidency until December 1967. Under his leadership, the Montréal offices of the CBC / SRC became for several years one of the most interesting producers of television content in the world.

This being said (typed?), Ouimet sometimes / often acted like an autocrat convinced that only he knew what the crown corporation had to do. It goes without saying that no private television network should threaten the preeminence of the state television giant in any way. The number of stations thus went from 2 to 16 between 1952 and 1965, for example. Ouimet also forced several directors to leave Montréal and Toronto to go to Ottawa, where he had his offices. And long live micromanagement.

Indeed, Ouimet did not simply leave his post in December 1967. He resigned following what he considered to be a frontal attack, a possibly justified attack however, of the minister who supervised the destinies of the CBC / SRC, at the beginning of November 1967. The outspoken and blunt Secretary of State of Canada indeed declared that the management of the crown corporation was, and I quote, “rotten.” According to Julia Verlyn “Judy” LaMarsh, the only woman in Lester Bowles “Mike” Pearson’s cabinet at a time when a woman had to be twice as smart as the men around her so they would listen to her half the time, Ouimet had a real passion for organisational charts but none for the people they represented.

For example, Ouimet played a rather important role in the cancellation, in July 1966, of the CBC’s most controversial and popular (3.3 million listeners at a time when Canada had 20 million inhabitants, including about 5.5 million francophones, often unilingual) television program, the public affairs program This Hour Has Seven Days, hosted by Patrick Watson and Laurier L. Lapierre.

The senior management of the crown corporation, to which some English-speaking employees gave up the merry nickname of Kremlin, indeed saw in Watson and Lapierre two all too unpredictable and disrespectful pains in the neck. The show itself was equally unpredictable and disrespectful. It was also accusatory, denunciatory, dizzying, emotional, exciting, ​​ fearless, innovative, provocative, revealing, sassy, sensationalist, skeptical, subversive and surprising. Which amounted to say that it annoyed the apparatchiks of said Kremlin to the umpteenth degree.

Indeed, This Hour Has Seven Days put Canadian politicians in the hot seat, denounced the American government over its war in Vietnam, satirised both the papacy and, goodness gracious, the British monarchy, etc., etc., etc., if I may be permitted to quote, out of context, Yul Brynner, born Yuliy Borisovich Briner, in the very successful 1956 movie The King and I.

And here is one example among several of the reasons for the disappearance of This Hour Has Seven Days, according to Ouimet of course. And please note that what follows is quite harrowing.

In March 1966, Lapierre was on the air with the mother of Steven Murray Truscott, a young man found guilty, in September 1959, of the rape and murder of a 12-year-old classmate. Sentenced to death at age 14 (!), Truscott saw his sentence commuted to life imprisonment in January 1960. Lapierre was deeply touched by what he heard. His voice trembled and he wiped away some tears.

Ouimet denounced, including in public, before a parliamentary committee, that demonstration of emotion which had no place on CBCian airwaves. Lapierre lacked professionalism, Ouimet stated, adding that he was a good actor who had shed tears to add to the highly emotional charge of that particular broadcast. The mind boggles.

And yes, it was in April 1966, about a month after said broadcast, that Watson and Lapierre learned that their contracts would not be renewed.

By the way, Truscott was freed on parole in 1969. Later on, he changed his name and founded a family. Truscott was acquitted in August 2007 (!) and this even though the crown refused to acknowledge the innocence of the 62-year-old man – and its own failings. And yes, that same crown had withheld important information from the defence attorney during the trial.

Are there people in Canadian jails today who were put there through similar methods? A good question. Let us change topic. Quickly. Before the visit of men in black.

And yes, you are quite right, my reading friend. The cancellation of This Hour Has Seven Days sparked strong reactions within the CBC / SRC and in the English-speaking press. This being said (typed?), Ouimet refused to reverse his decision. This Hour Has Seven Days disappeared from the airwaves in May 1966. The Kremlin had won.

And yes, several very talented people were sacked while others resigned to express their anger at what they deemed to be an unacceptable interference. Watson and Lapierre’s careers did not suffer from said decision, however, and that was good, and I do say (type?) so, emphatically. Let us change the subject before my head explodes.

If I may quote the inelegant yet shrewd American police lieutenant Frank Colombo, played by the late Peter Michael Falk, just one more thing. Several conspiracy theorists suggested / suggest that the real reason behind the cancellation of This Hour Has Seven Days, in 1966, was that the team was overly interested in the Munsinger affair, the first sex scandal in Canadian history.

The main character of that story, Gerda Munsinger, born Gerda Heseler, was a German-born hostess / model / waitress suspected of spying, wrongly as it turned out, by the somewhat paranoid Special Branch of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police because of an affair with a member of the government defeated in the general election of April 1963, the associate minister of National Defence, Joseph Pierre Albert Sévigny. And yes, some suggested / suggest the existence of trysts involving George Harris “Gorgeous George” Hees, the very, very influential and quite party boy Minister of Trade and Commerce in that same government.

In any event, the Munsinger affair surfaced in March 1966, yes, March 1966, and gave rise to a royal commission of inquiry created by the government formed by the aforementioned Pearson following said election of 1963.

According to our conspiracy theorists, some members of that government were in fact worried that the unpredictable and disrespectful pains in the neck of This Hour Has Seven Days would uncover some of the shenanigans through which Pearson and his entourage allegedly managed to form a government after the April 1963 general election which, let us remember, had not given them a majority of seats, but I digress. Let us change topic. Quickly. Before the visit of men in black (red?).

By the way, said shenanigans had to do with the, alleged by some, bribing of 6 Québec members of an opposition party, who had made public their intention to support Pearson, until the reaction within their party forced them to change their tune. Interestingly enough, the Québec wing of said party split off from it in September 1963. And yes, the party in question was the Social Credit Party of Canada.

And yes again, Pearson was mentioned in October 2020 and January 2021 issues of our fascinating blog / bulletin / thingee.

In 1968, Ouimet chaired a meeting of experts on the use of space communication by mass media organised by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. That meeting was not, in all likelihood, very accusatory, denunciatory, dizzying, emotional, exciting, ​​ fearless, innovative, provocative, revealing, sassy, sensationalist, skeptical, subversive or surprising. Sorry.

Still, muzzling the press to please the mighty is a sure way to… trump democracy, as flawed as democracy is these days.

The following year, yes, that year, 1969, in September to be exact, Ouimet became the first chairman of the board of a brand-new crown corporation. Based in Ottawa, Telesat Canada, as it was called, was mandated to provide satellite communications services. Ouimet left his post, which he held part-time at the time, in May 1980.

In the weeks and months which followed, Ouimet denounced the Americanisation of Canadian television, primarily through private television networks and cable television operators. The CBC / SRC remained, according to Ouimet, a crucial tool for the survival of truly Canadian Canadian television.

Ouimet left this world in December 1988, at the age of 80.

In 2021, was Canadian television still truly Canadian, you ask, my reading friend? Good question. Canadian content between 6 p.m. and midnight ranges from 55% (private broadcasters) to 60% (CBC / SRC). This being said (typed?), much of that content consisted of networked talk shows, entertainment news, local news and public affairs programming, as well as reruns of more or less antique Canadian programs.


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Rénald Fortier