This article was originally written and submitted as part of a Canada 150 Project, the Innovation Storybook, to crowdsource stories of Canadian innovation with partners across Canada. The content has since been migrated to Ingenium’s Channel, a digital hub featuring curated content related to science, technology and innovation.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the rotary snowplough is a Canadian invention. The spinning fan-like contraption, first used on the railroad, eventually inspired the modern snowblower. J.W. Elliot, from Toronto, Ontario, first conceived of a spinning snow shovel, which he patented in 1870. This shovel consisted of a rotary engine driving a wheel mounted on the front of a train. A steel collector on the tracks fed the snow to fan plates on the edge of the wheel, which threw the snow out of the top of the wheel casing. Unfortunately, Elliot was unable to garner any interest from the railways or any manufacturers.
A few years after Elliot’s patent, in 1884, an inventor named Orange Jull, from Orangeville, Ontario, patented an update to Elliot’s invention. His main contribution was a cutting blade positioned in front of the fan, mounted on the same shaft, but spinning in the opposite direction, which chopped up the incoming snow for easier removal. Jull convinced local manufacturers, the Leslie Brothers, to build a working model of the plough. After numerous tests and multiple modifications, Jull’s plough eventually became standard for railways in the United States.
The harsh conditions of Canadian winters, however, demanded further modifications. In 1888, the Canadian Pacific Railway mounted ten-foot-wide rotary ploughs with ten-foot diameters on the front of eight locomotives. The fan wheel was given scoop-shaped flanges to improve its performance against the wet, packed snow of the Canadian Rockies. But the plough’s progress could be slow, moving foot by foot through avalanche deposits, and was easily damaged by rocks and trees mixed in with the snow. Finally, a plough with a twelve-ton blade that could cut through trees four inches in diameter was developed in 1911—versions of which are still used by Canadian railways today.