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Argo F-Yourself: A History of Americans taking credit for Canadian Innovations

At least Canada got a thank you from Oscar winner Ben Affleck, right?
At least Canada got a thank you from Oscar winner Ben Affleck, right?

On February 21st, former President Jimmy Carter appeared on CNN’s Piers Morgan Tonight to talk about the film that would win the Oscar for Best Picture three days later; Argo.

The British-born Morgan queried Carter on how accurate he felt the picture was. Carter replied:

“Well, let me say, first of all, it’s a great drama. And I hope it gets the Academy Award for best film because I think it deserves it. The other thing that I would say was that ninety per cent of the contributions to the ideas and the consummation of the plan was Canadian. And the movie gives almost full credit to the American C.I.A. And, with that exception, the movie is very good.”

Should Canadians be upset about this slight?

Former Canadian ambassador to Iran, Ken Taylor, who was inaccurately portrayed in Argo as a mere facilitator to a CIA-born plan has, in what some would say is typical Canadian fashion, demurely accepted Hollywood’s penchant for poetic license. The now 78 year old Taylor told the Globe and Mail’s Simon Houpt recently that he was OK with the film, though he did take the time to set the historical record straight. And hey, Ben Affleck did thank Canada in his speech, right?

As it happens, the mild national harrumphing Canadians are currently displaying over Argo is nothing new. In fact, it probably goes back to the 19th century.

On August 3, 1874, a medical student in Ontario named Henry Woodward filed Canadian patent number 3,738. It was for a device that consisted of a glass tube with a chunk of carbon connected to two wires and filled with inert nitrogen, to provide a steady burn to a filament. More than a century before Ben Affleck, another trim, raven haired American upstart entered stage left. In 1876, Thomas Edison obtained an exclusive license to Woodward’s patent, and generations of American school children grew up with the idea that Edison had granted them the electric light they enjoyed to read about him in their text books.

A few years later, a Canadian-born patent would begin a more than decade long trial in the US Supreme Court when Scottish-born Canadian immigrant Alexander Graham Bell’s patent for “”the method of, and apparatus for, transmitting vocal or other sounds telegraphically … by causing electrical undulations, similar in form to the vibrations of the air accompanying the said vocal or other sound” -the telephone. After a decade, the US Attorney General General dropped the case. It was November 30th, 1897, twenty-one years after Bell had uttered the words “Mr. Watson, come here. I want to see you.” in a room in Brantford, Ontario. Today, unlike the light-bulb, most American schoolchildren credit the invention of the telephone to the proper person.

Legal action is one end of the extreme, but most American-born appropriations of Canadian ideas are unconscious. Much of American football for example, including essential elements such as running with the ball, downs and tackling, was invented by Canadians, at McGill University in 1874. And James Naismith, a Canadian phys-ed teacher at Springfield College in Springfield, Massachusetts invented basketball.

Canadians invented the pacemaker, the zipper, the electron microscope, discovered insulin, and invented the smartphone, according to an ad BlackBerry ran before the Super Bowl this year.

Of course, some of the time, we shoot ourselves in the foot. That was the case in 1950, when George Retzlaff, a CBC director in Toronto, invented instant replay during a 1950 episode of Hockey Night in Canada and was actually prevented by the CBC from reusing it.

But all this, of course, feels like it’s from another time. As late as the middle of the last decade, matters of Canadian national insecurity seemed to be the subtext to every article on culture and innovation. But today Canada is a star, and there is simply less fretting about this sort of thing.

A recent editorial in The Chicago Tribune praised Canada as “cool”.

“Americans failed to regulate their banks. Canada’s banks are stable,” said the unbylined piece. “Americans overinflated their real estate market. Canada’s housing market never went pop.Americans can’t get their elected officials to straighten out health care and entitlement IOUs. Canada’s got it better covered, having kept its debt and spending at more sustainable levels than the U.S.”

Of course, it is curious that the matter of a national snub came about on the biggest night for the United States film industry, because many of the biggest stars in US-produced films have always been Canadian. That tradition continues today through the careers of actors like Seth Rogen, Michael Cera, Ryan Reynolds, Elisha Cuthbert and Ryan Gosling.

One decidedly less trendy actor known to most Canadians, but not many Americans, is Gordon Pinsent. Pinsent has carved a career from playing in homey Canadian sitcoms like Seeing Things, Corner Gas and Republic of Doyle, and in the odd feature filmed on Canadian soil, such as “Away From Her” and “The Shipping News”. But in 1981, Pinsent had a juicier role: he played Ken Taylor in a made for TV movie that told of how Canadians helped six American diplomats evade capture during the seizure of the United States embassy in Tehran. The name of the film? “Escape from Iran: The Canadian Caper”.


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About The Author /

Cantech Letter founder and editor Nick Waddell has lived in five Canadian provinces and is proud of his country's often overlooked contributions to the world of science and technology. Waddell takes a regular shift on the Canadian media circuit, making appearances on CTV, CBC and BNN, and contributing to publications such as Canadian Business and Business Insider.
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