Canada Invents

Canada Invents – Snowmobile

Canadian Inventions and Innovation – Surviving Canadian Winter

Canadian winters can be incredibly harsh. Icy, snowy conditions and frigid temperatures cause a litany of problems – so it comes as no surprise that inventive Canadians throughout the ages have worked to solve them and make winters a bit more manageable for all Canadians.

Canadian Snow Saviours

Traversing through rural communities during the winter months posed quite the challenge, especially in the 1800s and early 1900s. In 1869, J.W. Elliot invented the rotary snow-plow for railroads which greatly helped in keeping rails free of snow and trains running on schedule. In 1925, Arthur Sicard adapted the concept of the wheat thresher as a solution to snow removal and created the snow-blower; a tool used by individuals and cities alike worldwide (despite the fact that he was originally derided by his peers for his ‘preposterous’ idea). Joseph-Armand Bombardier on the other hand thought a bit differently. Instead of developing a way to clear the way to make travel possible, he wanted to develop a machine that could travel across treacherous, icy terrain.

A lifetime of curiosity

Joseph-Armand Bombardier grew up in the small farming village of Valcourt in Quebec. Valcourt was remote and travelling to and from the village was difficult, an issue compounded when snow was added to the mix. In his youth Joseph-Armand tinkered with farm equipment and old vehicles, and at 15 created his first snow machine. With an open propeller his father deemed it far too dangerous, but not after Joseph-Armand and his brother took it for a spin. This tale from his youth if often used to demonstrate the inventive mind of Joseph-Armand and his tireless pursuits to develop a machine that could navigate over ice and snow. While a number of individuals invented machines to drive over snow in the 1920s and 1930s none of them had got it quite right.

It was after the tragic death of Joseph-Armand’s son – who died of peritonitis in their Valcourt home since there was no way to transport him to a hospital on time in the snow – that “underscored the need for effective winter transportation in rural communities”(Canadian Encyclopedia) for Bombardier and led to more serious development into what would become the snowmobile.

Eureka!

With his invention of the sprocket wheel system came the eureka moment for Joseph-Armand. This wheel system – patented in 1935 – made it possible for the development of the snowmobile by providing the necessary propulsion and traction to navigate over rough, snowy terrain. With this, Joseph-Armand was able to perfect the multi-passenger snowmobiles that became popular in the years to follow. The original patent drawings and descriptions (in French) for the twelve passenger B12 snowmobile can be found here. Joseph-Armand devoted himself to the newly incorporated L’Auto-Neige Bombardier Limitée and worked tirelessly to promote the snowmobiles, even driving them to rural communities to demonstrate their effectiveness on ice and snow.

The snowmobile made access possible and were impactful on many lives. Rural doctors and clergymen bought into the snowmobile early on, but they went on to become popular among many others as well. However, with low snowfall for a few years running and new municipal laws regarding snow removal, the popularity of the multi-passenger began to decline.

With this decline Joseph-Armand sought ways to diversify their product line – a practice that has been quite lucrative for Bombardier – and devoted his time to develop a lightweight one to two passenger version of the snowmobile. In 1959 he succeeded in adapting his snowmobile design. He originally wished to call it the Ski-Dog (an allusion to his hope that it would replace the need for dog sleds) however, due to a clerical error the name was recorded as the Ski-Doo a name Joseph-Armand actually favoured. It was not until after Joseph-Armand’s death in 1964 that the Ski-Doo became popular as a recreational vehicle.

From snowmobile to global success

Throughout his time at the helm of L’Auto-Neige Bombardier Limitée, Joseph-Armand invented a number of small inventions and improvements on the snowmobile that were very impactful for many Canadians. It was his inventive spirit that propelled Bombardier to the success it has achieved today. Following in his example of hard work, innovation, and diversification Bombardier has gone on to be a leading industrial player globally in rail, aerospace, and recreation.

Works Consulted & Relevant Links

Learn more about the life of Joseph-Armand Bombardier

Archived drawings and descriptions (in French) of patents held by Joseph-Armand Bombardier on the Canadian Intellectual Property Office website

Humphrey, Jack and Janis Nostbakken. The Canadian Inventions Book. Toronto: Greey de Pencier Publications, 1976. Print.

MacDonald, Larry. The Bombardier Story. Mississauga, Ontario: John Wiley & Sons Canada, Limited, 2014. Print.

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