Montreal Engineer New NRC Chairman: One Hundred Years Ago Yesterday

Another 1921-2021 Centennial in the History of Canadian Science and Technology

First posted Friday, August 20, 2021 / Yom shishi, 12 Elul, 5781

By David Orenstein

2021 continues to be an opportunity for historians of Canadian Science and Technology to celebrate centennials, including today’s commemoration of the August 19, 1921, installation of Robert Alexander Ross as the third Chairman of the National Research Council (NRC).

Ross had the distinction of being the first and only graduate of the School of Practical Science, University of Toronto, in Mechanical and Electrical Engineering in 1890. He obtained the Professional Degree of Electrical Engineering in 1896.

He was Works Engineer with Canadian General Electric first in Peterborough, Ontario, and then in Sherbrooke, Quebec, and later Chief Electrical and Mechanical Engineer, Royal Electrical Co., Montreal.

From 1896, Ross was a Consulting Engineer based in Montreal, consulting on major projects in Asia, Europe, Australia, and North America. He served as a council member, Vice President and President of the Canadian Society of Civil Engineers (EIC).

Ross was both on the Board of Engineers investigating power rates in Quebec City, and the Gregory Royal Commission on the Ontario Hydro, Chippewa-Niagara Development.

At the NRC, 1921 was the year of three administrative chairmen: Archibald Byron Macallum, (Nov. 29, 1916 – Feb. 19, 1921), Robert Fulford Ruttan (Feb. 19 – Aug. 18,1921), and Ross (Aug. 19, 1921 – May 29, 1922).

When the Minister of Trade and Commerce, Sir George Foster, had first “selected the members of the Advisory Research Council [b]y an Order in Council of November 29, 1916…” the nine-member committee included “Mr. R.A. Ross, Consulting Engineer, Montreal”.

At the second meeting of the new NRC (January 5, 1917), Ross was appointed Chairman of the five-member “nitrogen” committee that had morphed into a “Canadian industries” committee. But that’s another story.

By April 1917, Ross was already protesting the red tape hampering their operations, for example, “the fact that we had been in existence … several months… yet [had no] permanent employee, and… it was impossible to get … work [done] because of the lack of staff.”

As the NRC’s work progressed, Ross was part of the core group “fairly constant in attending the meetings”, though it meant a heavy burden.

On July 14, 1921, the then current Chairman, Ruttan, reported, “we decided to recommend to the Privy Council, that an Order in Council be passed enabling us to change our organisation, making Ross Honourary Chairman, and appointing a Technical Executive Officer. Colonel [F. M.] Gaudet of Montreal is strongly recommended by Ross, Garneau, Surveyer and Adams, he has been offered the position at $7000.”

They were both appointed, with Ross soon complaining about “ ‘altruistic futilities’… but Gaudet [carrying] most of this load.”

For example, when new Liberal Minister of Trade and Commerce, “the Hon. James A. Robb” had asked: “Do the Misses C.W. Fritz and M.A. Fritz (holders of a Fellowship and Bursary, respectively, at University of Toronto) belong to the same family?”, Gaudet (on February 12, 1922), very appropriately replied:

“These grants are made on the recommendations of the President of the University and Heads of Departments…. Awards are made entirely on merit, and there is no information as to the relationship of the above.”

But the University of Toronto Archives should yield more information about the Misses Fritz, as it did earlier for us regarding the U of T Astronomy graduate student, “Miss Ashhall”. But that is yet another story.

Ross eventually became extremely frustrated by the lack of support for the Council actually carrying out any research, leading  to his grand slam resignation. But that, too, is another story!


Annotated Bibliography:

1) The Canadian Centenary Series, McClelland and Stewart Toronto:

An impressive nineteen volume series, published from 1963 to 1987. Ross’s NRC Chairmanship overlaps two of them.

  1. a) Robert Craig Brown and Ramsay Cook, 1974, Canada 1896-1921 :A Nation Transformed, xiv + 412 pp., incl. 7 pp. Biblio., 51 pp. Notes, 14 pp. Index
  2. b) John Herd Thompson with Allen Seager, 1985, Canada 1922-1939:Decades of Discord. xiv + 438 pp., incl. 65 pp. Notes, 14 pp. Index

2) Mel Thistle, 1966, The Inner Ring: The Early History of the National Research Council of Canada, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, xxxiii + 435 pp., incl. Ref. list in each ch., 13 pp. Index

The main source for this blog post, Thistle, largely gives us a look at the administrative history of the Council, from the planning stages in the early years of World War I up until 1935. The book is arranged chronologically, each chapter starting with a general introduction to the period followed by selection of the relevant original documents, mostly correspondence.



NRC 1921:

R.F. Ruttan New NRC Chair Centennial Post, February 19, 2021.

Other 1921 Centennial Blog Posts:

  • Introducing the 1921-2021 Centennials, January 6, 2021.

  • Introducing the Insulin Centennial, February 5,2021.

  • Insulin in June 1921 (June 4, 2021).

  •  Insulin in July,1921, July 23, 2021.

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