Carbide Willson was a great Canadian inventor

Thursday, March 1, 2012
By John Motz
 
While we take for granted bright electric lighting for our vehicles and in our homes, over 100 years ago it was the work of a little-known Canadian inventor which helped pave the way for a type of illumination which outshone electric light.
 
The light was the bright flame of burning acetylene and the Canadian inventor was Thomas Leopold (“Carbide”) Willson. Acetylene gas is produced when water is applied to calcium carbide, and Willson was the inventor of an inexpensive process for making calcium carbide.
 
Willson was a 19th-century inventor, entrepreneur and wheeler-dealer in the style of Thomas Edison, but without the latter’s fame and business acumen. The son of an unsuccessful farmer and manufacturer, Willson was born in 1860 on a farm near Princeton, Ontario. When Willson’s father lost the farm, he moved his family to the United States to pursue a manufacturing venture. When this failed, he returned to Canada in about 1872, settling in Hamilton.
 
Carbide Willson
 

“Carbide Willson” in about 1914. (From Wikipedia)

 
The young Willson showed an early interest in electricity. At age 19 he was apprenticed to a Hamilton blacksmith, at whose shop he constructed a steam driven dynamo: one of Canada’s first.
 
Willson was unable to commercialize his dynamo and electric light system in Canada, so, in 1882, he moved to New York City, where he worked as an inspector of electrical installations, and continued to work on his own projects. He was a prolific inventor, patenting arc and incandescent lights, and modifications to his dynamo.
 
While investigating commercial applications for his dynamo, Willson experimented with the smelting of metals in electric furnaces. In one of these experiments, in 1891, while trying to produce metallic calcium from lime (calcium oxide) and carbon (in the form of powdered coal) in an electric furnace, he accidentally made an unknown substance, which turned out to be calcium carbide.
 
Chunks of Calcium Carbide
 

Lumps of Calcium Carbide. (From Wikipedia)

 
Since the application of water to calcium carbide produces acetylene gas, Willson worked to commercialize his discovery, by developing an economically-viable industrial process for producing calcium carbide, and set about looking for a market. Acetylene burns with a bright white light, of superior quality to the illumination from contemporary coal gas and incandescent lights. The first market for calcium carbide was as an acetylene generator in lights for such things as lighthouses, floodlights, railway coaches, navigation aids, bicycle headlights and miners’ headlamps. Carbide lamps were later used in early cars and motorcycles.
 
A carbide motorcycle headlight.
 

A carbide motorcycle headlight (above) and a schematic illustration of how it worked. (From douglasmotorcycles.net)

 
A schematic illustration of how Carbide lamps worked.
 

(From www.rexophone.com)

 
In these applications, water was dripped on calcium carbide to produce acetylene gas (see illustration), which fueled the lamp and was burned to produce light. This technology could also be used in homes, where a carbide-fueled acetylene generator was located in the basement and the gas produced piped to lights throughout the house. These acetylene generators could be dangerous though, with sources suggesting they be kept in a separate building, because of the explosion hazard, and advising the homeowner to extinguish his cigar before refilling the calcium carbide hopper.
 
A domestic acetylene system.
 

A domestic acetylene system, showing the carbide-fueled generator in the basement and the piping, which distributed the gas throughout the house. (From rexohone.com)

 
It wasn’t until 1903 that the most important use of acetylene, in oxyacetylene welding and cutting, was developed.
 
In 1895 Willson sold his American patents to a syndicate, which would later become Union Carbide, and returned to Canada. There, he constructed carbide plants in Merritton, near St. Catharines, Ontario, Ottawa and Shawinigan, Quebec. After moving to Ottawa in 1901, Willson became a well-known local figure and was the first person in that city to own an automobile. He continued to experiment, working on everything from new uses for carbide to the telephone. He received the first McCharles prize, from the University of Toronto, in 1909 for his discoveries.
 
He developed an inexpensive method for making fertilizer, but lost his patents for the process and some other assets to an American investor after a business setback in an attempt to set up a fertilizer plant.
 
Willson was a keen industrialist: He tried to start a pulp and paper business in Quebec. After his failure in the fertilizer business, he set about trying to develop hydroelectric dams, railways, and carbide, pulp and paper, and fertilizer factories in Newfoundland and Labrador, but died of a heart attack in New York City in 1915, while trying to raise funds for those projects.
 
Large, bronze Carbide lamp used for mining
 

Carbide lamp used by miners and for exploring caves.  (From Wikipedia)

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