By Brian Roulston
George Johann Klein was relatively unknown in his native Canada until the Canadian Encyclopedia dubbed him as “Canada’s most productive inventor”. He grew up at 12 Caroline Street in Hamilton with his family. Young George would visit his father George Klien’s jewelry store, Klien and Binkley on James St. where he nurtured his natural curiosity of how things where made and worked.
His father’s store, very successful both selling jewelry, clocks and watches and repairing watches introduced young George to engineering and micro-engineering, a world of watchmakers. He also developed the artist in himself working with gold and silversmiths who made and repaired the jewelry. George spent hours tinkering or building something in the basement workshop. He built a one metre fully functional sailboat and played with it on Hamilton Bay.
He was also an accomplished violinist in both Hamilton and Ottawa. After graduating from the Hamilton Technical School on Wentworth Street North near Cannon, Klein continued his studies at The University of Toronto where he graduated in 1928 with a Bachelor’s Degree in Applied Science. He was invited to join his professor as Director of Mechanical Engineering at the National Research Council, Canada’s agency of Research and Development, in Ottawa where he stayed for 40 years.
George was involved in many projects such as designing the NRC’s first wind tunnel. George was also an avid cross-country skier and this gave him the idea of developing a plastic coating for skis on airplanes to allow them to take off and land from snow or ice-covered runways. This led him to design and build a small, but agile snowmobile.
During WW-II George became an expert at gears and designed aiming systems for artillery and Naval Subs in both Canada and the U.S. He also headed a team to develop Canada’s first nuclear reactor ZEEP (Zero Energy Experimental Pile) which was the first Atomic nuclear reactor outside of the U.S. George successfully designed the first microsurgical staple gun to suture blood vessels. and the first electric wheelchair complete with a joystick and a drive system.
During the 50’s George designed an antenna roughly 4 meters long and flat that could be unfolded to 40 meters called STEM for NASA. The antenna was first successfully used in 1962 aboard the Canadian satellite Aloutte-1. NASA soon after adopted it for use during the Mercury, Gemini,and the Apollo space programs of the 60’s and early 70’s.It was used when Apollo 11 landed on the moon.
George Klien then retired from the NRC to Carleton University in Ottawa as a part-time lecturer. However, when NASA launched the Space Shuttle program in the early 70’s and realized they needed a robotic arm to transfer the heavy payloads from the cargo bay into its intended positions. Today, we know it as the Canadarm
In 1968 George Klein was made an Officer of the Order of Canada and a member of the Order of the British Empire. He was posthumously inducted to the Canadian Science and Engineering hall of Fame. In 2000 Canada Post honored George with several stamps.
George Klien passed away November 4,1992 at 88 years of age after a short illness in Ottawa. In his Honor Carleton University in Ottawa established the George Klein Medal for high school students participating in an industrial design competition.