There are many web sites dedicated to Canadian inventions. We know about the paint roller, baby pablum and basketball. But did you know that the most common device hanging on home walls across Canada and most of the developed world… the programmable thermostat… was invented by Jerry Kathnelson, a Canadian? Until the mid 1970’s the home heating thermostat was a simple device which used a bi-metal strip (which bent according to temperature) and a balanced mercury bulb that, when tilted past a point, would turn on your furnace to heat your house. It was simple but it was also inaccurate.
In the 70’s, the price of heating oil rose dramatically and something had to be found that could help reduce consumption. Jerry Kathnelson, working at the National Research Council (NRC) in Ottawa, hit on an idea to bring the thermostat into the 20th century with the use of microprocessors and software. At that time, the mandate of the NRC included both fundamental and applied research and the programmable thermostat was an example of both.
(As an aside, there is a strong research streak in Jerry’s family, as his father-in-law, Ed Swenson, also at NRC, was Canada’s leading expert in Portland Cement – first developed in 1900 – which was refined, through his discovery of an alkali-carbonate reaction, by Swenson for use in nuclear material containment structures.)
Jerry’s first thermostat (initially called the energy saving thermostat or Enerstat) has evolved over the past 40 years to what we see today – a small device controlling both heating and air conditioning which is easy to program, easy to read and very accurate. The current devices can even be programmed or controlled remotely over the internet. All the while the device sits in the background quietly saving us money on energy as we go about our busy days.
One large benefit from Jerry Kathnelson’s invention is one we do not generally think of but it is a doozy. Ever barrel of oil, cubic foot of gas or kilowatt of electricity that is saved by the programmable thermostat reduces green house gases and the cost of production and delivery of energy to our homes.
Today, Jerry Kathnelson lives, with his wife Karen, in California where he acts as Vice President of Customer Development at Energate Inc. Based in Ottawa, Energate is a leading provider of demand response and home energy management solutions including smart thermostats, energy displays, wireless communications, gateways, load switches, and utility applications software – all an off-shoot of that first programmable thermostat.