Brad in the Blue Contraption

Access, the Body, and the Great Outdoors

Brad Zdanivsky is an athlete living in Vancouver. Born in 1976, he grew up in Mackenzie, BC and developed a love of the outdoors and rock climbing from a young age. On his blog, Brad notes that “it was in my early teen years that I started really learning how all the rope systems worked to keep things safe. I was hooked, I just couldn’t get enough climbing. The more time outside, the more I respected the wilder of places. Exposure, gravity, strong and always changing weather… Pretty addicting stuff for my adventure seeking personality.”

In 1995, Brad was involved in a car accident on the 14 hour drive home from attending his grandfather’s funeral in Saskatoon. He sustained a C5 spinal cord injury. “The abrupt change from being independent and strong to helpless and weak was surreal” Brad wrote on his blog. “It was sickening to watch the atrophy happen so quickly. The body simply eats itself within a week or two of being immobile. It took a long time to be able to push a manual wheelchair and I never regained any hand function. Living as a quadriplegic was about teaching myself tricks to compensate for the loss of function.” Over the course of the next 10 years, Brad would return to rock climbing, and in July 2005, became the first quadriplegic to summit the Grand Wall of the Stawamus Chief, one of the largest granite monoliths in the World which towers 700 meters over Howe Sound in Squamish, B.C.


Brad’s 10-year journey of climbing the 1700-foot vertical wall of the Squamish Chief.

This past Spring I met Brad in Vancouver. The following in an excerpt from my March 10th visit.

Emily: What was it that drew you to rock climbing?

Brad: As a child, I was always outside, always hiking. Rock climbing has the outdoors, nature, in one sport that I enjoyed. I couldn’t get enough of it. After the car accident, it was as if it almost had to be climbing. It almost felt cowardly not to try to rock climb again. It wasn’t enough to go back to school, to do other sports, it had to be pretty big stakes. You know, there’s nothing up there. You don’t get anything for it but your own satisfaction. But 10 years of work for 10 minutes at the top…would I do it again. No. Everything hurts now. I realized that I don’t have to stick it out that far anymore.


Brad climbing in the Blue Contraption. Photo:

Brad climbing in the Blue Contraption.

Emily: How does physical exercise, like climbing, affect your body?

Brad: To do what we needed to do to climb The Chief, the regular heart rate and blood pressure for quads is not sufficient. I had a blood pressure of 100 over 60 and a heart rate of 60. That’s like the same as a little old lady…as like the vitals of a 90 year old grandma in a rocking chair. I needed to get way above that and exercise at a higher threshold. So to do that you have to use what’s called a noxious stimulus where you give yourself a bit of pain in order to create higher blood pressure and heart rate. It’s a tricky thing because sometimes it can work against you but if it works properly you get this optimal exercise area. But you are working with an uncontrolled reaction and trying to balance between being over or under, over and under, and if you go too far over, it can kill you. It’s almost impossible to regulate. You have to know your body really well. That’s what half of the climbing project was… figuring out how my body would work. It’s extremely dangerous and considered cheating by most para Olympic committees. What a lot of track athletes will do is break a toe or let their bladder fill up to create this reaction, which is an all or nothing approach. We tried to modulate this reaction by creating an algorithm that looks at heart rate trends and gives me an electric shock based on these patterns. It’s got to be a surprise or else it doesn’t work. I’d say that this is safer and more controlled than what other people were doing. What I use to do was zap my leg but your body gets use to that. What your body does not get use to is or cannot ignore is zapping your testicles. That always works. That always hurts. But on the day I didn’t use it. My body was in such a weird state. If you try to boost if you have other stimulus on board, some other thing going, like a sunburn, now you’re in deep water. That’s really dangerous.

Emily: I’m really pleased to have acquired your Blue Contraption for the Museum’s collection. It represents, for me at least, a more critical and inclusive way of understanding technology. Can you tell me a bit about how you came to this design? What was your design process and were there any major surprises along the way?

Brad: I wanted to try to climb the same way the paras do which was stubbornness on my part. My body requires more protection and support so when we started with a paragliding harness it didn’t respect my lungs and squished me. I needed something that protected me and provided more structure so we tried a wheelchair type design instead. We were slowly getting it right by removing complexity, pushing details away. All these moving parts can break so we decided to try to only fix three things every iteration. Chip away at it. We couldn’t afford to leave any stone unturned. As for the colours, they made it easier to see from the ground. As for surprises, all of it was a surprise.

The basic framework of Brad’s rock climbing rig. Photo:

The basic framework of Brad’s rock climbing rig.

Emily: Can you tell me a bit about what you remember from the climb you completed with the Blue Contraption?

Brad: We carried-in the day before the climb and slept at the base on the route. I didn’t sleep at all – how could I sleep before that? It was pitch black and early, when we got started because we wanted to beat the main heat of the day. The morning of it, you just try to turn your brain off and get on with it. It’s a pretty weird feeling, pretty sedate. You don’t want to jinx it. We did really well, made really good time when we started that morning. We broke our records to a point. At a certain point we climbed pass the safe known area into an area that we hadn’t reached before. Coming back through these areas… having to retreat would be next to impossible. The only way out was up, really.

Emily: Did you celebrate at the top?

Brad: No, I was too tired. I just wanted a sandwich. I was starving. You’re scared, hungry and shivering and in pain.

Brad in the Blue Contraption Photo:

Brad in the Blue Contraption

Emily: What did it mean to you?

Brad: Lots. It was a book ending. It squared my whole injury with me. My injury didn’t get the best of me. I proved to my family that I survived and still did things I wanted to do. I slept like a baby that night.

Brad’s experience highlights the innovative ways that people with physical disabilities are making the outdoors accessible. Technologies, in this case, serve as tools to break through physical, as well as socially constructed, barriers.

To learn more about Brad Read more

Gammex Non-Latex Polyisoprene surgical gloves, courtesy of Dr. Jeffrey Barkun and the McGill University Health Centre

Surgical Gloves and the Battle of Protection vs. Sensitivity

In medicine and science today we take the use of gloves for granted. But their usefulness in surgery was not as obvious when they were first introduced in the late 1800s. In 1889 the Johns Hopkins surgeon, William Halsted, first introduced rubber gloves in surgery as a gift to his chief operating nurse and future wife, Caroline Hampton, to protect her hands from the caustic solutions that were used to prevent bacterial infection in the patient. They were subsequently used by Halsted’s assistants, but their use for the protection of the patient from the bacteria present on the surgeon’s hands was not immediately apparent. Using gloves for the entire surgical team did not become standard practice at Johns Hopkins until 1896.

In fact, the use of gloves by surgeons during procedures was a subject of controversy and debate in the surgical world of the 1890s. The increasingly delicate nature of surgery highlighted the importance of touch and dexterity, two aspects that were compromised by the use of gloves. Many surgeons were not willing to give up touch and dexterity in exchange for sterility. Others were more amenable to negotiating between manual and microbial control and experimented with various materials such as cotton, silk, leather, and rubber, as well as combinations of these materials. Surgical meetings began to include demonstrations of the different models of gloves that were available from manufacturers.[1]


Advertisement for surgical gloves that allow for “a very feeble pulse” to be felt through its rubber. Illustrated Catalogue of High Grade Surgical Instruments and Physicians’ Surgical Supplies, Sharp & Smith in Chicago circa 1908. Trade Literature Collection, Canada Science and Technology Museum.

Catalogues of surgical equipment and sundries in the Museum’s Trade Literature Collection exhibit some of the specific features of gloves that were marketed to surgeons for the best preservation of the surgical touch. One catalogue from the Chicago manufacturer of surgical supplies c1908 advertises “Seamless Rubber Gloves” that are “smooth, strong, seamless, non-absorbent and can be sterilized. A very feeble pulse; differences in the consistency of tissue and irregularities of surfaces can be felt through these,” indicating some of the traits surgeons looked for in an ideal glove. Other desired qualities included comfort and flexibility. Another catalogue published c1900 by The Hospital Supply Co. in New York specifically describes their gloves as being made “of very thin soft rubber, fitting close to the skin, and not impairing the sense of touch.” Starkman, a company based in Toronto, claimed that their 1970 model was “So sensitive it will actually transmit a finger-print.”


Gloves that claim to be “so sensitive it will actually transmit a finger-print.”  Starkman Surgical Supply: Price Catalogue 1970, Toronto, 1970. Trade Literature Collection, Canada Science and Technology Museum.

As technological advances allowed for significantly more touch-sensitive gloves to be manufactured, eventually gloves became a ubiquitous and essential part of a surgeon’s toolkit. Surgeons can now focus on choosing gloves based on comfort and flexibility. My work examining the surgical touch for the Museum’s upcoming exhibit, Medical Sensations, has led me to delve deeper into how today’s surgeons choose their ideal glove. Dr. Gerald Fried, Surgeon-in-Chief at the McGill University Health Centre in Montreal, says that what is important for him is that “the shape of the different brands cause pressure in different areas of the hands resulting in fatigue for longer cases.” Thus he chooses gloves based on their shape and the stretchiness of their material so that there is no restriction in movement.

Sensicare polyisoprene surgical gloves, courtesy of Dr. Harvey Sigman and the Montreal Jewish General Hospital

Sensicare polyisoprene surgical gloves, courtesy of Dr. Harvey Sigman and the Montreal Jewish General Hospital

According to Dr. Harvey Sigman, a surgeon at the Montreal Jewish General Hospital, gloves made of thicker material are preferred by some surgeons for their added protection against puncture and cautery burn. Some surgeons, including Dr. Sigman, even choose to double glove for extra protection.

Gammex Non-Latex Polyisoprene surgical gloves, courtesy of Dr. Jeffrey Barkun and the McGill University Health Centre

Others, such as Dr. Jeffrey Barkun, a surgeon at the McGill University Health Centre, find double gloves to be too constricting and prefer to use glove liners. Dr. Barkun finds that that these soft, thin, gloves hug the skin very tightly and offer better protection without impairing the sense of touch. Drs. Sigman and Barkun have kindly provided samples of their preferred gloves to the Museum’s Medical Artifacts Collection. Along with some of the Museum’s trade literature, these will be on display in the surgical touch section of the upcoming Medical Sensations exhibition.

[1] For more information check out Thomas Schlich’s article, “Negotiating Technologies in Surgery: The Controversy about Surgical Gloves in the 1890s” in the July 2013 issue of the Bulletin of the History of Medicine.

Cynthia L. Tang is a 2016 CSTMC-McGill Research Fellow

Photo. Raft from Libya. Photo by Dr. Simon Bryant

A Compass in the Migrant Crisis

In June 2015, as the migrant crisis intensified on the Mediterranean, I asked a friend Carol Devine, who has a long history of working with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), if it would be possible to collect objects that document the medical dimension of this experience. She immediately mobilized to have a message sent to MSF staff on the MOAS rescue ship MY Phoenix stationed on the Mediterranean. Simon Bryant, a Canadian physician on board, took up the challenge. During his tour, he set aside a range of objects – a mariner’s compass found on an overcrowded inflatable raft, children’s flotation aids, emergency medical devices for maintaining a patient’s airway, a disposable white coverall, a sign for the consultation room door, as well as a worn flag from the Phoenix – all with images and detailed provenance.

Photo. Pool Floatie recovered during Mediterranean rescue mission in the summer of 2015. Photo by Dr. Simon Bryant

Life Jacket and Pool Floatie recovered during Mediterranean rescue mission in the summer of 2015. Floatie reads on back: “NOT TO BE USED FOR BOATING … NOT A LIFESAVING DEVICE.” Photo by Dr. Simon Bryant

The first contact between migrants and the West has often been through rescue efforts on the Mediterranean Sea. In 2015 MSF launched sea rescue operations with Migrant Offshore AID Station (MOAS) because so many were drowning or lost at sea during the treacherous voyage from Libya and Turkey and had health needs upon arrival in Europe.

In many cases, there are immediate medical needs on the ship, so capturing that encounter was the focus of my initial request. Dr. Bryant’s subsequent selection of objects represented a broader snapshot of life in the rescue zone. By choosing the sign from the front of the consultation room, he was drawing our attention to the the migrant perspective amidst the turmoil of the rescue ship and challenges of language barriers.

The “Consultation in Progress” side of the clinic door window sign. Photo by Simon Bryant.

The “Consultation in Progress” side of the clinic door window sign. Photo by Simon Bryant.

One of the floatation devices was in fact a pool floatie “NOT TO BE USED FOR BOATING” (increasingly used by migrant children), while the other was a certified device; the Guedel airway devices were a constant in Dr. Bryant’s pocket during his tour; the mariner’s compass was a brass-coloured plastic instrument manufactured by a navigation and fishing equipment company in China.

Photo. Mariner’s compass made by Zhanhui Industry, Ltd. Guangdong Province, China. Photo by Dr. Simon Bryant.

Mariner’s compass made by Zhanhui Industry, Ltd. Guangdong Province, China. Photo by Dr. Simon Bryant.

The objects have become migrants on their own remarkable journey. In the fall of 2015, shortly after they arrived in Ottawa, curator Dan Conlin at the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 in Halifax took up the challenge to display these objects for the public. The exhibit, Perilous Crossing, communicated the migrant crisis in simple and powerful material terms, which at that time had become the top story in the Canadian news. This May, the exhibit and artifacts will be moving to the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg for the summer of 2016. And there are now more requests to showcase these objects after the summer (the compass may be going to the Shanghai Biennale 2016), completing their unexpected voyage around the world, while building complex biographies – from Chinese factory products, to consumer goods (who bought the compass, where?!), to survival items, to cultural artifacts.

Simon Bryant wrote about his 2015 rescue tour in a blog “Bringing Home the Rescue-Zone.” Joshua Hammer also profiled life on the rescue ship Phoenix (with photos of Dr. Bryant at work) in his Sept. 2015 piece for Outside Magazine. Below, I am including the story of the compass that Dr. Bryant submitted for our acquisition files:

The compass story submitted by Simon Bryant

On August 3rd 2015 at about 3 a.m.,103 adults and 15 children from fourteen countries embarked on a nine-metre inflatable raft in Libya and proceeded north, propelled by an old 40-horsepower outboard engine and the need to escape from violence, poverty, and persecution in their countries of origin.

Photo. Raft from Libya. Photo by Dr. Simon Bryant

Inflatable raft from Libya, August 3, 2015. Photo by Dr. Simon Bryant

They relied on this gimbaled marine compass, provided by the “smugglers” who organized their trip, to maintain a northerly bearing. It is typical of those found on many of the boats and rafts.

 (Ironically in most instances, cardboard packing inserts remained in place around the compasses themselves, as seen in the photograph below; They prevented the gimbal mechanism from keeping the compasses level regardless of the boats’ movement, and undoubtedly made it difficult to navigate a straight course…) [Below], a similar compass to the one in the museum collection, with (white) shipping cardboard still in place.

Photo:  compass with packing in place, photo by Gabriele Casini

Compass with packing in place, photo by Gabriele Casini

After a distress call was received, the Maritime Rescue Coordination Center in Rome instructed the search and rescue vessel Phoenix, a collaboration between MOAS (Migrant Offshore Aid Station) and MSF (Medecins Sans Frontières / Doctors Without Borders) to proceed to the assistance of these people. They were subsequently intercepted without incident at 10 a.m. about 20 nautical miles north of Zuwara, Libya, at latitude 33 24 north, and longitude 011 57 east.

 The accompanying photo of the inflatable raft and its occupants was taken on first approach from the fast RHIB (rigid hull inflatable boat) dispatched from the Phoenix, just prior to lifejackets being provided to those in the raft.

 All aboard the raft were transferred by several shuttles of the RHIB to the Phoenix, where they received drinking water, food, dry clothing, and medical care as needed. Later the same day all those rescued were transferred to two Italian Coast Guard vessels, and taken to Italy. The Phoenix then returned to the search and rescue zone.

Country of origin, and number of rescued (15 children, 103 adults)

Nigeria 69; Ghana 15; Sudan 6; Gambia 5; Eritrea 4; Senegal 4; Guinea 3; Morocco 3; Mali 2; Niger 2; DRC 2; Libya 1


The trailer with its orginal owners. (Credit: MacLaren Family)

The story that changed my mind

Collecting is about connecting across time and space. We use our knowledge and our networks to seek out objects that embody important stories in the history of science and technology in Canada. But sometimes, when we don’t even know we should be looking for it, an object finds us and forces us to look beyond our established collecting priorities to discover a genuine treasure.

Interior of trailer showing icebox. License plate above. (Credit: Desjardins Family)

Interior of trailer showing icebox. License plate above. (Credit: Desjardins Family)

In September 2014, I received a forwarded email from a colleague at the National Gallery of Canada. He had seen a “lovingly restored” Canadian-built house trailer and wanted to know if we were interested in acquiring it. The trailer was a late 1930s Brantford travel coach made by Canada Carriage & Body Limited. Interesting but, on the face of it, a bit too close in age and type to our Nash motorhome to make acquisition an easy decision. I looked at the photos and opened a file for the trailer and consigned it to the “more research required” pile on my desk.

Exterior of restored trailer. (Credit: Desjardins Family)

Exterior of restored trailer. (Credit: Desjardins Family)

I was still mulling over the merits of the Brantford trailer in December when the owner called me directly to find out if I was interested in purchasing the trailer. I told her that I needed to do more research before I could make a decision and asked her what she knew about the trailer. Though English is her second language, she offered an animated and compelling story that forced me to reconsider the assumptions I had made about what the trailer represented. Using the names, dates and technical details she provided, I began to pull together the Brantford’s history and discovered some of the richness and complexity of life in Depression-era Canada.

Canada Carriage & Body Co. Ltd. was a long-standing manufacturing enterprise that had survived the decline of the carriage market and the rise of the automobile. Looking for ways to diversify its product line during the lean mid-1930s, it bought Fred Knechtel’s small trailer business. Knechtel was a gifted cabinet-maker who had once built radio bodies but then decided to try his hand at designing trailers for the emerging automobile tourism market. Canada Carriage produced Brantford Travel coaches for a few years leading up to the Second World War under the careful supervision of Mr. Knechtel.

The Brantford trailer after 50 years in storage. (Credit: Desjardins Family)

The Brantford trailer after 50 years in storage. (Credit: Desjardins Family)

Meanwhile, in the comfortable Montreal suburb of Outremount, Wallace Anderson MacLaren decided that he should take advantage of the growing network of roads around him to explore Canada. He purchased the Brantford trailer around 1937 and, for the next decade, indulged his appetite for adventure by taking his family on the road and discovering some the many remarkable places the country had to offer.

The trailer with its orginal owners. (Credit: MacLaren Family)

The trailer with its orginal owners. (Credit: MacLaren Family)

The MacLaren family retired the trailer in 1949 but stored it safely in a garage at their cottage on Lac-Lousia in the Laurentians. There it stayed for 50 years until the MacLarens’ neighbours expressed an interest in restoring and using it. When the Desjardins family took possession of the Brantford, they became not just its owners but also the keepers of its stories and, eventually, advocates for its place in Canadian history. By taking on all of these roles, they maintained a crucial connection with the past and helped me to make a strong case for collecting this unique piece of Canadian automotive history.