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This month, the first anniversary of the horrors of September 11, will surely bring back nightmares to those who lived through or witnessed those tragic events. It is sad that one of the great technological triumphs of humankind could be used for such heinous and outrageous purposes.

A century ago, to soar like an eagle was but a dream for a few eccentrics. Those dreamers combined the aerodynamics of fluids with the chemistry of fossil fuels and the strength of materials to produce our first flying machines.

The Scarboro Heights Record V10 #9


Pennington’s People
This Inventor, 80, still counts on success
By Bob Pennington, Star Staff Writer
Toronto Star Tues Ap. 9 1974

Bob McCowan calls himself a life-long wheeler-dealer, a "a plunger who always gets in deep."

Schemer-dreamer, however, might be a little more apt for his epitaph, whenever that comes to be given. Roaming again in his old haunts in Toronto this week he was still scheming, still dreaming at the age of 80, with all the faith and fervor he knew in his 20s.

He claims to have built and flown the first all-Canadian aircraft. He also believes he was the first pilot in the (then) British Empire (later Commonwealth) to take to the air in a seaplane. Aviation history books have largely tended to overlook such contributions.

If he is correct about his latest touch of schemer-dreamer negotiating, however, North America may yet salute the name of Robert McCowan. From the depths of a venerable briefcase, he produced a promotion from yesteryear that could hardly be more in tune with the needs of today.

"SAVE 60 PER CENT IN FUEL COSTS" proclaimed his brochure. The name of the company was Aero industries, the address was 328 Dupont. St., Toronto, and the time was World War II. "McCowan rotary fuel oil converter," you read, "is a scientifically designed apparatus that may be installed on practically any internal combustion engine so that the engine can use low gravity oils instead of gasoline. The converter changes the oil into dry gas before being used in the motor."

You do not need to be a genius to realize the potential of such a converter at this precise moment of gasoline crisis.  Bob McCowan studied a fading blueprint and chortled with anticipation:

I have the patent. The secret is in the mix of heating oil and water with a little alcohol. In the last war I proved it was possible to run a car on this mixture cheaply. Today we are back in business.

Tests are now being made, he said, in Ormond Beach, Florida., and in his native Nova Scotia, to convert domestic heating oil for pleasure boat use:

In Florida it’s tough enough to get a gallon of gas for your car. Pleasure boats are really suffering through the gas crisis, but if I can get my converter working everybody should be happy, including me.

The dreams and schemes of Bob McCowan have often raised laughter. Later the McCowan mockers were reduced to displaying a grudging admiration, but by that time he had gone on to work on something that seemed to be equally outrageous. As a child, he watched gulls flying and puzzled, like many another, on their effortless grace. Anatomical studies of the dead birds he found along the seashore helped later in his design of gliders:

People would follow me along the streets of Sydney making quacking noises and flapping their arms like wings. They thought I was a crackpot. In 1909 I watched the Silver Dart make its historic flight at Baddeck. That was a first in the British Empire, but the Silver Dart was American designed and had an American engine. The machine I few a year later was almost painfully all-Canadian. It took me four years to put it together with the volunteer labor of about 20 friends. I didn’t get too far before the meter fell off and I crash-landed just short of some trees. Crawled out upside down feeling on top of the world.

To pay for his aviation pleasures, McCowan sold cars and later bought five Fokker seaplanes from the Hudson Bay exhibition of 1929 to form Maritime-Newfoundland Airways a year later. The launching of this airmail service was not without its financial headaches:

I remember walking the streets one night in near despair. Then I got this idea of raising money through minting stamps. So I wired every philatelic society I could trace and offered a first cover air mail stamp on our initial triangular flight from Nova Scotia to Newfoundland and St. Pierre. These were snapped up to the tune of $25,000 before the RCMP stepped in. At least I had enough to cover the payroll and the collectors seemed to be quite happy.

The airline was only a partial success and McCowan moved into the more lucrative field of buying and selling surplus planes and parts:

I think I’m the oldest dealer still active on this continent. From 1939 to 1949 I lived in Rosedale, but now I divide my time between Florida, Mexico and Nova Scotia, always buying, always selling, always hoping to pull off a really big coup.

In addition to his World War II oil to gas converter, which he hopes to see become a commercial proposition, Bob McCowan has another unfilled ambition to fly again after 46 years as a passenger.

I’ve had a replica made of the first all-Canadian plane I made and flew in June, 1910. It should be ready to fly by the fall and I want to be at the controls. I know the structure, you see, and it will take very careful handling. Another pilot might put her over on her nose. Flying is like skating -- it always comes back to you. Anyway, I know I will have to make a good landing or I shouldn’t be around.

Long may he be around, from Mexico to the Maritimes, to go on astounding us with his scheming and dreaming.

The McCowans' Who's Who, Vol. 2