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Dr. Gerald Bull: A supersonic scientist

Dr. Gerald Bull was like a figure in a spy novel, designing arms for some of the world's harshest regimes. With no shortage of possible enemies, he died at the hands of an unknown assassin. But the Canadian-born artillery expert was also a brilliant scientist with a dream: to launch a satellite with a giant gun.

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With its Sputnik satellite, the Soviet Union has launched the space race, and Canada is keen to join in. At the forefront of space research is the Canadian Armament and Research Development Establishment, where Gerald Bull is an aerodynamicist. It's here that Bull has turned wind-tunnel missile testing on its head by launching test rockets from guns. CARDE invites journalists to its facility in Valcartier, Que., and a CBC camera is there.
• Born in North Bay, Ont. in 1928, Gerald Bull was orphaned at a young age. He was raised by an aunt and educated by Jesuits at Regiopolis College in Kingston. He planned to be a medical student, but the only department at the University of Toronto that would accept him -- he had finished high school at 16 -- was the Faculty of Aeronautical Engineering.

•  Before entering graduate school, Bull worked briefly as a draftsman at the A.V. Roe aircraft company, which would later design the famous Avro Arrow supersonic jet.
• Bull began working at the Canadian Armament and Research Development Establishment as a graduate student before receiving his Ph.D. at the age of 23 -- the youngest such graduate ever.

•  CARDE was a research institute managed by the Canadian government's Defence Research Board. It was founded in 1945 after Britain transferred much of its wartime technology and weapons knowledge to Canada. When Bull worked there it was one of the only places in the world with an aerophysics division, and frequently conducted lab research for the United States. It is now known as Defence R&D Canada-Valcartier, a branch of the Department of National Defence.

• Much of Bull's early research at CARDE focused on the behaviour of missiles in flight. He was particularly interested in learning about the composition of space and the layers of Earth's atmosphere so that missiles could be designed to fly faster and with greater accuracy.

• In the late 1950s CARDE was developing a rocket defence system against intercontinental ballistic missiles. The concept would later be revived by the Reagan administration in the United States as the Strategic Defence Initiative, or Star Wars. It was eventually abandoned, but the notion got new life with the inauguration of George W. Bush in 2001.

• In 1961 Gerald Bull tendered his resignation to the Defence Research Board, who managed CARDE. An ambitious man, he was frustrated by a lack of support for his anti-ballistic missile research, which the DRB viewed as beneficial only to American interests. Bull had long been intensely critical of the Canadian military defence establishment and often referred to his bosses as "cocktail scientists."
Medium: Television
Program: CBC Newsmagazine
Broadcast Date: May 11, 1958
Duration: 4:56

Last updated: March 4, 2014

Page consulted on November 6, 2014

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