In 1901, Thomas Leopold Willson, Canadian inventor of the calcium carbide manufacturing process, created the Shawinigan Carbide Company. The facility was located near Shawinigan Falls, Que., benefitting from the surplus electric power produced by the Shawinigan Water & Power Company (SW&P). Eight years later, the utility company obtained a controlling interest in Shawinigan Carbide and amalgamated it and other Willson enterprises into the Canada Carbide Company.
With the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, SW&P answered Great Britain’s cri de cœur for acetone, which was needed as a solvent to manufacture cordite, a component needed in the smokeless propellant used in shells and bullets. Acetone was a product of acetylene, which was used mainly as an illuminant at that time. Under the umbrella of the Canadian Electro Products Company, a small group of university graduates undertook efforts to synthesize it, going on a few vague references from German patents and an organic chemistry textbook. They succeeded in creating acetone as well as other products like cellulose acetate for coating the wings of fighter aircraft.
The 1918 Armistice forced the company to refocus its research efforts on developing chemicals for civilian use. As a result, Canadian Electro Products and Canada Carbide were amalgamated and renamed Shawinigan Chemicals Ltd. The following decades were ones of expansion, with Shawinigan purchasing or entering into joint ventures with American, Canadian and United Kingdom chemical manufacturing and marketing companies. It also contributed to the Second World War effort, producing the explosive 1,3,5-trinitroperhydro-1,3,5-triazine, called RDX, which is more powerful than TNT (2,4,6-trinitrotoluene). As can be seen from this 1950 advertisement in Chemistry in Canada, the company’s product line for industry was extensive and included not only commodity chemicals but plastics, stainless steel and alloys for use around the world in the mining and metallurgical industries.
Postwar, Shawinigan Chemicals’ expansion continued and soon included subsidiaries such as BA-Shawinigan Ltd, Gelvatex Coatings Corporation of California, McArthur Chemicals and Hedon Chemical Limited in the United Kingdom. In 1961, British American Oils acquired a minority interest in Shawinigan Chemicals. By 1964, BA and its parent company, Gulf Oil Corp., acquired all of Shawinigan Chemicals. Eventually, the company was renamed Gulf Oil Canada Ltd. Today, Gulf Oil is a publicly traded company with its head office in Calgary. It explores for, develops, produces and markets conventional and synthetic crude oil, natural gas and natural gas liquids around the world.