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Monday, January 24, 2011

From Dead Reckoning to GPS

The Hudson Bay Company, formerly the Hudson Bay fur trading company, is one of the most salient examples we have in Canada, possibly even the world, of an organization on the edge. From its conception it utilized the most modern of technologies, and sometimes re-purposed traditional methods for new uses. As an organization it defied the odds, performing feats many deemed impossible, and in the process defined a nation.

From the beginning the Hudson Bay Company was on the cutting edge. Even before its conception Henry Hudson, a British national sailing a stolen Danish jacht of the most modern and intelligent design, sought out the Northwest Passage, eventually attaining the bay which bears his name after several failed attempts and with the aid of the most modern navigational mathematical theories and technologies. In fact his navigator utilized new sets of formulae to create more accurate longitudinal and latitudinal measurements which corrected the errors of 'dead reckoning', a process of using the North Star as a guide which could be off as much as 6° or 660km.

Along with the largely French backed Northwest Company, the HBC also utilized the newest ideas in social media, or rather mediums, by actually cooperating with local indigenous peoples and utilizing their expertise in map-making, navigation, trapping, and hauling. Not to say these relationships weren't without their deep flaws, but compared to other examples from Colonization in the West Indies, India, Africa, the Caribbean, and not to forget the stunningly failure of diplomacy in United States and their genocide of many indigenous cultures. In Canada we had companies creating active partnerships with tribal groups, offering 'fair' trades for furs and bringing a new idea of 'civilization' to the populated 'wilderness'.

Moving forward in history, we saw a more settled nation in the Canadian wilds, and great engineering feats were performed not by the HBC, but for it as one of the premier business adventures in this budding colony. The St. Lawrence Seaway, begun by a leader of a Catholic seminary in 1680 is one of the longest seaways in the world, and today raises ships from the Atlantic to the ports of Quebec, Montreal, Toronto and eventually Thunder Bay, a vertical movement of over 100m over the Niagara Escarpment.

Railway was also a major development, and with the backing of many major players in the Canadian economy, notable the HBC and John Molson, the first commercial railway line opened in Quebec in 1836. With the British North America act proclaiming Canada a country in 1867, one condition written in to the act was for the building of the Intercontinental Railway, which linked Eastern Canada. The reason for this bill was the circuitous route taken by the railway which ignored all economic considerations, and therefore was not backed by major businesses. The largest feat of railway engineering happened several years later with the incorporation of the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1880, and its completion 5 years later with the driving of the last spike. This drove from a need to get personnel and goods quickly from the Pacific to the Atlantic, as well as to expedite the economic needs of the HBC as it had been forced to expand its hunting and trapping territory into the far less populated west.

Fast forward to the modern era, we see the HBC as no more than a mere relic of its past. Yet, the company has kept abreast of the modern developments and exists in the technological climate of its day. Today it manages many historical and highly lucrative properties in many of the urban settings of Canada, as well as being the premier department store in the country. They offer everything from furs to computers, and until recently sold automobiles and performed automotive repair. Like many competitors, they provide customers the opportunity to shop in store or online, and have maintained a competitive edge in the cutthroat world of modern retail.

For a company who history predates the creation of the empires of North America, and who was vital in the creation of our country, it has not only maintained but fostered the technological revolutions that make our society what it is today. While this did not come without missteps, there are few who could argue the influence the HBC has had on the west.

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