William Henry Day (1870-1938)
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By J.L. Hunt

As a civil servant he excelled at engineering research and development free of government prescription.

William Henry Day was born into a farming family in Pole’s Corners near Fenelon Falls, Ontario, in 1870. He attended the Lindsay Model School and the Ottawa Normal School, qualifying as a teacher in 1892. After teaching school for six years, he entered the University of Toronto in 1898, taking physics and mathematics, and was awarded the Gold Medal in physics upon graduation in 1903. He immediately accepted a position as lecturer in physics at the Ontario Agricultural College in Guelph, Ontario, and embarked on a remarkable career in applied research.

Day’s research was always directed to the betterment of Ontario agriculture, and some of his contributions are conferring great benefits on the province down to the present time. He carried out his work in the face of great difficulties, most of his own making, due to his stormy and aggressive character that led to difficult relations with his superiors.


The Ontario Agricultural College, after a faltering start, was established in Guelph in 1874, just 53 years after the founding of the town itself. For the first 20 years of its existence, the history of OAC can best be described as chaotic. The problems of the institution were multifarious and the result of both internal and external factors.

Internally, the management of OAC was divided between the principal (later president) in charge of the classroom curriculum and the students’ department, and the professor of agriculture and farm manager, who was responsible for the students’ outdoor and practical experience. Although nominally subject to the authority of the principal, the first two professors of agriculture behaved autonomously and kept the college in a state of anarchy for nearly two decades.

Externally, the farmers of the province had little regard for the academic side of the institution and favoured practical work. This led them to side with the professor and oppose too much English, mathematics, physics, etc. Research, particularly in things like physics and chemistry, also had little support. The all-powerful minister of agriculture viewed the college as a pork barrel, where appointments could be made for political reasons with little regard to academic competence.

The unrest came to a head in 1893 in a scandal that was only resolved by a royal commission. The result was the breaking of the power of the professor of agriculture and consolidation of authority in the hands of the president. The academics had won, and an environment was created where, for the first time, thoughtful research could be carried out in an atmosphere of academic detachment.

Onto this new scene, Joseph B. Reynolds was appointed in 1893 as the first professor of physics. A graduate of the University of Toronto in physics and mathematics, Reynolds immediately commenced various programs of applied research designed to benefit the Ontario agriculture industry. In 1903, he hired W.H. Day, and in 1906, he decided to abandon physics to concentrate on English, leaving the direction of physics to Day.

Day’s Research

On arrival at OAC, Day assumed responsibility for research and instruction in the field of soils and tillage. In 1904, he made a tour of American universities to observe the latest analytical methods in soil analysis; this tour included the renowned laboratories of Franklin H. King at the University of Wisconsin. He returned equipped to commence research on the improvement of peat soils, the effect of soil aeration on crop growth and on the transpiration of moisture. His reputation in this area was quickly made, for in 1909, he was invited to join an international committee for the classification of soils in North America.

Day also engaged in other research efforts; these included studies of farm building ventilation, the use of farm power machinery, cold storage and farm water supplies, and sanitation, the last in collaboration with Prof. R.R. Graham.

Day’s greatest work was the development of two initiatives started by Reynolds in the area of lightning protection and farm under-drainage. In 1899, a group of farmers had sought advice of Reynolds on the protection of farm buildings from lightning. Realizing that little was known of the cost of this hazard to farmers, Reynolds began a yearly survey of lightning strikes to farm structures in Ontario. The survey was carried out by mailed questionnaires and later was circulated widely with cooperation from the rural newspapers. Day took over this survey work, and data was collected and compiled until 1913. If a rodded structure was struck, it was examined, if possible, to determine whether improper installation or equipment failure was responsible. Data was also collected through extensive correspondence with manufacturers and insurance companies. These contacts with manufacturers were to serve Day well in his later career.

A small friction electrostatic generator was obtained and experiments were performed with model houses, barns, etc., in an attempt to classify lightning discharges to protected and unprotected buildings. Since at this time very little was known about scaling physical systems, this part of the research was probably misguided. The sound conclusions reached were based on the surveys and building examinations. The result of the work was published in the Ontario Department of Agriculture Bulletin #220 in 1914, which was for many years considered the last word on the topic for Ontario farmers. With his usual lack of modesty Day wrote:

Properly installed they [lighting rods] are almost absolute protection. Out of every thousand dollars worth of damage done to unrodded buildings by lightning, $999 would be saved if those buildings were properly rodded. A pretty strong statement you say. We realize it is strong. It has taken thirteen years of investigation to compile data that enable us to make that statement today. We have the problem completely solved.

What was to be Day’s most important work began in 1904 as a proposal by Reynolds. The Department of Agriculture for many years had provided financial assistance to Ontario farmers for land under-drainage. This program, designed to reclaim unusable land and improve marginal land, had not been a success, because few farmers and installers had the expertise to prepare proper surveys and plans. Reynolds’ idea was that the physics department of OAC be paid to survey the land and prepare drainage plans for farmers who applied. The ministry accepted the proposal and the Land Drainage Program was started under the direction of Day.

The program was an immediate success. Day became the Ontario expert on land under-drainage and, under his direction, over 140,000 acres of land were surveyed and drained by 1918. He initiated related research projects, establishing demonstration plots in various parts of the province and investigating the increase in crop yield from properly drained land. In his laboratory, experiments were carried out to improve the performance of concrete drainage tile, which had been inferior to clay, but was potentially less expensive. The effect on the Ontario clay tile industry was profound. From a low of 15 million tiles in 1905, it more than doubled in the next five years. After 1910, the work on concrete tile began to have an effect, and concrete steadily replaced clay.

With the increased involvement with drainage, Day became interested in ditching machines and persuaded the ministry to purchase one for research purposes in 1912. Through his efforts, he popularized the use of ditchers in Ontario and led an ultimately successful campaign to persuade the federal government to remove the tariff on agricultural ditchers in 1915. In this effort, he was not entirely disinterested, purchasing one of the first tariff-free machines, and with his brother Walter established a successful ditching operation, which ultimately operated five machines. He also acted as an agent for one of the largest manufacturers, supplying them with the names of possible buyers and taking a commission of 5 per cent. Even in those lax times, this was a clear conflict of interest and earned the displeasure of the minister of agriculture.

The great project of Day’s career started while he was at OAC, but reached its culmination after he had left. Fifty kilometres to the north of Toronto lay the great Holland Marsh, a 2900-hectare tract that produced only a crop of marsh straw for mattress stuffing. Day was consulted as to the possibility of draining this area and converting it into agricultural land. He later wrote:

After an inspection in January 1910 and another in June of the same year, I outlined the Holland Marsh Drainage Scheme as it exists today at a meeting in the Bradford Town Hall and told those in attendance that when drained and properly cultivated the Holland Marsh would be the best garden north of Toronto, if not in Ontario.

He entered into a partnership with five local and Toronto businessmen to form a “Holland Marsh Syndicate” to further the project and also, incidentally, to quietly purchase options on property in the marsh. After leaving OAC, Day moved into the marsh area in order to urge on the scheme, which was approved in 1925 and constructed under Day’s supervision with the assistance of the Leamington engineer J.A. Baird, who had been in charge of the Point Pelee drainage scheme. Day became a full-time vegetable farmer, and the first crop was taken off his 37 acres in 1927. In 1933, he wrote:

Later I bought some of the land myself. Six years experience in growing crops on the now reclaimed land has demonstrated that the half has not been told. The three predominant crops so far are carrots, head lettuce and celery and in my opinion the Holland Marsh is destined to become the chief centre in Ontario if not in Canada for these crops.

While still at OAC, Day became obsessed with the drainage program to the neglect of his other responsibilities, such as teaching, heading the department and conducting research in other areas of agricultural physics. This inevitably led to conflicts with the president and the minister. In 1912, he published a magazine article clearly showing that the gasoline engine was more economical for farm use than the electric motor, given the current prices of gasoline and electricity. This was in opposition to the government’s “Rural Electrification Program,” and the minister tried to suppress the results. Day refused to be censored and impertinently charged the minister with attempting to suppress the truth. In this classic example of the impossibility of combining a civil service and an academic career, Day was on the side of the angels, but the minister had a long memory and had the last say. It was clear that the minister would get rid of him and only had to wait for a sufficiently serious act of conflict of interest. Although temporarily reprieved from dismissal by World War I, it was inevitable that Day would have to resign, which he did in 1919. He took a managerial position with the Shinn Manufacturing Company when they set up a lightning rod plant in Guelph, and he moved onto his farm in 1923.

“Billy” Day was a man of strong, even arrogant personality. He was very aware of his own worth, was aggressive in his research and in business and was, in the idiom of his own time, a “go-getter.” His difficult nature made him intolerant of his superiors and, in particular, the politicians whose expedient attitude to scientific truth was inconsistent with his own. His concentration on narrowly focused research and his apparent neglect of the academic curriculum at OAC indicate where his priorities lay, although he seems to have been a popular teacher. His great strength was as a researcher, engineer and developer. On July 5, 1938, he died suddenly in Bradford, while working in the garden he had helped create for the people of Ontario.

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