When it comes to claims to fame, Toronto has many different kinds of things to consider for being world-renowned. The CN Tower may no longer be the tallest building in the world, but it’s still a defining part of the city’s skyline. Musical acts have travelled the world after getting their start in Ontario’s capital. But few people who use a simple yet ingenious invention ever know that it was created in Toronto. That invention is the paint roller and it’s probably become Toronto’s most secret and widely-used claim to fame.
The paint roller was invented by Norman Breakey, a Torontonian who wanted to apply paint quicker without sacrificing a smooth finish. Up until his invention, which he developed in the 1940s, the only painting was done with paint brushes. Sure, they came in a variety of sizes and shapes, but painting was still painstaking work that took a long time.
The invention made perfect sense at the time as well. Canada and the rest of the world were moving to the city and, with their migration, they were moving sensibilities. Bare walls not only made sense in the country, they were part of a certain aesthetic for the time. But as people moved to urban areas, they started thinking about walls differently. Interior design was becoming more and more popular and, with it, a demand for paint that was unprecedented. And with more paint going on the walls, people were looking for easier, and less expensive, ways of getting it there.
Enter Norman Breakey’s invention, which took the world by storm. It didn’t, however, completely change Breakey’s life, as his tale is one of how a trip to the patent office could mean the difference between millions and millions of imitators. Breakey went to a colleague of his with the idea, wanting some input on the fabric for the paint roller. His idea, while game-changing, also needed money, something he personally had in short supply, and he had an impossible time finding willing investors. The result, that Breakey was unable to make a significant number of rollers, meant that when his own supply ran out, people flocked to the imitators who realized that Breakey never went for a patent.
After that, Breakey more or less faded into obscurity. Minor improvements on his original design soon made it to the patent office, much like he should have done in the first place, and it wasn’t long before his invention was out of date and underperforming. South of the border, a Mr. Richard Croxton Adams invented a similar device while working for paint giant Sherwin Williams. His was patented in the States and Breakey was out of options. He apparently died penniless in Toronto, never able to make money off of an invention that revolutionized painting.