Toronto Invents: The Paint Roller
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Toronto Invents: The Paint Roller

A cautionary tale about protecting your invention.

We look at concepts and products that, for better and worse, were developed in Toronto.

Photo by Denise Krebs via {a href=""}Flickr{/a}.

The origins of the paint roller make for a sad story. Around 1940, a Torontonian named Norman Breakey devised a time-saving painting tool that allowed anyone to produce a smooth finish. He peddled his invention to local hardware stores and painters, but neglected to patent it. The result: plenty of imitations, patents that benefitted others, and the disappearance of Mr. Breakey into the mists of time.

Prior to the invention of the paint roller, house painting was a chore best left to professionals who had the time and dexterity to create a smooth finish with their brushes. Early do-it-yourselfers may have enjoyed a painting experience like the one outlined in The Canadian Inventions Book:

Take a paint brush in your right hand, or your left hand if you are left handed, or both hands if it is a big brush. Dip the brush into a can of paint and raise it above your head, being careful not to let the paint roll down your arm. Dab it on the ceiling, repeat the process hundreds of times. Then—take a bath.

Breakey devised a cylinder covered in fabric that picked up more paint than a brush. He approached A.B. Caya Fabrics executive Tom Hamilton for advice on what type of fabric to use, an encounter Hamilton recalled for the Globe and Mail in 1984:

He was a white haired gent who was full of purpose. He wanted my opinion on the best kind of fabric that offered a stiff bristly nap. I asked for what purpose, and he said “For rolling paint.” I scratched my head at that but he resolutely went on and described to me something with a handle shaped like a “7” that would hold a cardboard, fabric-covered cylinder. “If my theory is right this thing will revolutionize painting in Canada,” he said.

Well, the best thing I could think of was that bristly green mohair velour that was used to cover railway touring coaches in those days. So I sold him a bolt of that, told him how to cut it on the bias, suggested some glues and away he went, beaming out the door. Later he came by and thanked me for my advice. He gave me one of his original rollers and a tray that had been hammered out by a local tinsmith. Neither of us knew then how big his invention would get to be.

Left: advertisement, the Toronto Star, April 27, 1945. Right: part of an advertisement for Aikenhead's Hardware, the Toronto Star, May 30, 1946.

Unfortunately, Breakey lacked the money to produce a significant supply of rollers on his own. Attempts to persuade investors to back him failed. Meanwhile, other manufacturers seized on the idea and produced their own versions of the product. Other inventors who tinkered with Breakey’s design secured patents. In fact, south of the border, engineer Richard Croxton Adams, a descendent of two presidents, received a patent for a device he claimed to have developed in his basement in 1940 while working for paint giant Sherwin Williams. Coincidence?

At least one account claims Breakey, a Manitoba native who moved to Toronto as a child, died poor and unsung. No histories of the paint roller list the date of his death. He went without public recognition until 1967, when he was listed in both the inventors volume of McClelland & Stewart’s Canadian Centennial Library and a Maclean’s feature called “Who’s Who of Canadian What’s His Names.”

Breakey may have been under-heralded in life, but his work has aided generations of painters.

Additional material from The Canadian Inventions Book by Janis Nostbakken and Jack Humphrey (Toronto: Greey de Pencier Publications, 1976), the February/March 2009 edition of The Beaver, the June 9, 1984 edition of the Globe and Mail, the September 4, 2000 edition of Maclean’s, and the March 13, 1988 edition of the New York Times.