Alberta inventor, businessman, innovator still working hard at 90

Alberta inventor, businessman, innovator still working hard at 90

At 90 years old, Alex Palynchuk gets up every morning and goes to work at his own engineering firm. And as far as he's concerned, he won't be retiring anytime soon.

In fact, Palynchuk loves his work — but he hadn't always wanted to be an engineer.

"I first wanted to be a pilot," he told CBC's Radio Active on Friday. "Then, I wanted to build race cars.

"Somehow I decided I was going to be an engineer."

Palynchuk said the decision came to him suddenly when he was sitting in the passenger seat of a gasoline tanker truck at 14 years old.

"There was a fellow in bare feet walking across the road," he said, "and the driver made a remark that he should get out and get some education.

"Something snapped, and that's when I decided."

'I'm a better innovator'

After some encouragement from his family in Lindbergh, Alta., Palynchuk went to school in a single-room school house and read everything he could.

He always liked fixing things, and because his dad had rheumatoid arthritis, he found himself doing things that older kids would normally do.

Palynchuk put his knack for fixing and building things to work for his family again in 1953, once his brother was diagnosed with polio.

His brother, who was paralyzed, was using an iron lung to breathe and was unable to leave the hospital. In just 10 days, Palynchuk designed a mechanical bed that rocked to help his brother learn to breathe on his own again.

Palynchuk's brother survived and went on to practise as a lawyer for more than two decades after the ordeal.

Then a consultant, it was pretty clear that Palynchuk wasn't quite in his element. "I didn't want to make a living as a consultant," he said. "I'm a better innovator than I am a businessman."

Pivotal invention

While working at a pipe mill called Canadian Phoenix, he had a conversation with a couple of other workers about sucker rods — 25-foot-long rods that connect an oil pump with pistons underneath the ground to pump oil out.

The others were complaining about how the rods, which at the time were straight, kept breaking. One of them joked about how they should be coiled.

Palynchuk ran with that idea and created the coiled sucker rod. It was a huge success.

"When I started out, I didn't realize what I was getting into," he said. "There was no product, no way to transport it. There was no way to install it."

But the coiled sucker rod became the preferred technology and is still used today.

Palynchuk has mixed feelings when he sees those rods today, whether they're on the back of a truck or being used in wells in Alberta. 

"I have mixed feelings because I didn't make any money on it," he joked. The invention did land him an induction into the Canadian Petroleum Hall of Fame, however.

"That gives me some satisfaction."

Palynchuk insists he doesn't have any big secret about how he's stayed so active in his 90 years. "I think that about 30-35 per cent is genetic and the rest is lifestyle," he said.

He chalks up his longevity to eating well, exercising, working at a young age and not smoking. He said he did try smoking when he was nine, but didn't continue because he thought it was "stupid."

But most of all, Palynchuk said the adversity he's faced has made him a stronger person going forward. "I've had some pretty severe business and personal setbacks," he said.

"Well, you've got to deal with them, write them off, look ahead, and don't live in the past."