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Building a world-changer

In 1957, innovation and entrepreneurship brought University of Waterloo into being, as a group of business leaders imagined a new university built to tackle some of the world’s most daunting challenges.

It was the age of the Cold War and the space race, when a single computer filled a room. Discoveries in science, medicine and engineering were coming fast and furious. Industry leaders in Kitchener-Waterloo knew moving forward meant more than just training people in the technology of the day.

The three founders of Waterloo

Waterloo builders: J. Gerald Hagey (left), Ira G. Needles(centre) and Reverend Cornelius Siegfried (right).  

"The greatest product which we will realize from our electronic era is the better educated race,” said Ira Needles, president of B.F. Goodrich Canada, in a 1956 speech that helped lay the foundation for the University of Waterloo. “This applies to all fields — not just the field of science.”

Together with J. Gerald Hagey, Waterloo’s founding president, and Rev. Cornelius Siegfried, who brought St. Jerome’s into federation with Waterloo, Needles helped lay the foundation for a new kind of purpose-driven education.

Innovative solutions, innovative education

Waterloo was built to teach people to think in new ways. That meant reaching out across disciplines and faculties, sharing resources, and sparking new directions in research. It meant working hand-in-hand with industry, letting people own their intellectual property and the success that came from commercialization.

Constructed on a foundation of science, engineering and math, Waterloo has also become a leader in environmental education, architecture, the arts, psychology and human health.

The Chemical Engineering building, now Engineering 1, under construction

Chemistry and chemical engineering building, (now called Douglas Wright Engineering) under construction in 1958.

A chemical engineering building was the first to rise in 1958, followed by a physics and mathematics building a year later. Waterloo’s first arts building opened in 1962, the same year the young university graduated its first class of engineers.  In 1967, Waterloo became home to the country’s only English-language school of optometry.

Wes Graham

Mathematics professor Wes Graham.

In the early 1960s, mathematics professor Wes Graham made Waterloo among the first universities in the world to give undergraduates access to state-of-the-art computers that at the time filled a room. That spirit of risk-taking and innovation caught fire with students and researchers alike, helping to define this region’s enduring global identity as a technology powerhouse.


After Hagey’s retirement in 1969, President Burt Matthews continued to take Waterloo in new directions, adding the world’s first department of kinesiology, and programs in emerging areas including earth sciences, clinical psychology and accounting.

Ideas start here

Partnerships with government, with the private sector, with alumni and with institutions around the world exemplify Waterloo’s impact and influence.

Over the years, millions of dollars for research have come from governments, from granting agencies and industries to support laboratories and thinkers. Spinoff companies founded by recent graduates or moonlighting professors helped drive a software- and hardware-building revolution, turning this area into what many now dub “the Silicon valley of the North.” The phrase “technology transfer” became a Waterloo staple.

With recognized excellence in co-operative education, Waterloo understands intimately the importance of connecting industry and ideas. Students infuse the companies that employ them with fresh approaches and leading edge research. They gain valuable real-world work experience, and a salary that makes education more accessible.

Taking Waterloo's message to the world

Successive president's Downey and Wright

​James Downey (left) and Doug Wright (right).

A powerful advocate for such activity was Doug Wright, who became the university's third president. Wright travelled far and wide to tell governments, corporate leaders and international industrialists that what the world needed was more highly trained workers, and that as many of them as possible should come from Waterloo.

David Johnston

David Johnston, Waterloo's 5th President, now serving as the 28th Governor General of Canada.

James Downey served as president 1993-99, and was followed by David Johnston, whose term saw the multi-million dollar Campaign Waterloo and a new emphasis on major projects involving “partnerships” with industry, governments and alumni. The long-anticipated research and technology park on the north campus opened, and was named in Johnston’s honour after he became Canada’s 28th Governor General. Private and civic support provided a campus for the architecture school in Cambridge, 30 kilometres from the main Waterloo site.


As 2009 began, a health sciences campus — home to a new school of pharmacy — opened in downtown Kitchener. An engineering campus opened in the United Arab Emirates the same year, and a digital campus opened in Stratford, Ont. in 2010. In the Sixth Decade Plan for the years 2007-17, the university detailed plans for further expansion outside Canada.

Since the arrival of President Feridun Hamdullahpur, Waterloo's global influence has grown, through partnership agreements with institutions in Nanjing and Suzhou China, Brazil, Germany, and Saudi Arabia.

With an impact felt around the globe, Waterloo is consistently ranked among the top universities in Canada and the world. Driven from its very beginning to answer challenges and create solutions, this is a university dedicated to moving the world forward, one innovation at a time.