Computing at Waterloo: the people made the difference

Wes Graham known as "father of computing" at Waterloo

In 1967, Canadians celebrated our country’s 100th birthday and the future seemed full of potential.

But at the University of Waterloo that year, the future had already arrived, in the newly built math and computer building’s “Red Room,” with a computer so powerful it could do all the calculations necessary to send astronauts to the moon.

The IBM 360 Model 75, the biggest computer in Canada at the time, generated a lot of media attention. “It was like a cathedral to computing, with a priesthood of operators,” says Scott Campbell, curator of the University of Waterloo Computer Museum. “They imbued it with mystical powers doing magical things.”

But how did such a powerful computing beast manage to find its home on a relatively new and small Canadian campus?

That story involves many players, but Distinguished Professor Emeritus Don Cowan, who worked with the computer and knew its insides, says one person who deserves a great deal of credit is the late Wes Graham, the first director of the University’s computing centre.

Don Cowan

Don Cowan, Distinguished professor emeritus


Graham convinced Waterloo to buy bigger machines

“He was very persuasive,” Cowan says of Graham, who died in 1999. “He was able to convince the University that computing was important and we should buy these bigger machines, which we did.”

This year, a new supercomputer, named Graham in honour of the late director, began operating in the same vicinity as the old Red Room. Cowan thinks that’s a wonderful tribute. “Wes was a real leader. He provided leadership almost to the day he died in making things happen,” says Cowan.

Graham’s influence wasn’t just in getting computer hardware. He was known as the “father of computing” at Waterloo because he was instrumental in drawing talented students into computing and encouraging them to build software such as WATFOR, which put the University of Waterloo on the map as a budding technology powerhouse.

Wes Graham with a 60s era computer

Wes Graham, "Father of computing" at the University of Waterloo


Open attitude for students to use first computers

“His attitude toward students using computers was one of complete openness. He wanted them to use the computers in an appropriate way, but he encouraged them to use them as much as possible,” Cowan says.

The Fortran language compiler that came with IBM computers of the mid-1960s was slow and did not offer many useful debugging tools. So just before the arrival of the IBM 360/75, a team of students and staff was hired to a write a new Fortran compiler for the mainframe, to speed up its operations. A compiler takes human readable language and converts it into code that the computer can understand.

That compiler, called WATFOR, was hugely successful both inside and outside of the University. Soon, Graham was swamped with thousands of requests from people at institutions and businesses who wanted copies of WATFOR. It was quite expensive to keep up with the requests, so Graham, who had come to Waterloo from IBM, decided to start charging $300.

“People here did something different from other universities. That’s what stands out.”

Scott Campbell

Software company spinoffs

These developments spurred the growth of Waterloo as numerous software company spinoffs emerged from the campus. “It definitely changed the course of the city and the University,” Cowan says. “When I came to Waterloo (in 1960) the city only had about 20,000 people,” compared to the 133,000 residents now.

Scott Campbell says the historical lesson in the Graham story is that it’s the people and not the hardware or the technology that make the difference. Other institutions eventually got bigger computers. Student-oriented compilers were not that unusual back then. “But it’s what the people did with it,” Campbell says. “People here did something different from other universities. That’s what stands out.”