Computing pioneer Wes Graham: Inspiring the impossible

The innovator, entrepreneur and “father of computing” helped chart Waterloo’s path to the future

When math student Don Cowan (MSc ’61, PhD ’65) arrived at Waterloo, one of the first people he met was statistics professor Wes Graham. It was the beginning of a relationship that would last nearly 40 years. During that time, the two men would work to transform a small, unknown university into a globally recognized leader in computer science. And now, more than two decades after Graham’s death, Cowan and others are helping ensure the legacy of Waterloo’s “father of computing” lives on.

In 1962, Graham — an IBM computer expert — was appointed director of the University’s computing centre. Five years later, Cowan became the founding chair of Waterloo’s computer science department. Together with a group of committed students, faculty and staff, they turned Graham’s ideas into programs that revolutionized computer science education.

Wes Graham and colleagues in a computer lab

Wesley Graham (left) talking with an IBM representative while others unpack various components of a computer.

“Wes was able to inspire other people to do things. He’d throw out an idea and we’d throw bricks at it,” Cowan said. “And if we decided it was a good idea, then we’d give it a try. Most of the time, things worked out very well.”

Very well indeed. Graham and Cowan pursued government funding that brought Canada’s largest computer to Waterloo. They launched outreach programs that introduced thousands of secondary school students to computing. Graham also helped pave the way for a new kind of entrepreneurship at Waterloo.

Building on the success of WATFOR — groundbreaking software developed by Waterloo undergraduates that provided students with hands-on coding experience and immediate learning feedback — Graham and Ian McPhee (BMath ’73, MMath ’79, DMath ’11) launched WATCOM in 1981. WATCOM created educational software for personal computers while generating employment for students and a source of revenue for the University. It created a mutually beneficial model that hundreds of Waterloo spin-offs and startups would follow.

“Wes wasn't a developer himself,” McPhee said. “He didn't create any of the software. But he was the person who provided the environment where young people could do the things that more experienced people considered impossible.”

[Graham] was the person who provided the environment where young people could do the things that more experienced people considered impossible.

Ian McPhee, (BMath ’73, MMath ’79, DMath ’11)

Today, Graham still inspires people to do the impossible. After his death in 1999, Cowan, McPhee and other colleagues established the J.W. Graham Information Technology Trust, continuing Graham’s mission and pushing the boundaries of what computer science can achieve.

The Trust’s Graham Seed Fund (GSF) supports Waterloo’s strategic initiative to apply information technology to transform health care, a cause Graham himself championed as he wrestled with terminal cancer. Trustees McPhee, Cowan and Jim Welch (MMath ’69, PhD ’74) participate in the GSF grant proposals review. They hope this funding will allow recipients to create solutions to challenges in health care through collaborative, interdisciplinary partnerships with clinicians and providers.

In January 2023, the Trust announced the fund’s first 10 recipients, whose projects range from a mobile app to support those caring for people with dementia to a transdermal patch that painlessly tracks and treats diabetes. 

The Trust’s endowment continues to grow through the generosity of those who remember Wes Graham. And he would no doubt be proud to see how technology continues to change Waterloo — and the world — for the better.

Check out the ten Waterloo research projects that will receive funding to develop health-care solutions.