Into the computer era

Large room needed to hold computer equipment

In the fall, the university boasted that its computer equipment had cost more than the building in which it was housed. Peering into the 1403 printer is Richard Shirley; Marian Rankin is seated at centre in front of the IBM 7040; Sandra Hope is at rear; Mike Doyle, reading a sheet of printout, stands in front of the IBM 1401; the name of the man using the card reader at right seems to be lost in the mists of time.

Showing some visitor around the University of Waterloo one day in 1964, the president, Gerry Hagey, made sure to include the third floor of the "Physics and Mathematics" building in the tour. That was where your seven-year-old university housed its computing centre, and computers were novel and exciting things in that year. Hagey pulled the door open, strode in, and came to an astonished halt in front of the latest shiny blue box. "Did we buy that?" he demanded. Yes we did, he was assured, and the president gulped and carried on with the tour. I suspect it was the last time the president of your university seriously thought he could know exactly what the computer scientists were buying and doing. Things were starting to move too fast in the brave new technical world. We trolls have never felt much need for electronic brains, although I do find my e-mail connection useful occasionally, but I appreciate that humans do need such things.

By 1964, it had been twenty years since the building of the Harvard Mark I, and fifteen years since the first IBM machines came onto the market. Computers were coming onto the market with brand names like Burroughs, Honeywell, Univac, GE, Philco - you remember. Or maybe you don't. Anyway, the information age was busting out all over: that year brought touch-tone telephones, Social Insurance numbers and video recorders. And your university established a "department of systems and procedures", whose responsibilities were to include "automation using data processing and computer equipment".

Up on the third floor of what you'd now call just the Physics building, the computer room was tended by the likes of Sandra Hope and Richard Shirley, and the equipment was the very latest. Two actual computers were at the centre of things: an IBM 1401 and the new and very impressive IBM 7040. Well, when I say new, I mean that it had been introduced as recently as April 1963; one-year-old computer technology was considered pretty sophisticated then. (The old-fashioned IBM 1620 was to be "used solely by undergraduates".) The 7040 "will perform up to 62,500 ten-digit additions per second", a proud announcement said. "This is comparable to a full week's work using a desk calculator." Said to be worth more than a million dollars, the 7040 mostly used transistors, although there were still some vacuum tubes in it - I suppose you also can't remember vacuum tubes, and the way people would take the tubes from their tabletop radios down to the corner store to have them tested in machines that are probably antiques by now. The 7040, like other computers of its time, was hot in a literal sense as well as a metaphorical one. One of my troll colleagues at another university (British Columbia, if you must know) claims to remember a class tour, round about that year, in which so many students crowded into the computer room that their collective body heat raised the ambient temperature high enough to crash the system. I don't remember that happening at Waterloo, but the room was stressful enough in other ways, what with the clacking of the 1403 printer and the whir of the card-reader, interrupted all too frequently by unhappy silence when a bright yellow "validity check" light came on.

Wes Graham was in charge of Waterloo's computing with the help of colleagues like Don Cowan and (after he finished his master's degree in 1964) Paul Dirksen, and was calling himself a professor of "computer science" by that time, although officially CS was still an arm of the department of mathematics. It was under his aegis that, over a hectic three months in the summer of 1965, four students would write the original WATFOR compiler for the IBM 7040 - WATFOR being short, obviously, for WATerloo FORtran. It was the original "Wat" acronym, soon to be followed by Watfiv, Watcom, Watfund, WatCard, and (for a brief horrible time, before sanity prevailed) "UniWat" as the nickname of your university. Even UniWat, come to think of it, is better than "Winston Churchill University", which is one name that was considered for the place during a period of collective in security in 1964-65. Eventually the authorities dropped the definite article from the name of "the University of Waterloo" and let it go at that. And soon Jack Adams, the director of information services, would establish "UW", pronounced (but not spelled) "U of W", as the standard abbreviation.

As I was saying, and I don't know why you let me get off on these digressions, Wes Graham was in charge of computing at Waterloo, and it was clear to him, if not yet to many other people, that computing and the future were synonymous. He wrote an article in the October 1964 issue of Professional Engineer and Engineering Digest on "Computer Science in Engineering Education", and perhaps made a few converts. But it would be a long time before computers played a very large part in what engineers did. Ray Anthes, chairman of the electrical engineering department, mentioned "electronics" but not specifically computers in an interview earlier that year. "It has been unfortunate," Anthes said, "that with the rapid advance of scientific knowledge, many of our most talented students are being attracted into the more glamorous fields of space communications and satellite development. Too many students overlook the fact that there are many challenging and rewarding opportunities in the lesser publicized fields such as electric power engineering, commercial equipment design and the usual point to point communications."

I must not let you believe that everything at Waterloo in 1964 was computerized and technical. Your university hosted the Ontario Modern Language Teachers Association that fall, there was a Summer Institute of German Studies, and a seminar in "field sales management" drew dozens of participants at a stiff fee of $195 for three days of information. How much was $195? You be the judge: students in the new physical education program paid a tuition fee of $485 per year - not per term, per year. (And the starting salary for faculty members in 1964-65 was $7,400. Newcomers to Waterloo's faculty that year included Roman Dubinski in English, Jim Kalbfleisch in mathematics, Tom Fahidy in chemical engineering, and Robin Banks in psychology. Ernie Holmes, later to be dean of research, arrived as assistant to the dean of engineering, and Wally Delahey came as a young instructor for phys ed courses.)

Of course the biggest construction project under way was the Arts Library, rising to seven storeys at a total price of some $2.3 million. The science complex ($3.5 million) was finished just as 1964 came to an end, and the university's brave leaders decided to press on with more construction. First they let a contract for $2.3 million for "Arts II", to provide space for classrooms, offices and "geography laboratories". That would be the building you now know as Environmental Studies I, although a plaque in its lobby still murmurs that it's officially the Isaiah Bowman Building. On the heels of that project, the university announced that it would build some residences of its own - up to that point, the only student residences were attached to the church colleges, and a housing crunch in Waterloo was leading to high prices, bad feelings, and the construction of some pretty tacky streetscapes in the Lakeshore Village direction. So Ball Brothers of Kitchener got the contract to build the first phase of "a unique three-year project designed to accommodate 1200 students": in other words, Village I.

For all the construction that was taking place, growth in programs and people was even faster. One result: the university made a deal with Major Holdings, the big development firm from which the original campus had been bought a few years earlier, to erect a building at the corner of Columbia and Phillip Streets, halfway to the Yukon. It would be the home of the psychology department from the end of 1964 until the on-campus Psych building was erected a decade later. And, as you presumably know, your university has con tinued to use it for other purposes. It now houses the distance and continuing education office, and also the university archives, where I'm fond of dropping by in the midnight hours (locks don't stop trolls) to browse and chuckle over the human version of history. History - you think Waterloo is old at 40? You think St. Jerome's College, which marked its centenary in that year of 1964, is old? I'll tell you what's old: Laurel Creek is old, and the trolls who live beside it are old, and the good black soil of Waterloo County, where the Carolinian forest meets the boreal, is old. Universities are young things.

Young, and sometimes foolish. How else do you explain the "clown gown", burgundy red and not-found-in-nature green, that was prescribed in 1964 as the regalia for PhD graduates from Waterloo? Ron Mullin, who had received the first degree ever granted by your university in 1960, finished his doctorate that year and was somehow persuaded to pose in the gown for a photo that was published in the university's public relations Quarterly. I realize there is a folktale around the university to the effect that the red-and-green gown was suggested by the members of the regalia committee, or whatever it was called, by way of a practical joke after they'd been celebrating a little too freely, and that nobody on the university senate realized until it was too late. But you'll never get me to tell you whether that's true or not.

One other interesting thing happened in 1964, by the way, and that was the creation of something called an Institute of Design. In one of the most improbable examples of cross-fertilization I've ever seen, the faculty of engineering and the Doon School of Fine Arts (which was affiliated with the university at that time, if you'll remember) gave birth to the institute. I don't want to push the parenthood metaphor too far, but something called the National Design Council played a sort of midwife role in establishing the institute - "to undertake fundamental research related to design and to carry out individual design projects", which covers a lot of territory. Several faculty members were deeply involved, with George Soulis, then in mechanical engineering, probably being best entitled to be called the godfather. The Institute has long since passed into history, but it's no coincidence that Soulis later became chair of a department that bore part of the same name, "systems design engineering".

Design is rather an alien concept to a troll; trolls are natural beings, not inclined to mess about with the world as we find it. But humans are, and perhaps university-educated humans most of all. In an extreme case of messing about, the university sent a total of 29 co-op students to Maple, north of Toronto, to help the Canadian National Railways design and build an enormous "freight classification yard". Even sexier than the freight yard was the prospect of "Expo 67", still three years away and being breathlessly awaited as Canada's first world's fair. The Expo pavilions and other features, on a couple of islands in the St. Lawrence River at Montréal, wouldn't just be built, they'd be designed, and the university, through its new Institute, was going to play a role in designing two of the pavilions. In the end, the number rose to three, with the Waterloo role being the most important for "Kaleidoscope", a pavilion celebrating colour and promoting six chemical companies, which was created by a team headed by Waterloo's Vir Handa. But 1967 was still a long way off as 1964 came to an end.

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