1984

The megaprojects

 

John Stubbs  and Jack Gray with the many volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary

Looking over the published Oxford English Dictionary, in preparation for UW work on its computerization, were John Stubbs of the history department and Jack Gray of English.

George Orwell, writing just after the Second World War, predicted that 1984 would be the year when Big Brother was everywhere. And his prediction came true, in a way, at Waterloo -- at least it seemed so. UW's omnipresent Big Brother was the Institute for Computer Research, which reached into all parts of campus to distribute electronic largesse and enlist faculty, staff and students in the movement towards high-tech unison. Oldthinkers were swept along in the rush, as one faculty after another appointed its first "associate dean (computing)", and even the library began marching in the same direction, with the news that it would soon close the "card" catalogue, replacing it with electronic access to books.

The excitement was highest in May, when big announcements kept coming, one on the heels of another. Oxford University Press had chosen Waterloo to manage the computerization of the Oxford English Dictionary -- yes! Digital Equipment Corporation would give UW $25 million worth of computing hardware over four years, including some machinery that hadn't even been invented yet -- yes! The Ontario government would provide millions of dollars toward the cost of a computer research building - yes! Hewlett-Packard would set up a major facility in the soon-to-be-a-reality research park on the north campus -- yes! (Well, no, actually, as things turned out; that one never came true; but there's no point in throwing ice water on the innocent enthusiasms of a year now long past, is there?)

As a troll, I'm not generally on the distribution list for the president's memos, an omission that gives me no sorrow whatever. I did, however, manage to pick up a copy of a page-and-a-half epistle that Doug Wright sent across the university on May 29. He spoke of "a number of exciting developments which will prove to be very important to the University of Waterloo" and of "appreciation to the many people whose efforts have helped to bring these developments about". In conversation, Wright was even more ebullient as he listed the OED, Digital, the building funds and Hewlett-Packard. "I never dreamed that we would get all four of them!" he chortled. "I might have been happy with just one!" Around that same time I remember overhearing a conversation in which somebody hinted to Wright that people had been critical of his many absences from campus, hustling funds and connections for the university in Toronto, Oxford and Tokyo. "I delivered, didn't I?" Wright shot back.

It took not just a president but an eighteen-wheeler to deliver the first load of Digital computing equipment, in early July. A committee in ICR was set up to decide who got the hardware: pretty much anybody, it seemed, who had a research project that might benefit "Digital, Waterloo, Canada, perhaps the world". And where will they all go? "Corridors, offices, washrooms," Eric Manning of ICR said airily. He went on to speak of the distant day when every Waterloo undergraduate would have a computer.

The Oxford project was, if anything, even more gratifying for Wright, who loved to talk about Waterloo's growing international presence. The announcement was delayed for months, making some people a little nervous, and the hundredth anniversary of the dear old OED came and went before finally the partnership was official. No money would change hands, it seemed; Waterloo would have to approach the usual granting agencies to cover the costs of its part of the project, until revenue started coming in from any software that was developed. The granting agencies obliged; work moved ahead on turning the stodgy dictionary into a database (the keyboarding was done in Hong Kong, if I remember correctly); and pretty soon there was something called the Centre for Text Research, plus high-grossing Open Text as a spinoff company. It was, if you'll excuse a pun from a troll who doesn't usually rely on wordplay, a textbook example of technology transfer for economic development.

About Hewlett-Packard, I want to point out that nothing to do with that research park has ever gone smoothly yet, and I believe nothing ever will. Why don't you give up on it, and leave the whole square mile to farmers and foxes and trolls? What happened in 1984 was that H-P said it would buy a corner of the north campus, along Fischer-Hallman Road, to be a major research and manufacturing base for its Canadian subsidiary. With that anchor, other companies would surely come along and the park would flourish. In fact, H-P never did build on its parallelogram of land, and eventually sold it back to the university for a song, and the ducks still land there in the undisturbed stubble. But thirteen years ago, things looked rosy.

That brings us to the fourth megaproject of May 1984, the construction of "the ICR building", as it was called for most of the year. Only in October did it get a local habitation and a name, the William G. Davis Centre for Computer Research, to be built on an awkward parcel of parking lots, roadways and grass on the east side of the campus. People had vaguely assumed that "ICR" would occupy the whole building for its mysterious purposes, but by the end of 1984 it was becoming clearer that "ICR" was just a label for some familiar people doing various computer-related things. A planning committee got to work and determined who was going to move into the new building: chiefly the computer science department, the electrical engineering department (it wasn't "electrical and computer engineering" yet, as the computer engineering program was just barely beginning), and the Engineering, Math and Science Library, which then occupied the fourth floor of the Math and Computer building.

The committee also held a competition to find an architect. The most recent new building on campus had been Environmental Studies II, which can most charitably be called "undistinguished", and people such as Larry Richards, the director of the architecture school, were saying that if Waterloo were claiming to be world-class in computer research, the building had better be world-class to match. (At the end of 1984, Federation Hall was finished, and Richards deigned to say that it was "well above average" for architectural quality.) A concept submitted by Mathers & Haldenby was chosen for the Davis Centre, featuring two long "interior streets" and some other novel features. The users wanted the building ready by the fall of 1986, which was, said vice-president Tom Brzustowski, "extra ordinary, unheard of, absolutely impossible unless one approaches it by techniques that are novel to us". That's precisely what they did: literally, they started digging a hole while the building was still being designed, started pouring concrete while it was still being designed, started putting up walls while it was still being designed. Only when the place was finally finished could anybody see exactly what it was going to be; but that's an other story that I think I won't tell just today, thank you very much.

Let me mention one other thing about that memo that Doug Wright sent out at the end of May. He gave a huge amount of the credit for the megaprojects to "the areas of responsibility carried by Dr. E. L. Holmes and Mr. J. S. Dellandrea", and announced that the two of them were getting new titles in honour of the occasion. Holmes became "dean of research" rather than director; Dellandrea, also a director until then, became "vice-president, university development". He broke out champagne for his staff to celebrate.

The Davis Centre was not going to solve all of the university's space problems, certainly not all right away. For one thing, it was going to wipe out the biggest parking lot. That difficulty was solved -- relocated, anyway -- when the university announced that it had bought a factory building on Phillip Street from Waterloo Manufacturing Ltd. and would move some departments into it. The new building, soon dubbed East Campus Hall to reflect the fact that it wasn't on campus at all, came with a swath of empty space beyond the railway tracks that was turned into the new location of parking lot B.

When the dean of environmental studies crowed that "We've bought ourselves a park," though, he didn't mean Phillip Street, he meant the rights to live and work in Presqu'ile Provincial Park on Lake Ontario, a field station that gave ES students and researchers all sorts of new opportunities, including the chance to freeze nearly to death on a sand-spit in February. (And, I might add, it got a few more of them to stay away from Laurel Creek, leaving the trolls in relative peace; but I don't suppose they cared one way or the other.)

As for indoor space, 1984 was the year that the university acquired seven portable buildings, something not seen on campus for more than a decade, since the Campus Centre and Needles Hall had been finished. Mostly it was graduate students who got to occupy the new generation of portables: three in the engineering quadrangle (which seriously affected its status as the best place on campus to throw a frisbee), two near Math and Computer, two for the earth sciences department next to Physics.

I have other fragments of memory from that year, of course, such as the crocodile tears that were shed when the math faculty computing facility got rid of its PDP-11 computer with punched paper tape input and output, or the real tears that were shed at the death of Ken Fryer, one of the earliest and certainly most beloved faculty members in mathematics. (He'd been a mainstay of FASS in the early years and of countless parties thereafter, as I remember, and a toast or two was drunk in his memory at the invitation-only soirée that marked the grand opening of Fed Hall.)

Besides computer engineering, there were two new academic programs of note in 1984, arts administration and "society, technology and values". The faculty of science created a Foundation, modelled on the Descartes Foundation in math, to promote science education, largely through giving out scholarships. Students created a reserve fund for expansion of the overcrowded Campus Centre. The faculty of human kinetics and leisure studies asked for approval to change its name to "applied human studies", but was turned down. Oh, and the president of the faculty association, Bob Needham, called for binding arbitration as part of a new faculty grievance procedure. Some things never change, say I, watching the scene at Waterloo over the years from my comfortable den by the creek.

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