IT visionary gave Waterloo global renown

He was a man whose passion for IT was rivalled only by his commitment to making the technology more accessible. He was a man whose leadership skills inspired new ways of thinking about the role of computers. But most importantly, James Wesley (Wes) Graham was the pioneer who put the University of Waterloo, Ont. (UW) on the technology roadmap.

A former systems engineer at IBM Corp., Graham (a native of Copper Cliff, Ont.) came to UW in 1959 as an assistant mathematics professor. His knack for problem-solving led to him becoming the first director for Waterloo’s computer centre when it was established in 1962.

In the sixties, computers were expansive, unwieldy and non-user friendly machines; Graham’s mindset held that computing technology should be efficient, user-friendly and widely available of all Waterloo students, not just those studying computer science. To that end, Graham began the arduous process of developing software that would make teaching computer programming a whole lot easier.

The end result was the Waterloo Fortarn Compiler (WATFOR). Developed by Graham, a team of four students and a junior faculty member, the technology not only made U of W’s microcomputers easier to operate, but attracted international recognition and set the foundation for the University’s reputation for IT teaching and research.

Don Cowan, director and distinguished professor emeritus at Waterloo’s School of Computer Science, remembered the affable Graham as both a visionary and an inspirational leader.

“He was a real leader and a spawner of ideas,” Cowan recalled. “He would come up with some really interesting ideas and then he would bring together a team of people to work on it.”

Many of the software systems developed at Waterloo – including language compilers for C, Cobol, Pascal and Basic – were created under Graham’s watch. Graham is also largely credited for connecting microcomputers together and creating one of the first local area networks (LANs) for PCs in Waterloo MicroNET and Waterloo JANET.

In the seventies, Graham set the groundwork for a computer-studies curriculum to be used in Ontario’s secondary schools. He was also responsible for creating a rudimentary PC for use in high schools along with early versions of word processing, spreadsheet and database software.

“In those days the concept of word processors didn’t exist,” Cowan explained. “He came along with a lot of extremely exciting ideas about making computers widely accessible to people, starting with programming and developing other tools that boosted productivity.”

By the early 1980’s many of UW’s computer science graduates were interested in starting their own enterprises. Graham was ahead of that entrepreneurial curve and assisted three of his former pupils in creating WATCOM (later known as iAnywhere), an educational software developer. He set the research and development model for relationships between the University and subsequent spin-off technology companies, including Waterloo Maple Inc. and Open Text Corp. iAnywhere was purchased in a deal by software integrator Sybase Inc. in 1994.

Before he passed away in 1999, Graham’s accomplishments were widely acknowledged. He was invested as an officer of the Order of Canada and recognized as a Distinguished Professor Emeriti.

A UW award (the J.W. Graham Medal in Computing and Innovation) was created to “recognize the leadership and many innovative contributions made to the University of Waterloo and to the Canadian Computer Industry.”

His legacy as the “father of computing at Waterloo” stands as a testament to his contributions to IT in Canada.

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