Pioneer program gets world notice

My previous article outlined how I went about acquiring a powerful computer at the University of Manitoba as a prelude to establishing its first-ever Department of Computer Science (CS).

As I started forming the department, my strategy, apart from offering a variety of service courses to groups such as engineers and mathematicians, was to also establish a Master’s degree in CS, based on a thesis, along with a strong research thrust addressing some of the problems of the day. To do this I hired academic and support staff with a wide variety of disciplines, people with vision. We then initiated a wide-ranging research program which attracted significant funding, as well as curious researchers from all over the world.

Dr. Carol Abraham joined us from Australia. He developed one of the early systems that enabled multiple applications to be run simultaneously — a.k.a. time sharing. Research was done on computer networks, with computers of various kinds attached in Montreal, the Atomic Energy Research facility in Pinawa, Man., nursing stations at a local hospital, non-IBM computers in the Medical School, and on occasion at conferences in Vancouver, Banff and Houston, as well as an attachment to a Digital Equipment PDP9 which, in its turn, was controlling a Cyclotron in the Physics Department.

This latter linkage was one of the early developments in “real time” computing. The Cyclotron fed the PDP9, which filtered the data and passed it to the 360/65 for number crunching. Results were sent back to the PDP9 for visual display, so that physicists could modify the Cyclotron experiment instantaneously. All this was done while students were pushing through hundreds of programs, and all with minimal memory — the computer at the time had initially 128k words of memory, later 256k words.

Dr. Brodin joined us from the French Aeronautical Institute. Dr. Jan Blatny came from being head of Radio Engineering at the Technical University of Brno in what was then Czechoslovakia, to which he later returned to form a Department of CS, also building an IBM 360-compatible computer which was still functioning when I visited there 20 or so years later. Another researcher helped two pathologists in the Medical School to develop a computer-assistant for teaching haematology. Yet another experimented with speech recognition.

A lawyer, Steve Skelly, developed a system for computerizing Manitoba Statutes while they were going through the legislature, matching them for compatibility with existing statutes. He also worked with a Florida-based company on early desktop publishing and was later hired by the Federal department of Justice, rising to become senior Assistant Deputy Minister there.

Richard Morgan, a classics scholar, used the computer to try and decipher documents left intriguingly by the early Minoan Mediterranean civilization. A staff member with a degree in German did early work on thesauruses. My own work included pioneering in hospital information systems and in generalized program development using extremely small memory.

One item I definitely advocated was the ability of graduates to comprehend systems analysis, where multiple requirements have to be included in a suite of related application programs. To do this I developed a systems language, which enabled students to create a system. It was successfully used with students and then with senior managers at the Banff School of Advanced Management, as well as with senior managers in the U.S.A. Macmillan of Canada asked if I could develop the notes given at Banff in to a book, which I did, the book was also published in the United States.

Teaching was not limited just to the University. I was asked by the CTV network to develop a series of 10 presentations for its University of the Air series, which I did (one of the 10 was also used by United Airlines as part of its training program. CBC also asked me to develop four presentations for their Schools Broadcast network. Hodson is an Ottawa-based IT industry veteran who has helped develop Canadian computer science programs. Contact him at