Another Arrow in the heart of Canadian computing

It goes without saying that the Arrow super-jet aircraft makes a more spectacular subject than does the FP6000.

The FP6000 you ask? What the devil was an FP6000? Well, the FP6000 was a major breakthrough in computers just as the Arrow was a breakthrough in airplanes. The big difference was that while the Arrow was killed because of a Canadian government that was terrified by the U.S.A., the FP6000 was killed by a Canadian industry that idolized the U.S.A. (Nothing changes!)

Sometime in the late ’50s or early ’60s, legend has it that a gaggle of extremely talented ex-U of T Ferranti-Packard people designed a computer based on the best features of the parent Ferranti’s Pegasus and Orion. It also used features from the shatteringly advanced Atlas computer installed in the British atomic energy premises. After some fancy footwork by various Ferranti-Packard staff to overcome management’s resistance (including some under the counter work), a computer was born and christened the FP6000.

To say this machine was a knockout is an understatement of great proportions, as it made IBM’s offerings look like they came from Noddy’s Workshop (rumour has it that Noddy did work at IBM for quite a while). However, a major design flaw was caused by the choice of 6 bit characters instead of 8 bits – again legend has it that the choice was the result of using a “bitometer.” With a machine of such awesome power being made in Canada one would suppose Canadian industry would welcome it with open arms – after all, were not the Germans supporting their computer industry and did not the Yanks always order their own?

But in a mighty show of national pride and support a grand total of only six were shipped. One to the Federal Reserve Bank in New York (amazement – a sale to the Yanks), SaskPower bought one, Department of National Defence put one into Halifax, one went to Scotland (to be brought back to Regina as a time-sharing enterprise), one to Ferranti at West Gorton, England, and one was installed in the Toronto Stock Exchange. IBM tried to replace the latter in the early ’70s but found to their horror that the FP6000 was more powerful than the brand new 360 machine they offered to TSE. (The 360s were essentially an 8-bit version of the FP6000 and at one time used the same manuals.)

So what happened to the FP6000? It was not broken up – and this is where the story really starts. The relatively large emerging British computer company ICL (a new company formed out of ICT), was looking for something that it could make instead of buying Univac CPUs that it bundled with its peripherals. As they were already re-engineering the purchased FP6000, they bought the Ferranti-Packard computer department, including the dream machine. (Sound familiar?) Within a year the repackaged FP6000 and re-engineered peripheral interface, now called the ICT1904, was selling well.

The 1904 was followed by the 1905 and in 1968 the 1903A and some smaller machines. They sold in their hundreds and thousands. The “1900 Series” eventually went from the small 1901A to the big 1906A, which were roughly equivalent to the then-current IBM 360 series. The major difference was the FP6000-based design allowed any of its several operating systems to run on practically any 1900 Series machine. Those who remember conversion and the horrendous costs moving from an IBM 360 to a larger 360 (or even changing the operating system), will appreciate that powerful feature.

Sad story? Yes it is, but then there are more to come. It will not be long before Corel, Hummingbird, ATI and a few more are lost to us. It may take a little time but eventually it will happen. So you Canadian industrialists, financial institutions and potential buyers, why not stick your thumbs in your pant tops, throw back your shoulders and declare that you will buy Canadian when you can – and to hell with NAFTA, Japan, China and the USA. On the other hand why not stick your thumb back where it’s been for decades – well, it is more peaceful in that position after all.

Robinson has been involved with high-tech Canadian start-up companies