Back in World War II Calvin “Kelly” Gotlieb was part of a team of Canadians asked to design radio proximity fuses for artillery shells so they could be detonated when they were close to enemy aircraft. Little did he know at the time that the project would be the launching pad for a career that has earned Gotlieb the title of father of Canadian computing.
In order for the project to be successful the team needed to launch shells at trajectories close to 90 degrees, an angle for which there were no range tables since most artillery was launched much closer to the curve of the earth. “That combination of building electronics into a small size and doing calculations….well (that is) computers,” he said during a recent interview from his Toronto home.
After the war he returned to his birthplace and the University of Toronto where he got his Ph.D. in physics, basing his doctoral thesis on the classified research he did during the war. By the end of the decade he had helped set up the university’s department of computer science, a place where he still teaches today at the age of 82.
Computers existed before the war but they were all analogue. “They were limited in their accuracy,” Gotlieb explained. “It was quite clear that if you wanted to get more accurate…you needed digital machines.” The first digital machines used huge relays (on/off switches). “So they were big and they were slow and they broke down a lot,” Gotlieb laughed. “What you had was a lot of small breakthroughs but there was a clear realization that you needed a digital machine, you had to go from mechanical relays to electronic…and (have) something that would store a digit that was very small.”
An early storage technique was using little dots (on/or off) on cathode ray tubes. At the U of T Joseph Kates did his Ph. D. thesis (Gotlieb was his supervisor) on experimenting with cathode ray tubes for fast storage and eventually the UTEC (University of Toronto Electronic Computer) was built.
People today are used to the immense power and miniature size of today’s computers, so it can be hard for them to imagine how far the technology has come. The memories, though not as fresh in his mind as they used to be, after all it was half a century ago, still provoke laughter when Gotlieb reminisces about how right IT pioneers were about predicting some things, and how wrong they were about others. IBM’s Thomas J. Watson Sr. was often attributed with saying the world would need only a few computers, and Bill Gates with saying 64k of RAM would be all anyone would ever need.
“Nobody, but nobody, dreamed that computers would replace typewriters,” Gotlieb said. The U of T bought the second computer ever sold (the first was a UNIVAC sold to the American Census Bureau) “But that computer filled a room bigger than this one,” he said waving his hand across his living room. The idea that the computer would evolve into the desktop was not on anyone’s radar. Another misconception is the speed at which early computer technology progressed.
“The strange thing about all this is about 15 years later, when I was all in computers…I was chairman of the university grants committee so they reactivated my (military) clearance and I then made a number of visits around to defense establishments… (and) whatever we had done in the war looked as if it had happened last week,” he said. “There had been no advances or developments.”
Slow as progress was, Gotlieb was bang on with his own predictions about the benefits of computing for Canadian businesses.
“I always knew computers were going to be terribly important, there was never any doubt in my mind,” he said. Using computers “for calculations in physics and medicine and astronomy, I was very early in this, I (also) knew they were going to be important in business.” A proud legacy of Canadian IT is this early understanding of the potential of computing, Gotlieb said, though he admits there is still grumbling heard in Canada.
“People have always said…’Where are [Canadians] in the computer industry? We don’t make computers and Bill Gates makes the software system,'” Gotlieb said. “The author of The Computer Revolution in Canada, John Vardalas, said we in Canada were among the first to recognize where computers might be used. I think this is correct. We had the first computer traffic control system (Kates did that), airline reservation application (Air Canada) and I did some of the first computerized timetables,” Gotlieb said. “We were very quick and early to recognize all the places where computers could come in, we did research on (computing) and we taught (computing)…so what we knew got disseminated and the consequences is that computer use is right up there at the top.”
“So our computers went into insurance companies and very early into the banks…so we have been very adaptive and…we have not missed out.”
The history of computers in Canada “is not a sad story,” he said.
Along the way Gotlieb helped start up CIPS (Canadian Information Processing Society) in 1958 and was a founding member of the International Federation for Information Processing (IFIP). In 1994 the IFIP awarded him the Isaac L. Auerbach Medal for his contributions to computing at the U of T and his tireless promotion of IT. He is also very active with the Association of Computing Machinery (ACM) and is co-chair of its award committee. In 1996 he received the Order of Canada.
And Gotlieb’s predictions for the future?
“Will [computation] ever be fast enough to correspond to the 10 billion neurons in our head? I don’t know. I almost hope it won’t but…I don’t want to play down AI (artificial intelligence),” he said.
Give a computer “a small context and that machine is going to get pretty damn good.” But the human experience is one of limitless context. Gotlieb told a story of being in his condo’s fitness room with his two-year-old grandson, who was rolling around a ten-pound dumbbell. “Then he tried to pick it up and his jaw dropped. Suddenly he is learning about gravity…and nobody explained it to him…that is what is between us and a computer.” But Gotlieb does see computers taking over in areas of limited context and outperforming humans. One area is scanning x-rays. “I would be disappointed if computers didn’t get better than doctors,” he said.
Today, 17 years past retirement, Gotlieb still treks to the U of T to teach a fall course in computers and society. “I just handed in my marks yesterday.”
“Only my salary is retired, I’m not retired…and I’m having a lot of fun.”