Governments eyed early computers for lotteries, traffic and letters

The 1950s saw the first appearance of generally available computers, which led governments at all levels to begin exploring their possible use.

At the time Ontario’s Highway 401 was only a fraction of its current self, running from the western suburbs of Toronto to just east of the Yonge Street. There were ambitious plans in the works to extend it to the Quebec border and westward to Windsor, Ont.

But the road had to avoid steep gradients so that when builders came to a hill a “cut” had to be made through it, necessitating the hauling away of tons of material. On the other hand, when a valley was to be crossed it was necessary to bring in material to “fill” part of it using material from a “borrow” pit. A major cost of road building is the hauling of material to and from the road site, and computer vendors had to demonstrate how they could help optimize the cost of “cut and fill” to make a sale.

The Post Office Department (predecessor to today’s Canada Post) was also exploring new technologies. At that time there was a Post Office Savings Bank and officials there studied the possibility of introducing computers to handle operations. They were also the first in Canada to explore the use of optical character recognition (OCR) – one of their staff tried an OCR system, developed in the U.K., which had a high percentage of successful character recognition.

The Queen’s Printer, not to be outdone, commissioned a review of its operations that could be performed by computer, from handling orders and keeping track of finances, to handling personnel files and payroll. Their interest was in one of the smaller UNIVAC systems.

A particularly interesting request was made from the government of Quebec, headed by then premier Maurice Duplessis. Although lotteries were illegal at the time in Canada, he nevertheless explored the possibility of establishing a lottery in Quebec whose profits would be used to help finance municipal infrastructure. Companies had to show how their computer systems could handle such a project.

There was only one snag: the proposal had to be in French, and there were at that time no French words for computer jargon. Respondents invented new French words, some later becoming accepted by the industry: for instance, la bande magnetique for magnetic tape.

The first ever-public computer programming course in Ottawa was given at Carleton College (later to become Carleton University) and 12 government workers attended it. The course was on programming the UNIVAC II system and included the logic of the system in addition to how to program the machine.

The National Research Council (NRC) and Defence Research Board (DRB) were also active in funding research where computers played a significant part. Apart from its many other interests, the NRC worked with Bristol Aerospace in Winnipeg to develop rockets (for exploration of the aurora borealis phenomenon). DRB, in addition to being involved with aerospace development, was also involved with the research of Gerald Bull, who had the reasonable idea that small satellites could be launched via a long gun barrel.

When U.S. and Canadian funding dried up Dr. Bull developed a very long-range gun (for the Iraqi government, cause of much consternation at the time) and was, regrettably, assassinated in Belgium by parties who felt threatened by his work.

The City of Toronto experimented with the computer control of traffic lights, working with Jo Kates, one of Kelly Gotlieb’s prot

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