Manitoba’s computer department generates buzz

This is the first of two articles relating to the origins of the Department of Computer Science (CS) at the University of Manitoba, but its evolution is fairly typical of the CS start-ups at various Canadian universities such as Toronto, McGill and Waterloo, which all started about the same time in the early sixties.

My own background was in applied mathematics from the University of Manchester. I had been involved with an early computer in the U.K., then with Avro Aircraft, UNIVAC and Imperial Oil in Canada. I had taught one class on computers at Carleton College (now Carleton University) and then several at what was then the Calgary campus of the University of Alberta. I had also taught programming for UNIVAC and written a variety of technical and business applications, including a Fortran compiler. I was on the management development program at Imperial Oil, with a bright future ahead with the company.

Then one day out of the blue I received a letter from the University of Manitoba asking if I would like to consider starting up a CS program in Winnipeg. I discussed it with Imperial who suggested I explore the possibility, indicating that if I later came back to them my career would likely skyrocket. I agreed to an interview and learned I would have to build the department from scratch, there being no staff and only a couple of small computers on site: a Bendix G15 (referred to as the washing machine), which was being used by a Winnipeg company to design electrical transformers, and an IBM 1620.

In spite of the non-existence of staff and paucity of equipment, I decided it was a unique challenge and accepted it, especially given the assurances by Imperial.

Arriving in Winnipeg, the big question was “where to start?” For the computing side I prepared a five-year development program that saw the acquisition of a large mainframe within two years. It also involved a small hiring program to run the existing small computer and a larger staff for the proposed major acquisition. For the academic side I proposed an initial staff of five or six, who would come on board after I had decided what it was we wanted to teach.

The washing machine was unsuitable for student needs, so I swapped it with the company that was using it for a 750,000-volt transformer, which I gave to the Electrical Engineering Department, on whose premises we were located. I then negotiated with computer manufacturers, finally selecting an IBM 360/65. Negotiations, apart from price, also included what their company would do for the university in terms of research funding. The computer was finally delivered in 1966 and, for a time, we had the most powerful 360 computer system of any university in Canada. Later a president of IBM Canada told me that this order triggered several other major sales at universities across the country.

The second article on this topic will discuss in more detail the academic and research side of things, but one obvious need was to get university staff familiar with a computer’s capabilities. This was done by offering orientation courses to anyone interested and also generating a monthly newsletter. Its banner read “The Computer and the Library, the Heart of the University.” Its boldness caused a few raised eyebrows initially, but it was eventually accepted. The newsletter generated a lot of interest — one professor involved with Judaic studies wrote to say the computer sounded so intriguing that he wished he had a project that could make use of it. T

hese developments at a university in such a small province created quite a stir and led to scores of invitations to address diverse groups, as well as invitations to speak from across the country and even Europe and the U.S. These groups included hospital associations, printers, nurses, insurance agents, purchasing agents, doctors, banks, high school principals, engineers, teachers, lawyers and others, serving to publicize the university and attracting researchers from France, Australia, Czechoslovakia, U.S., Israel, U.K. and even from the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.

It also led to requests from around the world for articles in a variety of newspapers, journals and magazines, all of which brought more people to the province, isolated as it was.

Needless to say, I never returned to Imperial Oil.

Hodson is an Ottawa-based IT industry veteran who has helped develop Canadian computer science programs. Contact him at [email protected].

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