REMINISCENCE - EARLY GOVERNMENT

by BERNARD A HODSON

The availability of computers in the fifties led governments at all levels to explore their possible use.

At this time the 401 ran from Weston, in the suburbs of Toronto, to Bayview Ave. just East of Yonge St. There were ambitious plans to extend it to the Quebec border and Westward to Windsor. The road had to avoid steep gradients so that when it came to a hill a 'cut' had to be made through the hill, 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 the valley, 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 do 'cut and fill' to make a sale.

The Post Office was also exploring these new technologies. At that time there was a Post Office Savings Bank and they studied the possibility of introducing computers to handle that operation. They were also the first in Canada to explore the use of optical character recognition (OCR), one of their staff trying out an OCR system developed in the UK which had a fairly high percentage of successful character recognition.

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

A particularly interesting request was from the government of Quebec, headed by Maurice Duplessis. Although lotteries were illegal in Canada he nevertheless explored the possibility of establishing a lottery in Quebec whose profits would be used to help finance municipal infrastructure at low rates of interest. Companies had to show how their computer systems could handle such a project (in many ways it was similar to the current Lottario). There was only one snag, the proposal had to be in French, and there were at that time no French words for computer jargon. Responders invented new French words for such items as magnetic tape, some later becoming accepted by the industry.

The first ever public computer programming course in Ottawa was given at Carleton College (later to become Carleton University) and twelve government people attended the course. The course was on programming the UNIVC II system and included the logic of the system in addition to how to program the machine. One member of the course, Stan Tench, rose through government ranks first with the Tax Department then later headed up the super computer at Energy Mines and Resources. Gordon Henderson later was involved with a centralised government computer. Jim Crowson worked as a computer consultant with Treasury Board and so on. Two members of Treasury Board, Harry Baird and Jacques DesRoches were also government advisers on computers, Jacques finishing up as Head of the Unemployment Insurance Commission, which were interested in computerising their operations.

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 NRC worked with Bristol Aerospace in Winnipeg to develop rockets (e.g. the Black Brant) for exploration of the 'aurora borealis' phenomena. DRB, in addition to being involved with aerospace development, were involved with the research of Gerald Bull, who had the reasonable idea that small satellites could be launched via a long gun barrel. When US and Canadian funding dried up Dr. Bull developed a very long range gun 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 protégés at the University of Toronto. Unproven gossip had it that he was always on time for work because he set the lights to green for his journey.

The Department of External Affairs, roughly at the same time as the Department of State in the USA, conducted studies to determine if a world wide secure computer network could be established. It was proven feasible but took twenty or more years before they got around to doing it.