REMINISCENCE - UNIVERSITY - PART 1

by BERNARD A HODSON

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 content is fairly typical of the CS start ups at various Canadian Universities such as Toronto, McGill and Waterloo, which started about the same time in the early 60s.

My own background was in applied mathematics (more commonly called theoretical physics in North America) from the University of Manchester. I had been involved with an early computer in the UK, 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 (now a University in its own right). 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 fo Imperial Oil, with a bright future ahead with the company.

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, having been recommended to them by Dr. Scott of the University of Alberta in Edmonton (whom I did not know at the time). I discussed it with Imperial who suggested I explore the possibility, indicating that if I later came back with them my career would likely sky rocket. I went for an interview to find that I would have to build the department from scratch, there being no staff and only a couple of small computers, 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, both with the Electrical Engineering Department.

In spite of the non existence of staff and paucity of equipment I decided it was a unique challenge and accepted it, especially when I was assured by Imperial that I had a promising career with them if I later changed my mind.

Arriving in Winnipeg the question was "where to start?". For the computing side I prepared a five year development program which saw the acquisition of a large main frame within two years, to which the University gave approval. 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 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 delivered in 1966 and, for a time, we had the most powerful 360 computer system of any University in Canada. Carl Corcoran, when he was president of IBM Canada (he also served as vice-president of IBM Japan), told me that the University order triggered off several other major sales at Canadian universities.

The second article on this topic will discuss in more detail the academic and research side of things but one obvious need was to orient University staff to a computer's capabilities. This was done by offering orientation courses to anyone interested and generating a monthly newsletter. The banner of the newsletter was The Computer and the Library, the Heart of the University. The banner caused a few raised eyebrows initially but was accepted. The newsletter generated a lot of interest, one professor involved with Judaic studies writing to say the computer sounded so intriguing he wished he had a project to use it.

This development in a small Province created quite a stir and led to scores of invitations to address diverse groups, spilling over to invitations to speak from across the country and even to Europe and the USA. These groups included hospital associations, printers, nurses, insurance agents, purchasing agents, doctors, banks, high school principals, engineers, teachers, lawyers and others, serving to publicise the University and attracting researchers from France, Australia, Czechoslovakia, USA, Israel, UK and even the CIA. It also led to numerous 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.

I never returned to Imperial Oil but had an excellent, continuing relationship with them for many years after my move to Manitoba.