Beyond Tradition – A documentary about Waterloo and its early days in computer science research and application

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Distinguished Professor Emeritus Ken McLaughlin has spent his career uncovering and shaping the stories of our local communities into urban portraits that breathe with the life of great biographies. 

Take a walk through time as he uncovers some of Waterloo’s most historic legacies, including the introduction of co-operative education, early entrepreneurial ventures that lead to revolutionary spinoff companies, and the integration of computers and computer science in the post-secondary world. Meet the progressive founders, thinkers and students whose steadfast resilience has made Waterloo one of the most progressive universities in the world today.

The video captures key moments in Waterloo’s history — and at ~6:40 it recounts our early days in computer science research and application, pioneered by Wes Graham, a professor and the first director of the university’s computer centre.

photo of Wes Graham

Wes Graham, “the Father of computing,” at the University of Waterloo stands beside an IBM 360/75, the most powerful computer in Canada at the time, that he was instrumental in acquiring for faculty and student use alike.

The IBM 360/75 mainframe, the same model of computer that NASA used to send astronauts to the Moon, was installed in a building that would house the University of Waterloo’s new Faculty of Mathematics.*

In 1966, Waterloo was one of the first universities in North America to establish computer science as a separate academic unit with mathematics. Today, the David R. Cheriton School of Computer Science is the largest academic concentration of computer science researchers in Canada and among the top schools of computer science throughout the globe.

Distinguished Professor Emeritus McLaughlin, the University of Waterloo’s official historian, has received many prestigious awards including the Canadian Historical Association’s Certificate of Merit, and the Certificate of Commendation from the American Association for State and Local History. He has garnered several local honours including the 1998 Special Recognition Award from the Waterloo Regional Heritage Foundation. He also received a grant from the J.W. Graham Information Technology Fund to support research on the history of computing and information technology at the University of Waterloo.

*The year was 1966 and the Govenment of Ontario was willing to pay 90% of the cost of all university buildings, including furnishings. The University of Waterloo needed a larger, faster computer, but the cost seemed prohibitive.
Wes Graham had the solution.
After meeting Wes to hear him out, the provincial minister of education announced the University of Waterloo’s plans for a new Mathematics and Computer building had been approved for funding. However, included in the plans was an IBM 360/75, which was carefully marked under “furnishings,” ensuring 90% payment by the government.
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