Wes Graham, father of computing at Waterloo, receives 2019 Lifetime Achievement Award posthumously from CS-Can/Info-Can

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

In 1967, Canadians celebrated the country’s 100th birthday and the future seemed full of hope and boundless potential. But at the University of Waterloo the future had already arrived in the newly built Math and Computer building’s Red Room. It was there that an IBM 360 Model 75 was housed — the most powerful computer in Canada at the time and the same model NASA used to do the critical calculations to send astronauts to the moon.

But how did such a powerful computing machine find its home on a young Canadian campus? That story involves many people, but one person who deserves a great deal of credit is the late J. Wesley “Wes” Graham (1932–1999), the first director of the University’s computing centre.

photo of Wes Graham beside IBM 360 Model 75

Wes Graham, the “Father of computing” at the University of Waterloo, in the Red Room beside the IBM 360 Model 75, the most powerful computer in Canada at the time.

“Wes Graham provided exceptional leadership in software developed for education that has given Waterloo and Canada an international reputation. His contributions shaped computer science education worldwide. He was pivotal in acquiring some of the world’s fastest computer hardware during our early days at Waterloo,” said Mark Giesbrecht, Director of the Cheriton School of Computer Science.

“And he was rightly known as the father of computing at Waterloo,” Professor Giesbrecht continued, “attracting incredibly talented students, encouraging them to build and explore software, and in ensuring our computing resources were available faculty and students alike. This 2019 Lifetime Achievement Award from CS-Can/Info-Can is a very much deserved recognition of his contributions.”

Beyond Tradition

Beyond Tradition is documentary about Waterloo and its early days in computer science research and application. It explores 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.

About J. Wesley “Wes” Graham

The excerpted article that follows was published originally on CS-Can/Info-Can’s website.

From the 1960s until his death in 1999, Professor J. Wesley Graham’s pioneering work and leadership changed the way programming and other computer-related skills were taught at the University of Waterloo, across Canada and internationally. Thousands of copies of the software produced under his direction were used in more than 60 countries, and influenced the teaching of hundreds of thousands of students as well as encouraged dramatic improvements in software development for business and government. His impact on Canadian and international computer science education and software development practices has been dramatic.

Wes Graham recognized that commercial software was not designed for teaching, as a program-run took a minimum of 30 seconds, while an error produced an incomprehensible pile of paper. Teaching large groups of students using this software would not work and so, in 1965, Wes led four students and a junior faculty member in building WATFOR — Waterloo Fortran Compiler — for the IBM 7040 computer to solve the speed and error problems. This software made the University of Waterloo a leader in teaching undergraduate students about computers.

Wes led the development of other educational software, including software for COBOL, Pascal, BASIC, APL, and local area networks called Waterloo MicroNET, Waterloo JANET and MacJANET. His research also created early versions of word processors, spreadsheets and databases.

photo of Wes Graham with studentsComputers were needed to support this education and in the early 1960s Wes convinced the University of Waterloo to invest in an IBM 7040. With the creation of the Faculty of Mathematics at Waterloo, he again provided leadership to obtain an IBM 360/75, the largest computer installed in Canada. Because of the widespread use of Waterloo software, Wes acquired over $35 million from major computer companies such as IBM, Digital Equipment and Hewlett Packard.

Wes Graham also influenced computer studies in Ontario secondary schools by helping build the first curriculum and leading development of hardware and software for secondary school students.

By the late 1970s, many University of Waterloo students wanted to be entrepreneurs in computing. Wes sought a solution in which the University and students could jointly benefit. The first opportunity occurred in 1981–82 when three of his former students started Watcom, now a division of SAP, to produce educational software. Wes worked with these students, this spin-off company and the University to establish a model for a mutually beneficial relationship. This approach has been applied many times to create University of Waterloo spin-off companies. Other successful spin-offs such as Waterloo Maple (now Maplesoft) and OpenText, employed the model pioneered by Wes Graham.

To recognize Wes Graham’s contributions, the University of Waterloo created the J.W. Graham Medal in Computing and Innovation in 1994, a medal awarded annually to a University of Waterloo graduate who exemplifies many of Wes’s qualities. In 1978, Wes Graham received Waterloo’s Distinguished Teacher Award and, in 1999, he was made an Officer of the Order of Canada.

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