Research data from the University of Saskatchewan arrived on paper tape, falling from the teletype in fanciful swirls onto an office floor in the Sandford Fleming Building. When the transmission ended, U of T professors Calvin Gotlieb and J.N. Patterson Hume grabbed the tape, ran down the hall and fed it into an 800-pound computer. The behemoth spewed out its complex calculations on more ribbon, and the team transmitted the answers to Saskatoon over telegraph lines.
The whole process was lickety-split, taking only six hours. Previously, scientists wanting to use U of T’s computer had to mail their data and programming, then wait for U of T to process the job and mail the data back, a procedure that took up to four months. This exchange was not only fast, but no stamps were licked. Historians have since come to regard this transmission of computer data across three provinces as a forerunner to the Internet.
This historic event is just one of the firsts that U of T’s department of computer science is marking as it celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2014. Consider the processor that spewed the data: it was Canada’s first electronic computer. The Ferranti Electric Company in England shipped the machine to Toronto – in pieces! It arrived in spring 1952, Gotlieb and Hume spent the summer assembling it, and by fall Ferut (an abbreviation of “Ferranti University of Toronto”) was playing checkers.
Hume and Prof. Beatrice Worsley, considered Canada’s first female computer scientist, pioneered software called Transcode for Ferut. This precursor to Fortran revolutionized programming by making it so simple that just about anyone could write a computer program.
In 1964, U of T created the department of computer science (with Gotlieb as its first chair) and began offering Canada’s first doctorate in the subject.