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Q&A: The Chief Computer

Kelly Gotlieb recalls the early days of computer science in Canada.
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Calvin 'Kelly' Gotlieb
Kelly Gotlieb in a conference room at ACM's headquarters earlier this year.

Born in 1921 in Toronto, Calvin “Kelly” Gotlieb is known as the “Father of Computing” in Canada. After receiving his Ph.D. in physics from the University of Toronto in 1947, Gotlieb co-founded the university’s Computation Center the following year and worked on the first team in Canada to build computers. In 1950, he created the first university course on computer science in Canada and the first graduate course the following year. Currently Professor Emeritus in Computer Science at the University of Toronto, Gotlieb is also known for his work on computers and society.

You used to be editor-in-chief of this magazine.

I was editor-in-chief first of Communications and then, later on, of the Journal. When Alan Perlis started Communications [in 1957], he asked me to be the editor of the business section. Then Perlis was elected president of ACM, and the editorial board asked me if I would be editor-in-chief. I think I was editor-in-chief for two years because the editor-in-chief of the Journal, Franz Alt, retired, and they asked me to switch over.

You’re still involved with the ACM, most notably as co-chair of the Awards Committee.

I’ve been a continuous member of ACM since 1949. I was also in IFIP [International Federation for Information Processing] for many years. When IFIP was formed, I went to Paris as the Canadian representative. Isaac Auerbach asked if I would be president, but I didn’t want to be. I’ve always said administration is an occupation where the urgent preempts the important.

Let’s talk about your career. You completed your Ph.D. in physics at the University of Toronto.

I got my Ph.D. in 1947. My Ph.D. is classified because it was on secret war work. It’s never been declassified, but it’s really not a secret anymore. We put radios in shells.

Soon, though, you became involved with early efforts in computers.

Yes, they had formed a computing team in the university and there was an IBM installation with punched cards. Eventually, the university set up something called the Computation Center. I was too young to be the director, so they gave me the title of chief computer.

Chief computer?

They didn’t ask me, they just deposited this title on me.

In the 1950s, the Computation Center purchased a computer made by Ferranti in England, a copy of the Manchester Mark I.

We got the Ferut in 1951. It was the second computer ever sold in the world. UNIVAC was the first.

Ferut was in a room about three times the size of this conference room [which measures 16′ x 16′]. It had about 10,000 vacuum tubes, and three or four would burn out every day. So, the engineers would take over at night and change the burned-out tubes, and we would run it.

The machine was quite unreliable at first. For example, if you multiplied two numbers, you were advised to do it twice, and if you got the same answer, ok. If not, you did it a third time and took the best two out of three to get the product.

I remember all these articles in the paper called it a “giant brain.” Well, it was giant all right, but it was about one-hundredth as powerful as your laptop, maybe one thousandth.

Eventually, we got the Ferut working pretty well. I had a graduate student who was the chess champion of Canada, so I decided we should see if the computer could play chess. But Ferut didn’t have enough storage to play a whole game, so we only played endgames—king and pawn endgames, which are very complicated. There’s something in king and pawn endgames called opposition in which, essentially, you can force your opponent’s king to retreat to a weaker position. So, we had the computer gain the opposition in king and pawn endgames.

Another thing we did was a simulation of postal codes. They were adopted, and as a result Canada had its first postal strike, because there were all these questions about how computers would cause a loss of jobs.

You also got involved in timetables and scheduling.

I was publishing a newsletter on school timetables for a while, but it got to be so much work that I quit. One of my grad students later formed a business around it. The other thing he programmed was how to computerize and control traffic lights. Toronto was the first city in the world to have computerized traffic lights, though if you went to Toronto now and looked at the mess of traffic, you’d never know.

We did the world’s first airline reservation system, too. We had the president of Canada come down to watch the demonstration. It was a pretty heady time.

You were teaching at this time?

I was teaching, and since there was no graduate department, I was teaching in the School of Continuing Studies. Most of the students were businesspeople—actuaries and bankers and insurance people and so on.

But eventually you did create a graduate program.

Yes. In 1962, we decided we wanted to form a graduate program. It didn’t have a budget, it only had appointments.

Presumably, since the people involved in computing also taught in other departments?

That’s right. The university said we had to get permission from mathematics, physics, and electrical engineering. But since I wanted to form a department that didn’t need a budget, they didn’t worry about it. Incidentally, our department is now ranked eighth in the world.

“Administration is an occupation where the urgent preempts the important.”

Are you still teaching?

I taught until three years ago. I was the oldest person teaching undergraduates.

For many years, you taught a course on computers and society.

“Computers and Society” always had a wonderful audience. It qualified as a science course for humanists and as a writing course for scientists, so I had a wonderful mix of students.

You’ve explored a number of different socioeconomic issues throughout your computing career.

When we started with databases, people got very worried about privacy, so Canada appointed a privacy commission and put me on it. As a result of our commission, the first Canadian privacy laws were all passed. But people don’t really give a damn about their privacy these days. They sell it very cheaply. Do you know what privacy is worth? About eight dollars. If I give somebody eight dollars, they’ll fill out the longest form—name, credit history. Or just offer them a discount card.

In the 1960s, you were involved in a United Nations commission on what computing could do for developing countries.

This was the age of big mainframes, so nobody imagined that developing nations could use them at all. I remember coming to the World Bank in Washington, D.C. Protocol required that we had to be met by the head, but in about three minutes we’d passed three levels down the hierarchy—one person would introduce us to his assistant, who would introduce us to his assistant, and so on. But I remember being greeted by the head of the World Bank, and he said, “Now tell me, what about this boondoggle of yours?”

The 1971 report that grew out of your United Nations research, The Application of Computer Technology for Development, was a bestseller.

We had a big meeting in Bucharest, and we had written a draft report that was going to be presented to the General Assembly. It was quite technical, and all the other people were from human resources and management, and they just tore into us at Bucharest. They said, “You say nothing about training and management.” We thought about it and said, “They’re right.” So, in six weeks we completely rewrote the report, and we sent it to the U.N., and it turned out to be a bestseller.

In fact, you’re cited in the Oxford English Dictionary.

[J.N.P. Hume] and I wrote a book in 1958 called High-Speed Data Processing, and the Oxford English Dictionary found 11 words in it, like loop, that had new meanings. So, we’re cited 11 times in the Oxford English Dictionary. A friend of mine said, “You’re immortal.” And you know, it’s a lot cheaper than a gravestone.

On a personal note, you were married to a writer for many years.

My wife Phyllis wrote 18 books of poetry and science fiction. She died about a year and a half ago. I’ve always said that she was a humanist interested in science, and I was a scientist interested in humanity.

Nowadays I’d guess people are more concerned with their Google results.

One day my wife and I were arguing about how long you cook fish in the microwave. She’s the cook, of course, but I’m the master of the microwave. So she goes to Google and comes back and says it’s 4.5 minutes per pound, end of discussion. Of course, when we were arguing, I didn’t go to Google. She went to Google!

I understand you’ll turn 90 on March 27.

My department is making a party for me, and they asked me to give a talk. I’m calling it “Chiefly About Computers.”

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UF1 Figure. Kelly Gotlieb in a conference room at ACM’s headquarters earlier this year.

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