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  • Notes on Canadian Computing, 1950s
  • Keith Smillie (bio)

In 1954 I began my computing career with Computing Devices of Canada Limited, a small electronics firm based in Ottawa, under the tutelage of Ted Codd. Herein, I describe some of the early work with electronic computers in Canada and Ted's influence on it.

Computing Devices of Canada was founded in 1948 by two Polish immigrants to Canada, George Glinski and Joe Norton. The company got its start by manufacturing the Position and Homing Indicator (PHI), a device developed at the National Research Council that kept track of an aircraft's position and indicated its return route to base. One large contract that had a significant influence on the company's growth was for the Kicksorter, a digital-pulse counter designed for the Atomic Energy of Canada Laboratories in Chalk River. If the Kicksorter had been slightly modified to do simple arithmetic operations, it would have been a rudimentary computer. AECL purchased a large number of these devices between 1957 and 1963, when they were replaced by one of the early computers in the PDP series manufactured by the Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC). Another contract was to design and construct a large digital simulator for the Royal Canadian Navy that was never completed.

Computing Devices began its operations in a small building on the western edge of downtown Ottawa. A few years later, the company moved further west to the suburb of Westboro, where it occupied the upper floors of a building above the Charles Ogilvy department store. Around 1956, it moved to new buildings at Bell's Corners a few miles west of the city. In the late 1950s, the company became affiliated with Bendix, and when this company was acquired by Control Data Corporation, it became a division of Control Data Canada. At a later date, it became a wholly owned subsidiary of Ceridian. The company, now called Computing Devices Canada, has been described as an "Ottawa-based defence electronics company."

NRC 102 computers

Computing Devices also handled the Canadian sales of the NCR 102-A, a digital computer manufactured by the National Cash Register Company of Dayton, Ohio. Sixteen 102-A computers were produced altogether and two were installed in Canada. The first was at A.V. Roe (Canada), an aircraft company in Malton, Ontario, adjacent to what is now Pearson Airport, and the second was at the Royal Canadian Air Force Station (now called Canadian Forces Base) in Cold Lake, Alberta. (The only other computer in Canada at the time was the Ferranti computer Ferut at the University of Toronto.) The 102-A system consisted of the "computer proper"—as it was termed in the programming manual—and a console with a Flexowriter, which was a modified electric typewriter with a paper-tape reader and punch for input and output. There was also a small control panel on the console. (A magnetic-tape unit and a card reader and punch were optional.)

The basic system occupied 250 square feet of floor space, weighed 2,700 pounds, and had 400 tubes of 12 different types and 8,000 crystal diodes. It required air conditioning and a separate power supply. The cost was $82,000, which in today's currency would be more than $600,000. The magnetic-drum memory had a capacity of 1,024 42-bit words and an additional "high-speed" memory of eight words. The internal number system was binary, and I/O was in octal, or in decimal if appropriate conversion routines were written. Addition and subtraction times varied from 7 to 20 milliseconds, and multiplication and division from 25 to approximately 40 milliseconds depending on drum access times.

Figure 1 shows the 102-A at Cold Lake. The plastic case on top of the drawers beside the console contains the program library (on punched tape) while the loose-leaf binder on which it is sitting contains printed copies of the programs and operating instructions for their use.

A decimal version of the 102, called the 102-D, was also produced by the National Cash Register Company. A 102-D was installed in Computing Devices shortly before the company moved to Bell's Corners...


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