Sunday, March 3, 2019

FALSE STARTS IN ONTARIO'S COMPUTER AGE


TEACHERS FEARED BEING REPLACED BY COMPUTERS

As the scarred survivor of the revolution which took me in journalism from setting type by hand and typing carbon copies to writing columns on a desk gizmo, I remember the frustrating problems with revulsion and hope that driverless cars come to reality without such a history.
At least old computers were only dangerous to your sanity! (But come to think of it, modern computers can be too since my last unexpected computer problem was 10 minutes ago.)
I was reminded of the difficult birth of computers by a note from Clare Westcott, now confined to a seniors' eyrie above the Trent River by problems with eyes and mobility - but not of memory.
My, does he remember the electronic renovation of Ontario.
As I have written in blog.johndowning.ca and in my recent book, Ryerson University - A Unicorn Among Horses, Clare played a key role in education with the community colleges and Ryerson, and in provincial politics, for most of his 95 years. We had then what history has revealed to be a good premier, but Clare was right there behind Bill Davis.
He was there when backroom politics was played with clever force, and variations of the SNC-Lavalin scandal were always threatening unless you played democracy with some competence and a sense of duty that meant screwing the public and wasting millions was just not done.
Clare dropped out after Grade 11 at Seaforth Collegiate but after a variety of minor jobs, which included being blinded in one eye as a Hydro lineman, ended up with the stuffy mandarins of the Ministry of Education in the early 1960s working under Bill Davis.
He recalled the other day that he found that "even the word computer scared the pants off ministry people. Many of them actually believed that it would eventually put teachers out of a job. I don't really think many teachers thought it would happen but the cloistered brass had real paranoia about a machine with a better brain than they had."
Clare remembers that in 1963 and 1964, "a computer person not only had to know all about computing but he had to constantly explain what it was and what it could do, plus he had to be a promoter and used car type salesman because a good chunk of the population feared it like it was black magic. Words like binary and the new math were intimidating to the many of the folks who got a readin 'n' writin education as I did."
Clare's educator about the latest buzz words and guide into the magic acts of the new computer world was Dr. Calvin "Kelly" Gotlieb who has been called by Clare and others the "Father of Computing" in Canada. Kelly founded  the Computer Science department at U of T and as a prolific author and consultant became famous far beyond our borders.
Kelly persuaded Clare to hire a computer wiz working in the U.S. for a soap company. When he asked what he should do, Clare told him just to walk around the ministry for a couple of months talking about computers. "I just want them to see you don't have horns and you're not breathing fire."
Another mentor for Clare in this brave new world was Dr. Fred Minkler, head of the giant North York school board, who was "an innovator who surrounded himself with brainy young doers." As they worked with industry representative, Minkler suggested they form an association of data systems people and became the first president. Then the high school dropout from Seaforth became the second president of the Association of Educational Data Systems.
And so the computer ship was launched in education in Ontario but the voyage was to take decades. As Clare recalls, it was twenty years later in the early 1980s when Davis as premier and Bette Stephenson as a good education minister announced a school computer program. Both said that within 10 years, every student would have their own computer. (We have made great advances but not quite that far.)
Even today Clare can't resist a poke at these two famous Tory politicians, saying that neither have ever owned or operated a computer.
In the mid-1960s, a revolution in post-secondary education in Ontario was also occurring. Not only did Davis create the CAATs, he sponsored legislative changes that ended with one institute of technology becoming Ryerson University.
Davis also gave that budding university freedom from the constricting ministry with its first board of governors, and to the chagrin of all the egotistical doctorates wandering outside his office, put Clare, the dropout, on the board.
As I outline in my book, Clare played a major role at Ryerson. As one important cog in buying land for the expanding university, he notoriously reported back at one board meeting that he had just bought two whore houses.
This was greeted with shock until the first female member of the board, Ruth Frankel, laughed.
Mrs. Frankel also came to Clare's defense when the other governors ignored his knowledge about the new technology and decided to buy a main computer from Honeywell.
Clare grumbled that the faculty committee was making an "odd" recommendation because IBM had just come out with System 360, a stand alone main frame computer computer system designed to cover a complete range of applications. He knew respected educators like Minkler were lining up to get one.
Clare wrote that it "wasn't an easy sell  because even my friends on the board were winking at each other hinting I was way over my head." But he kept going so finally the exasperated board had the former engineering dean at U of T, Ron McLaughlin, study the matter and report back to his fellow governors. When he did, he backed Westcott, but it became a Pyrrhic victory.
Six weeks later, Davis, still the education minister, phoned Clare to say "I think it would be wise if you resigned from the Ryerson board. I have just been at a cabinet meeting and Premier Robarts is mad as hell at you. Did you do something at Ryerson about the purchase of a new computer?"
Clare said he had because "they were making a big mistake purchasing from Honeywell rather than from IBM."
The future premier finished the call by saying:"Clare, it would be wise for you to resign as  soon as possible. The President of Honeywell is a close friend and supporter of Mr. Robarts and he apparently raised hell with him about what you did." So Clare had to quit his treasured appointment.
(Ironically, in 1974, Toronto's three universities held talks about how stupid financially it was for each of them to buy a main frame computer. U of T, which lorded it over York and Ryerson and handicapped their operations in the first decades of the new universities, refused to share. So York and Ryerson went ahead with a successful joint operation, a co-operation which was noted throughout the country. Oh yes, with an IBM 155.)
And that was how politics was played even back in the heyday between two friends who were key mechanics in what was called the Big Blue Machine. It lasted 42 years,  one of the most successful political dynasties in the country, especially when you consider the unravelling of the Trudeau legend and the party that believes it is entitled to rule by the divine right of The Great Grit God!







No comments: