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Unbundling Computing History

Unbundling Computing History

Ralph Gordon Stanton B.A(Hons), M.A, Ph.D, D.Sc., F.S.S, F.I.M.A, Killam Laureate

Ralph Gordon StantonIn 1956, Professor Ralph Stanton was recruited to Waterloo from the University of Toronto to head a Department of Mathematics. A year later, the College established the Associate Faculties to offer programs in engineering and science. A Faculty of Arts was established at the University of Waterloo in 1960, with Mathematics as its largest department. Under the expert leadersh1ip of its chairman Ralph Stanton, Mathematics developed as an innovative and vibrant department. Stanton developed a graduate program, and recruited influential professors.

Stanton early on recognized the importance of computers and computer science. Wes Graham was recruited from IBM to develop computing services, and from the beginning, UW students had direct access to state-of-the art computing.

Photograph of a giant pink tie on the Math and Computer Building
The Pink Tie on the Math and Computer Building. KW Record Negative Collection. UW Library.

Stanton's dream and goal from the beginning was to make Mathematics a separate Faculty. In his view, Mathematics belonged neither in Arts nor in Science; it was a distinct discipline, and had grown sufficiently to become a Faculty on its own. The struggle with Arts and Science to release the Department of Mathematics was difficult by all accounts. Yet by January 1, 1967, UW became the first university in North America to have a separate Faculty for Mathematics. The Mathematics and Computer building, built to house the new Faculty, was officially opened in May, 1968. On that occasion, students draped a huge pink tie over the six-storey building, to commemorate the gaudy ties for which Ralph Stanton was famous. To this day, the pink tie remains the symbol of the Faculty of Mathematics for its students and graduates.

The Pink Tie, the Faculty of Mathematics symbol, first appeared on the new Mathematics and Computer building on November 27, 1968. The tie is in honour of Ralph Stanton, UW's first head of Mathematics.

Listen to this excerpt.

Oral History interview with Dr Ralph Stanton
Conducted by UW Ph D candidate Cheryl Dietrich
March 19 2003

In this excerpt, Dr Stanton describes how Wes Graham came to the University of Waterloo.

Dietrich: You brought Wes over from IBM. What was it about Wes that you felt was suited to what you wanted to do here with computing?

Stanton: Well, Wes was an old friend of mine. I had taught him as an undergraduate, I had taught him as a graduate student, I had stayed in close touch with him when he went to IBM - I knew him very well; I probably knew him better than anyone else in the computing area, and I suppose that when I wanted someone who had some industrial experience, he was the first person I thought of because I knew him better than anyone else.

Dietrich: You thought the industrial experience would be important then? Connection with IBM?

Stanton: Not so much in connection with IBM as in connection with actual physical computers, which he knew well at that time. You have to recall that he'd been with them for, probably 2 or 3 years and that was more than ample to know everything that was going on in computing at the time because basically the IBM 650 was the most advanced machine in existence. Someone with experience was, I felt, useful. I was personally interested in not the machines but the use of the machines in numerical analysis and I know nothing whatever about machinery, so naturally I was interested in someone who did.

Dietrich: How big was the community in numerical analysis in Canada at the time? Were there lots of people doing it? Was it very small still?

Stanton: Well, I came here in '57. I don't recall the year Wesley came; it was probably about '59 or '60; I have never bothered keeping records of such things, but if I said '59 I'd probably be at most a year out. Basically, there was no community. I think we did more here in numerical analysis than at most places. The Department of Computer Science at Toronto wasn't formed until about 1967 I think, although they had people working in the area.

Listen to this excerpt.

In this excerpt, Dr Stanton is describing the direction in which both he and Wes Graham felt that computing, both on campus and more generally was headed.

Photograph of Ralph Stanton with colleagues
Dr Ralph Stanton (second from right) with colleagues Bert Barber (far left) and Ted Batke (far right).

Stanton: ... Certainly my thought was in developing numerical analysis, that is the use of computers in mathematical computation etc. And basically that was also Wes' idea.

For example later on, I think it was after I left, the Computer Science Department dropped the requirement in third year that students take the course in complex analysis, the theory of functions of a complex variable. Had I been here, I wouldn't at all have been shocked at this.

But Wesley wrote me a note in the greatest consternation, "how can anyone really do computing if they haven't had a course in complex variable?" Now, I think one can, but you see Wes was very much interested in the mathematical background of people and he was far more shocked at this dropping than I would have been. And Wes was involved, as I know you know, much later, in developing all sorts of software packages and languages, but he was not interested in developing them for the sake of developing packages and languages; he was interested in developing them for their use, which I think is basically the sensible reason for developing them.

There has, over the years, grown up a mania for developing computer languages. A woman expert in the U.S. has written a book, which is basically an encyclopaedia of all the computer languages that have ever been developed, and I recall she gives an account of over 400 languages, of which 95% at least either never made it into use or are totally dead. Wesley wasn't interested in developing things just for the sake of developing. He was interested in developing things for their utility.

Head, Special Collections
February 7, 2006