SIGCIS 2010 Workshop Papers

Name:Scott M. Campbell

Institutional Affiliation:University of Waterloo


Paper Type: Traditional

Paper Title:'Wat' Forever: Computing Education at the University of Waterloo

Paper Abstract:It has been said that computer scientists are often surprised by computers. One particular crisis came about in the early 1960s during a formative time for the new discipline. At many universities faculty and staff charged with programming instruction discovered to their dismay that computer manufacturers rarely supplied programming tools entirely suitable for novice students. Academic computing centres were forced to develop more appropriate compilers and interpreters; these tools were typically shared freely.

The University of Waterloo, founded in 1957 as a technically-focused university with strong links to industry, was able to convert this crisis into an opportunity. After installing an IBM 7040 in 1964, which lacked a suitable version of FORTRAN, it created WATFOR (for Waterloo FORTRAN). The student-oriented compiler was exceedingly popular among the relatively small number of computing centres with similar hardware because of its speed and helpful diagnostics. However, distributing WATFOR, manuals, corrections and advice for free was financially costly, which threatened to derail development of WATFOR for the considerably more popular IBM 360 series of computers. Wes Graham, head of computing and an ex IBM salesman, solved the problem by charging a minimal fee to computing centres that requested WATFOR. In this entrepreneurial manner, money collected was ploughed back into development of WATFOR and further educational-related computing tools. Waterloo became a world leader in computing education and computer science over the next few decades, with a reputation for innovation that elevated the young university among other established schools. This narrative, I would argue, is one best understood by exploring the relationship between the specific material and immaterial contexts.