Canadian professor was pioneer in computing

Developed software for teaching programming that was used world-wide

He was known at the University of Waterloo as the father of its computing program but that was a modest estimate of Wesley Graham's contribution to the field.

He was, more accurately, a Canadian pioneer in the computing industry and was chiefly responsible for the university's international reputation in software development.

He died on Monday at his home in Waterloo, Ont., after a 10-year battle with cancer. He was 67.

The computer industry was just beginning to flex its muscles in 1959 when he joined the staff of the two-year-old university as an assistant mathematics professor. He knew something about computers, having worked as a systems engineer at IBM, the front-runner in computer technology at the time.

He had intended to be a statistics instructor but was fascinated by the potential of computers and discovered that those who controlled the purse strings at Waterloo felt the same.

When Waterloo established its computer centre in 1962, it put Prof. Graham in charge as its first director. Over the next 25 years, he was the major force behind new, user-friendly, software programs that eventually spread to an estimated 40 countries.

"There are three or four people in Canada that I consider as pioneers in [in the computer industry] and Wes was one of them," said a colleague, Professor Donald Cowan.

Prof. Graham was something of an evangelist, recognizing that computer technology should not be the exclusive property of academics, and he lived to see his software for teaching computer programming spread into high schools, business, industry and government.

It all started when he discovered that the software available in 1965 was not designed for teaching students about programming. Errors, which were common when students were learning, produced huge piles of paper.

So that summer he and four students developed the first WATFOR (WATerloo FORtran) program that quickly located programming errors and speeded up response time. It attracted worldwide attention from universities encountering similar problems.

WATFOR used a series of IBM computers and was easily adapted for use at other universities, many of which used IBM technology. It enabled Waterloo to become the leading Canadian educational institution in teaching programming to undergraduates, Prof. Cowan said.

Early computers were room-sized affairs, and Waterloo's first occupied a two-storey room with windows so outsiders could gaze in at the latest technological miracle. The floor and half the walls were tiled in red, providing it with the nickname, "the red room."

Computers got smaller over the years and Prof. Graham played a role, designing an affordable portable computer that proved to be ideal for classroom use. It could be moved from room to room and allowed students to experiment with programming. Before that, programs had to be sent to universities for testing.

He helped the Ontario Ministry of Education design its curriculum for the first computer course for high schools and worked with colleagues to write textbooks that became models.

WATFOR and its sister, WATFIV, developed a few years later, were adopted by business, industry and government.

The use of his software provided a new source of income for Waterloo. Companies such as IBM, Digital Equipment and Hewlett Packard chose to support the Waterloo software program, making donations that totalled more than $35-million.

James Wesley Graham was born in Copper Cliff, Ont., and attended the University of Toronto where he graduated with a BA in 1954 and an MA in 1955. He then joined IBM Canada.

He retired from the university in 1997 and was made an officer of the Order of Canada earlier this year. Ontario Lieutenant-Governor Hillary Weston bestowed the award at a private ceremony in his home last Thursday.

He served a term as president of the Canadian Water Ski Association. There he pioneered the use of computers in tabulating the scores at tournaments. It was first used at the World Water Ski Championships in Toronto in 1979.

He leaves his children, Marlene, Jim, Susi, Gord and Paul; his wife Helen from whom he is separated, and seven grandchildren. He also leaves his companion, Rebecca Edisbury and her children, Jessica, Jason and Barb.

The Globe and Mail

Wesley Graham in the 'red room' in 1976 with the console of Waterloo's IBM 360/75, which was the largest computer in Canada when it was acquired by the university in 1967.