UW computer pioneer Wes Graham
August 24, 1999
James Wesley (Wes)
Graham, a humble computing pioneer who gave the University of Waterloo a
world-wide reputation, has died.
(James Wesley (Wes) )
Graham, 67, succumbed to cancer Sunday at his Waterloo home, just
three days after he was invested as an officer of the Order of Canada.
Ontario Lt. Gov. Hilary Weston bestowed the honour Thursday in a
private ceremony at Graham's home.
So great were Graham's accomplishments that former colleagues had
trouble summing them up.
"There isn't enough time," former UW president Doug Wright said
"He had enormous influence. He was a great teacher and a great
leader, and did more than any one person to put Waterloo on the map in
computing," Wright said.
In the mid-1960s, Graham developed breakthrough software that made it
possible for all university students -- not just the computer whiz kids
-- to use computers.
In the late '70s, he was believed to be first to string a group of
personal computers (PCs) together as a local area network, or LAN -- as
common to today's offices as chairs and cubicles.
And in the early 1980s, Graham pioneered the UW spin-off company,
starting the first of many off-campus, high-tech ventures.
Not bad for an unassuming kid from Copper Cliff, Ont., near Sudbury,
who got his first taste of computing while studying math and physics at
the University of Toronto in the early 1950s.
After a brief stint as a systems engineer for IBM, Graham joined UW
as an assistant professor in 1959, two years after the university
He intended to teach statistics, but was soon drawn to the school's
computers, and their untapped potential.
"He looked at these (computers) and said, 'Lookit, we've got this
really neat tool out there, how can we make it accessible to students?'
" said Don Cowan, a UW computer science professor and longtime Graham
Slow, unforgiving and locked away from all but an elite few,
university computers of the day were anything but practical.
This was a big problem for UW, which wanted to expose more
undergraduates, particularly science and engineering students, to
"Wes Graham soon recognized that the software available on computers
was not designed for teaching purposes," Cowan said.
"Others recognized these difficult pedagogical problems, but Wes
Graham did something about them."
In 1965, Graham hunkered down with four students and a junior faculty
After three intense months, they came up with a software system
called WATFOR, which made UW's computers much faster and more
WATFOR and its later versions transformed the teaching of computer
programming. Business, industry and government soon adopted it,
spreading UW's reputation beyond academic circles.
Graham's influence wasn't confined to the university level. In the
1970s, he helped design the first computer-studies curriculum for
Ontario's high schools.
He also designed an early portable computer and software that could
be moved from room to room in a high school for maximum benefit to
As UW began to turn out top-notch computing experts, many wanted to
start their own businesses. Graham spotted the opportunity for UW and
its grads to jointly benefit and, in 1981, helped three of his former
students start Watcom, a company to develop and market educational
Other UW spinoff companies to follow the Watcom model include
Waterloo Maple and Open Text.
In 1994, Watcom was bought by Sybase, the world's sixth largest
software company, a deal worth millions to Graham and his cohorts.
But Graham wasn't one to flaunt his good fortune.
He could have had the spiffiest sports car on the lot, but found
familiar comfort in his old full-size van.
"He was unassuming and not self-seeking," Wright said.
"It was not his style to show off in any way shape or form," he said.
"He was a very modest guy, and always gave everybody else credit for his
Graham and his wife, from whom he was separated, had six children
(one deceased), and seven grandchildren. He is also survived by his
companion and her three children.
Funeral arrangements were incomplete late Monday.
225 Fairway Road South,
Kitchener, Ontario, Canada,
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