discovery title

Research at U of S


Canada's first computer, FERUT took a full summer to assemble, contained thousands of vacuum tubes and occupied an entire large room. (Photo Courtesy of U of T Archives)

Canada's first computer, FERUT took a full summer to assemble, contained thousands of vacuum tubes and occupied an entire large room. (Photo Courtesy of U of T Archives)

Computing On the Shoulders of Giants

by David Hutton

What weighed 800 pounds, occupied an entire room at the University of Toronto and was responsible for placing the U of S at the centre of one of the most significant technological advancements in modern history? If you guessed a giant supercomputer named FERUT, you're right!

All Harry Toop (BA'56, MA'60) needed was a night off from his part-time job as a telegraph operator with the Canadian National Railway. Eventually, the night came and along with it something unexpected - an event so profound that not even Toop himself quite understood what he and his colleagues had accomplished.

On December 15, 1955, Toop, along with a team of researchers at the University of Saskatchewan and the University of Toronto achieved a little-known scientific milestone: the first long-distance use of a high-speed computer.

The first run using the telegraph link between the U of S and the U of T. Student Audrey Bates is at the keyboard, Kelly Gotlieb (bow-tie) looks on with two representatives from the Canadian National Telegraph. (Photo Courtesy of U of T Archives)
The first run using the telegraph link between the U of S and the U of T. Student Audrey Bates is at the keyboard, Kelly Gotlieb (bow-tie) looks on with two representatives from the Canadian National Telegraph. (Photo Courtesy of U of T Archives)

Using telegraph circuits to cover a distance of 2,760 kilometres, Toop and his team at the U of S connected with one of the world's first modern computers at the University of Toronto - FERUT (pronounced 'ferret'), which analyzed mathematical problems sent via a teletype machine and returned the results back to Saskatoon.

The significance of this first-recorded, long-distance use of a fully electronic computer may not have been fully comprehended at the time; however, it would turn out to be a momentous step forward toward the development of the Internet as we know it, as well as an early portend of the World Wide Web.

The ingenuity, forethought, and expertise of Harry Toop, as well as a U of S graduate student named Bob Bruce (MSc'54), were key to this innovation.

A part-time math and physics student, Toop was looking to apply his expertise gained from his night job as a telegraph operator with the CNR to his burgeoning passion - the computer - which at the time was an amazing new machine, the potential of which had yet to be tapped.

And Bruce, who was then teaching the U of T's first computer course, had some experience working with FERUT while doing research at the University of Toronto. He was keen to find a way to send research problems to FERUT more quickly.

FERUT, which was purchased by the University of Toronto in 1952, derived its moniker from an amalgam of the names of the Ferranti Electric Company and the U of T. It was a behemoth, taking an entire summer to assemble and when completed occupying a large room. Eventually, The National Research Council and the Defense Research Board bought the gigantic computer for $500,000 in order to provide the kind of massive computing power their projects demanded.

Bob Bruce (Photo Courtesy of U of T Archives)
Bob Bruce (Photo Courtesy of U of T Archives)

FERUT's job was straightforward: compute complex calculations for universities and companies across Canada, such as the large-scale design of the St. Lawrence Seaway project. However, scientists across the country interested in taking advantage of FERUT's power quickly discovered that utilizing the computer was extremely time consuming; they had to mail their calculations, data, and later their own programs to Toronto for processing, and then the results were mailed back sometimes as long as four months later.

It happened that Bruce, while traveling back and forth between Toronto and Saskatoon, piqued the interest of Toop and several other U of S students while lecturing on computer programming.

"I remember there being about 10 students out for each of the lectures and each tried their hand at writing one or more programs," says Bruce. "They were doing some really creative stuff."

Harry Toop applied his academic and telegraphing knowledge to become a successful computer programmer.
Harry Toop applied his academic and telegraphing knowledge to become a successful computer programmer.

Toop, who embraced the technology from the start, worked closely with Bruce and several scientists at the U of T to develop an easier, faster way to process the results of their research via long-range transmission.

They were also helped along the way by Harold Johns, a U of S medical physicist who later became known for cobalt-60 cancer therapy, and Balfour Currie (BSc'25, MSc'27, LLD'75), a U of S dean of graduate studies and head of the physics department.

Realizing that computers of the era used paper tape for input and output (the same tape used by teletypes), the team suggested that Toop borrow a tape punch from his night job at the Canadian National Railway, punch in the program and data in Saskatoon, and mail the tapes to Toronto.

"I was in a particularly advantageous position," says Toop. "My teletype experience ensured that I could intelligently check that the teletype connection worked perfectly, while my assorted scientific studies enabled me to appreciate the problems behind the computer programs."

On Thursday, December 15, after the U of S team sent the data via a teletype machine, the U of T team took the tape, ran down the hall, and fed it into FERUT which performed its calculations and produced the results on tape. Bandwidth was low and the protocols were crude, but the experiment was a success.

That night, calculations were done for 10 research problems: three in nuclear physics, six on the northern lights, and one in animal husbandry.

Those involved with this experiment today consider the connection to be an important forerunner of the Internet exemplifying how these early machines could facilitate long distance communication.

At the time, however, Toop was unsure of the significance of what they had accomplished. He remembers writing in his diary after the experiment: "Is this history in the making?"

David Hutton is a student intern in Research Communications. A version of this article also ran in The StarPhoenix, and won the 2006 Herb Lampert Student Writing Award from the Canadian Science Writers Association.


Relevant links:

Harry Toop's contribution to the U of S:
http://www.usask.ca/research/communications/harrytoop_lectureseries.php

The U of T's Pat Hume talks about his experience with FERUT:
http://ieeexplore.ieee.org/iel4/85/6924/00279227.pdf