It was a twist of fate that led Wes Graham to build a career that had a lasting impact on Canadian and international computer science education and software development practices. After completing his masters’s degree in statistics at the University of Toronto, Graham went to work as a systems engineer for IBM. However, a missed flight to Toronto changed everything.
“Wes was working in Kitimat, BC and was about to fly home to Toronto,” says Don Cowan, Graham’s long-time friend and colleague at the University of Waterloo. “He missed his flight, and the plane crashed into the mountains. It made him rethink his life. He approached Ralph Stanton, one of his former professors, in 1959 about coming to the new University of Waterloo to teach Statistics. As a result, we worked together for almost 39 years until his death in 1999.”
Driven by a love for teaching
It was his passion for teaching that drove Graham to look for a software solution that was better suited for instruction. At that time, a program run took a minimum of 30 seconds, and every error produced an incomprehensible pile of paper. This approach was hopeless for teaching large groups of students.
In 1965, Graham responded by leading four students and a junior faculty member in building the WATFOR (Waterloo Fortran) compiler to solve the speed and error problems.
“We found out about work being done at the University of Wisconsin,” says Cowan. “We brought it back to Waterloo and improved it.”
WATFOR made its way to more than 60 countries, 400 colleges and universities, and 3000 installations around the world. The team also went on to work on improving FORTRAN, which led to WATFIV (Waterloo FORTRAN IV), and the introduction of structured programming (WATFIV-S). Many of these enhancements were incorporated into the FORTRAN standard.
Graham was also instrumental in developing other educational software, including software for COBOL, Pascal, Basic, APL, and local area networks called Waterloo MicroNET, Waterloo JANET and MacJANET. His research also created early versions of word processors, spreadsheets, and databases.
This work combined with convincing the university to invest in the IBM 7040 computer and the IBM 360/75, earned Graham the moniker “father of computing” at the University of Waterloo. He also influenced countless students and computer studies in Ontario by helping to build the first curriculum and leading the development of hardware and software designed to be used in secondary schools.
Developing a win-win approach to intellectual property (IP)
Through the 1970s, entrepreneurial opportunities increased for students and faculty at the University of Waterloo. In the early 70s, Graham recognized that the university needed a better way to manage IP rights.
“People were developing all kinds of IP and software in particular,” says Cowan. “There was a lot of discussion about how to handle IP. Wes was of the opinion that if you create IP, you should own it. Wes then worked inside the University of Waterloo to make that official policy, a situation that still exists today. In contrast, at that time, most other universities believed that the university should share the ownership of the IP with the creator.”
“It has led to the success we see today with UW spin off companies such as WATCOM, Dalsa, Open Text and Maplesoft to name a few early examples. Everyone has benefited from it,” says Cowan. “People who are motivated to start a new venture can now go off and do it without having to negotiate with the university for IP. The University of Waterloo was unique in adopting this approach and pretty much still is.”
Outside the classroom
Graham’s son Jim Graham says that although Graham loved his work, he also loved his family, which includes his six children, his cottage, and waterskiing.
“Dad worked hard, and he played hard. He built two cottages himself,” says Graham. “He did all the plumbing, electrical and design – every aspect of it. We all learned to do those things too.”
He also brought his family into his love of waterskiing. They spent every summer in Bala, Ontario training and then participating in national and international tournaments. His daughter, Susi, ranked number one in the world on and off for 10 years and held a world record for 6 years unbroken. Graham also contributed to the sport by developing the first software program to measure jumps that were previously calculated using survey tools.
Recognition and achievement
In 1978, Graham received the Distinguished Teacher Award from the University of Waterloo. When he retired in 1994, the University of Waterloo created the J.W. Graham Medal in Computing and Innovation. This award is given every year to a University of Waterloo graduate who exemplifies Graham’s qualities.
In 1999, Graham was made an Officer of the Order of Canada. The award was presented at his home by Hilary Weston, the Ontario Lieutenant-Governor, just before he died of cancer in August 1999.
Even with his many achievements and recognition, Jim Graham describes his father as humble.
“Saying my father was humble is not a cliché,” says Graham. “He was confident, but he never held it over people. He really did lead a humble life.”