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Author: Kevin Kee
Title: John N. Vardalas's The Computer Revolution in Canada: Building National Technological Competence
Publication info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
May 2002

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Source: John N. Vardalas's The Computer Revolution in Canada: Building National Technological Competence
Kevin Kee

vol. 5, no. 1, May 2002
Article Type: Book Review

The Computer Revolution in Canada: Building National Technological Competence

John N. Vardalas. The Computer Revolution in Canada: Building National Technological Competence. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2001.

Editor's Note: This book won the 2002 AAHC Book Prize.

For many scholars, the history of Canada's Cold War technological research and development can be summed up in two words: AVRO Arrow. Developed from 1949 to 1959 by A.V. Roe (AVRO) and the Royal Canadian Air Force, the CF-105 Arrow all-weather supersonic fighter-interceptor was hailed as the future flagship of Canada's aircraft industry. The plane flew, but government attempts to sell the fighter never got off the ground. For such scholars, the demise of the Arrow signaled the end of Canada's technological self-reliance; henceforth the United States would supply Canada with military technology.

To John Vardelas, however, the Arrow is not so much an isolated example of Canadian technological daring as one instance of a broader initiative to pursue domestic research and development (R&D). The real story of Canada's post-World War II technological evolution, Vardelas contends, is to be found in technologies such as electronic mail sorters and reservation systems; less dramatic, perhaps, but just as technically sophisticated as the sleek fighter jet.

In The Computer Revolution in Canada; Building National Technological Competence, Vardelas analyzes Canada's attempts from 1945 to the 1970s to create a self-reliant digital electronics industry. Following World War II, the Canadian military played a central role in contributing to innovations in digital electronics by becoming actively involved in the research, development and testing of weapons systems. When budget cuts forced the military to retreat from R&D, civilian public enterprise briefly fostered competence in digital electronic technology. Taken together, government funding via the military and civilian enterprises nurtured the development of civilian businesses - specifically branch plants - which fostered a talent pool that added to Canadian technological progress in the years that followed.

Vardelas' thesis challenges directly the "nationalist interpretation" of technological change in Canada. In the 1970s and 1980s several scholars used Third World models of dependence to explain what they viewed to be Canada's failure to move beyond a reliance on raw material exports. The economic nationalists contended that subsidiaries, as passive agents of their parent companies, had blocked the development of local entrepreneurs and had served as agents of Canada's de-industrialization after World War II.

The case studies presented in The Computer Revolution in Canada cast doubt on the "nationalist interpretation", focusing attention on independent branch plants that developed aggressive programs to create local research, development and manufacturing of digital electronic technology. In contrast to historian J.J. Brown, who saw these failed technologists as further proof that Canadians are "terrified little men, clutching frantically at what we have and afraid to take any risk whatsoever, even for large rewards," Vardelas paints a portrait of ambitious risk-takers whose innovations influenced technological advances around the world.

Vardelas' narrative begins at the end of World War II, when the Canadian military embarked on digital electronic research and production. Encouraged by its wartime success and in search of its own contribution to the emerging Canada-United States-United Kingdom North Atlantic alliance, the military aspired to be self-reliant in the research, development and testing of advanced weapons systems. Recognizing the necessity of large-scale, automated, high-speed computations, the military channeled funds into an ambitious attempt at the University of Toronto to build the first electronic digital computer in Canada. When the project stalled, a computer was purchased from the British firm Ferranti Ltd. and set up on-site, enabling the university to become a training center in computer technology and software development.

When the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) decided to develop an automated naval tactical information system to build on its World War II success, it hired the Canadian subsidiary of Ferranti Ltd., Ferranti Electric Ltd. (Ferranti-Canada) to build a real time digital information processing system. Unable to convince the United States and United Kingdom to use the Canadian-made technology, the RCN shut down the project. Despite this setback, Ferranti-Canada emerged as Canada's leading computer R&D group.

The RCN project underscored the necessity of miniaturizing digital electronics, and to this end the military created a government defense laboratory to design and build a general-purpose computer using transistors. Eventually replaced by an International Business Machines Corporation (IBM) computer, the design and development process of the RCN machine advanced and diffused transistor circuit design knowledge, enabling Canada to launch the Alouette I satellite in 1962 and become the third nation (after the United States and the USSR) in space.

When declining military budgets threatened the viability of Ferranti-Canada, contracts from two public institutions kept the subsidiary alive. Ferranti-Canada applied the expertise it had developed working for the RCN to build an electronic mail sorter for the Post Office Department and an electronic reservation system for Trans-Canada Airlines. As computer technology advanced, the company attempted to build a general-purpose computer, but mismanagement by the parent firm sabotaged the project. Similarly, ambitious Canadian management at Sperry Gyroscope of Canada Ltd., a subsidiary of American-owned Sperry Rand, innovated to create a market niche. Like Ferranti-Canada, however, Sperry Gyroscope's venture failed.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Canadian government learned from the failures of these companies and decided to foster the development of an independent Canadian computer industry to offset the dominance of American firms. While the Canadian response was too slow for Ferranti-Canada and Sperry Gyropscope, the government moved quickly to grant money to Minneapolis-based Control Data Corporation (CDC).

In an attempt to counter the economies of scale of competitor IBM, CDC leveraged Canadian government funds to expand its R&D capacity, relocating the development and production of a mainframe computer to its Canadian subsidiary. The branch plant's first venture was a failure, but with continued government funding its second try resulted in the creation of a successful line of computers. CDC was eventually overwhelmed by its competitors, but not before it had expanded further the knowledge base of Canadian computer technologists.

On the surface, The Computer Revolution in Canada is a litany of failure: the CDC subsdiary venture, like those at Sperry Gyroscope and Ferranti-Canada, did not succeed in the marketplace. Being an early innovator within Canada's limited political economy was no guarantee of success. But out of the ashes of these subsidiaries there emerged a community of technical practitioners with the scientific and engineering expertise necessary to continue the development of computer technologies in Canada.

The Computer Revolution in Canada is an articulate response to those who view the AVRO Arrow as the epitome of Canadian Cold War technological history. Vardelas' examination of the development of machines such as electronic mail sorters and reservation systems and of the consequences of those innovations provides a less dramatic but more nuanced understanding of technological change in Canada. Vardelas shows us a history in which the Canadian technological community learned enough from its frequent failures to build the Bombardiers, Mitels, and Nortels of the last decades of the twentieth century, and to give us hope for Canada's future as a leading developer of innovative technology.

Quoted in John Vardalas, The Computer Revolution in Canada: Building National Technological Competence (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2001), 118.

Kevin Kee, PhD
Project Director
National Film Board of Canada