Computer pioneer returns to York after 40 years

 Ray Hudson visits with Lorna R. Marsden

Above: from left, Bob Gagne, CIO and executive director, Computing & Network Services; Vasu Patel, administrative & technical officer, Information Technology Services; former York programmer Ray Hudson; Luana Jursza, director, Information Technology Services; and Lorna R. Marsden, York president & vice-chancellor

Luana Jursza, York’s director of Information Technology Services (ITS), received an interesting letter in June from a man named Ray Hudson of Australia. In it he mentioned that he had been a computer programmer at York when the Keele campus first opened 40 years ago and was intent on paying a visit.

So what, you may say – weren’t there lots of programmers around? Ah, but this was 1965: the PC revolution was still about 15 years away, computers were the size of refrigerators and programmers were a relatively rare breed.

“In May 1965, I was the first computer programmer to be employed by York,” Hudson wrote, “and this was some weeks before the opening of the Keele campus and the installation of the first computer.”

Planning to visit friends in Toronto this summer, Hudson said he was interested in seeing the Keele campus and particularly the ITS area, “purely for nostalgia and curiosity”.

ITS staff read Hudson’s letter with great appreciation and organized a day for the visit. On the appointed day, Tuesday, Aug. 16, he arrived on campus by TTC – an impossibilty in 1965 – and enjoyed his ride on what he called “a first class system”.

During his tour of the ITS departments, now located in the East Office Building, Hudson met with management and staff who were all eager to share some of their current projects with a pioneering colleague. Equally, they were keen to ask Hudson questions about what the computers and computing department were like in 1965.

One of only two programmers hired during the Keele campus’ first year, Hudson explained how they both worked with another staff member who was the key-punch operator, and the total staff numbered just four. (For those born after the computer stone age, data was recorded on paper cards full of punch holes created by the keypunch operator.) Hudson noted that his visit was taking place almost 40 years to the day after the first computer was installed at York University.

And things have certainly changed since then.

The department now has a staff of 42 and is just one of several units seeing to the computer needs of the University. ITS staff are now working in specialized teams which include Technical Services, Database and System Administration, Application and Web Services, Enterprise Systems Services and Project Management. Hudson was amazed at the multiplicity of projects and applications that were being developed and supported in ITS.

But since ITS is just one of several units/departments involved with computers, the tour continued with a walk to the Steacie Science & Engineering Bldg. (SSEB), which houses York’s Computing & Network Services (CNS) unit, for a meeting with Al Regina, manager and system architect for the Student Information Systems (SIS). Hudson met with the SIS team and found out that a current employee in the SIS team remembered one of Hudson’s colleagues. This was a trip down memory lane that recalled many shared stories of how student information and data was processed from 1965 to 1967.

Hudson worked at York for a few years in the basement of SSEB. He worked on the early stages of the Student Information System and payroll program, first using an IBM 1401 with 4K of core storage, which progressed to an IBM/360 with 32K of storage. Yes, that’s 32,000 bytes, versus today’s typical 512 million bytes of PC memory.

Hudson visited the server room, which is still located in the basement of SSEB, with Donal Lynch, assistant manager, Network Design & Administration, CNS. Hudson was astonished with the server room and the amount of storage and information that is generated across the campus.

He also met with Bob Gagne, CIO & executive director, CNS, who walked with Hudson and Jursza through Central Square, Scott Library and the Ross Building on the way to a luncheon with York President & Vice-Chancellor Lorna R. Marsden.

Enjoying lunch in the 9th floor conference room with its view of the new Rexall Centre in full tennis regalia, Hudson chatted with Marsden. The president and her staff were able to find names of some people Hudson might have known or worked with during his time at York, all of which impressed this visitor from Down Under.

After lunch, Hudson was treated to a golf cart tour of the campus by Tim Haagsma, manager grounds & vehicles, Facilities Services, and shown the many new buildings and ongoing construction that is improving the York’s Keele campus and community, all of which received the enthusiastic Aussie compliment, “brilliant”. He remarked on how well the grounds are kept and the impressiveness of the trees and greenery on campus.

Hudson said he remembered only four buildings from his days at York: Founders, Vanier, Steacie and Farquharson. “The rest of the campus was just open land,” he recalled. “Now there are so many buildings and facilities for students and staff to enjoy.”

Hudson concluded his visit with a walk through the Student Centre, York Lanes and the bookstore, where he picked up a few items of red and white York memorabilia to take home to Australia.

As he walked to his bus outside York Lanes, Hudson bid a final farewell and said with a smile, “The next time I come, the subway will be here!”

This article was submitted to YFile by Vasu Patel, administrative and technical officer with Information Technology Services.