Ottawa’s Tech Industry Roots — The Original Hacker Community
***Updated*** June 1, 2021: Ottawa Tech — Will History Point to Possible Futures?
It may not be a well-known fact but Ottawa’s tech scene came into being almost a decade before Silicon Valley’s iconic Fairchild Semiconductor set up shop in co-founder Victor Grinich’s garage in 1957. In Ottawa, a small electronics firm named Computing Devices Canada started in 1948 with the development of a navigational aid for aircraft — technology originating from research conducted at the National Research Council. As chronicled by Doyletech Corporation, Computing Devices Canada was one of several advanced technology companies to establish themselves in the Ottawa region in the 1950′s and early 1960′s. With Northern Electric‘s decision to concentrate its R&D activity through two locally-based subsidiaries — Bell Northern Research and MicroSystems International — Ottawa began its remarkable transformation into a globally recognized tech powerhouse. The reverberations in the form of second- and third-generation technology startups are still being felt today.
Without going into the historical details of our city’s fascinating tech roots, I am equally excited to learn about the technical ingenuity and product achievements of these local tech pioneers such as the circuit board manufactured (pictured below) by data communications firm Gandalf Data Communications Ltd.
NABU Network Corporation engineers and technicians also exemplified leading edge innovation introducing a revolutionary home computing system that pre-dated the Internet. While not a commercial success, the NABU system represented a “landmark event in Canadian technology”.
Finally, the presence of Federal science laboratories in the nation’s capital such as the National Research Council, Defence Research Establishment, the Communications Research Centre and later the AECL, generated its share of ingenious inventions. In true “hacker” fashion, the development of the world’s first voltage-controlled synthesizer by NRC scientist and electronic music pioneer Hugh Le Caine showed how the art and science of tinkering and prototyping could result in a seminal invention.
The Canada Science and Technology Museums Corporation possesses several of these local hi-tech artifacts in its collection. Dr. David Pantalony, Curator, Physical Sciences and Medicine at the Museum attests to the creative and technical ingenuity of Ottawa’s tech pioneers:
“From computer to medical technologies, the hi-tech history of Ottawa is well represented in our collection. We often learn about these technologies in general terms of people and places, but in our collection we can study the roots of hi-tech Ottawa through concrete material evidence. Researchers from across Canada examine our objects from many different perspectives to learn about the complexities of making, design and use — the material knowledge economy. The objects themselves provide a deeper understanding of the rich ecology of skills, materials, technologies, industry, education, workshops, laboratories, infrastructure, and inventiveness that forms an urban hi-tech hub.”
There are many other stories like these that reveal Ottawa’s deep pool of talent, creativity, and technical virtuosity that made our region one of the world’s first true hacker communities. Perhaps we should think about celebrating this legacy and inspire a new generation of inventors, makers and entrepreneurs.