The Computer Revolution in Canada

From History of Computing

The Computer Revolution in Canada

Building National Technological Competence

By John N. Vardalas

The forces that shaped Canada's digital innovations in the postwar period.





The forces that shaped Canada's digital innovations in the postwar period.

After World War II, other major industrialized nations responded to the technological and industrial hegemony of the United States by developing their own design and manufacturing competence in digital electronic technology. In this book John Vardalas describes the quest for such competence in Canada, exploring the significant contributions of the civilian sector but emphasizing the role of the Canadian military in shaping radical technological change. As he shows, Canada's determination to be an active participant in research and development work on advanced weapons systems, and in the testing of those weapons systems, was a cornerstone of Canadian technological development during the years 1945-1980.

Vardalas presents case studies of such firms as Ferranti-Canada, Sperry Gyroscope of Canada, and Control Data of Canada. In contrast to the standard nationalist interpretation of Canadian subsidiaries of transnational corporations as passive agents, he shows them to have been remarkably innovative and explains how their aggressive programs to develop all-Canadian digital R&D and manufacturing capacities influenced technological development in the United States and in Great Britain.

While underlining the unprecedented role of the military in the creation of peacetime scientific and technical skills, Vardalas also examines the role of government and university research programs, including Canada's first computerized systems for mail sorting and airline reservations. Overall, he presents a nuanced account of how national economic, political, and corporate forces influenced the content, extent, and direction of digital innovation in Canada.


Out of Print ISBN: 9780262220644 424 pp. | 6 in x 9 in


  • An important book. This is a model study of how to look at the origins of computing in any nation.

    IBM Corporation


  • John Vardalas provides us with a fascinating account of Canada's place in the history of computing. In his clear and thorough narrative, he tells how Canada, a country with first-rate scientific and technical talent, nevertheless struggled to define an indigenous industry that could stand outside the shadow of the United States. This is an important contribution to our understanding of the international dimensions of high technology in the post World War II era.

    Paul E. Ceruzzi,

    Smithsonian Institution

  • This is a thoroughly researched and carefully documented history of the roles played by universities, the military, and private industry in developing computers in Canada from the late forties through the nineties. It places the activities in a broad historical and economic perspective that challenges widely held beliefs about policies that have resulted in the lack of a computer hardware industry, and shows that Canadian research and initiatives have produced very important benefits.

    Calvin C. Gotlieb

    Professor Emeritus, Department of Computer Science, University of Toronto, Canada

  • The construction of a new analysis of the later twentieth century is underway and John Vardalas is taking his place as one of the main builders. Each chapter of The Computer Revolution in Canada enhances our understanding of the making of contemporary society—the role of the state, the needs of the military, the importance of universities, and the meaning of globalization for post-industrial countries. John Vardalas's focus on the rise of Canadian expertise reveals how technologically advanced societies are both making and being made by the new economy of the digital world. And by examining the Canadian example in detail, Vardalas shows how nation building can continue in a new age of corporate computer giants. From students and policy-makers to CEOs and dot-com capitalists, we all need to read this book now.

    Chad Gaffield

    Professor of History and Director, Institute of Canadian Studies, University of Ottawa, and President of the Canadian Historical Association, 2000-2001

  • Besides challenging the conventional view that foreign branch plants are passive, technologically backward, and parasitical elements of the Canadian economy, Vardalas describes the little-known but vital role of the Canadian military at the origins of the computer revolution in Canada. His story also reminds us that technology is not just products but a pool of expertise that is essential for any nation to absorb and profit from innovations in a global economy.

    Janis Langins

    Director, Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology, University of Toronto

  • You don't have to be a Canadian, industry insider, or computer historian to get excited by this book. Vardalas combines solid technical understanding with analysis of issues such as how to foster technological innovation and the role of the military in boosting civilian business to higher levels of achievement. The Computer Revolution in Canada also adds new understanding to the question of why various countries do technology differently.

    Norman R. Ball

    Director, Centre for Society, Technology and Values, Department of Systems Design Engineering, University of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada


  • Awarded the 2002 American Association for History and Computing Book Prize presented by the American Association for History and Computing (AAHC).