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Canada Josef Kates, 97, was a visionary scientist who believed computers ‘could do everything’

Introduced at the Canadian National Exhibition in 1950, Bertie the Brain, which Popular Mechanics dubbed “the world’s first arcade game,” was just one of several groundbreaking inventions from the fertile mind of visionary scientist Josef Kates.

Crowds of awestruck visitors lined up at the CNE that year for a chance to challenge the whimsically named electronic wonder in a giant game of tic-tac-toe. The machine was unbeatable, unless Mr. Kates programmed it otherwise, which he did often for children and once for entertainer Danny Kaye (after he purportedly kicked the machine in frustration).

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Danny Kaye wins a game of tic-tac-toe against Bertie the Brain in 1950.

Bernard Hoffman/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

The key to Bertie’s ”brain” was a revolutionary innovation by Mr. Kates that he called the Additron Tube. It was a new form of vacuum-tube technology that was substantially smaller, allowing computers to shrink by a factor of 10.

Remarkably, driven by the Additron Tubes, Bertie operated as an interactive game two decades before Pong and other commercial video games began to appear. While there are competing claims as to which arcade game was actually the world’s first, Bertie’s extremely high level of innovation at that time is indisputable.

Bertie seemed simple, but behind the placement of X’s and O’s on a grid lay the complex application of serious computer power. Unfortunately for Mr. Kates, who hoped his Additron Tube would make him rich, transistors soon revolutionized computing, rendering his invention obsolete.

While creating Bertie, Mr. Kates was also part of the team that designed and built Canada’s first electronic computer at the University of Toronto. “Most people thought computers could do some things,” Mr. Kates told Maclean’s Magazine in 2000, “I thought computers could do everything.” He set out to prove that he was right.

During a long career, Mr. Kates established Canada’s first computer consulting business, created the world’s first computerized traffic control system, in Toronto, and made Canada’s health-insurance system viable through computerization.

He was dogged and persistent beyond belief and once he had an idea, there was really nothing that could dissuade him.

— Louis Kates, his son

“His approach to problems was to work from first principles rather than studying the solutions of others. As a result, his solutions tended to be quite original and creative,” Mr. Kates’s son Louis said.

His daughter Celina believes his proudest accomplishment was a computer design to alleviate congestion and improve the capacity of shipping through the Welland Canal, a conduit of significant trade for Canada. An alternate proposal to relieve the backlog of vessels was to build a parallel canal that would have cost billions of dollars in today’s money. But Mr. Kates saw a better way.

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Louis Kates remembers a picnic to St. Catharines as a child. “Perhaps it was on that trip that he devised a solution involving only simple operational changes and inexpensive cameras to get ships through faster. The system worked so well that to this day, more than 50 years later, there is still no parallel canal as none has been needed,” he said.

Mr. Kates, who died at Bridgepoint hospital in Toronto on June 16 at the age of 97, was recognized for his work in 2011 when he was named a member of the Order of Canada. He was also a recipient of the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal to “honour significant contributions and achievements by Canadians.” Mr. Kates served as chancellor of the University of Waterloo from 1979 to 1985 and founded and led a number of computer consulting companies with international reputations. He was also appointed to the Science Council of Canada and became its chair in 1974.

While the family’s ancestral name was Katz, his daughter explained that her father changed it to Kates partly in reaction to anti-Semitic bullying he suffered as a youth, and partly because he worked with a partner named “Ratz” at U of T during the days of Bertie the Brain. “He got tired of the jokes,” she said.

Josef Katz was born on May 5, 1921, into humble circumstances in Vienna. His parents, Bernard and Anna (née Entenberg), ran a grocery store as well as a modest import and export business. As the second youngest of seven children, Josef was sent, with two siblings, to live in different kinderheims, or children’s homes. At the time, the arrangement was common in Vienna for families who didn’t have the means or space to raise their children. The outsourced offspring would return home for visits on Sundays or for holidays and family celebrations. Nevertheless, Josef was miserable. Not only did he spend his childhood in half a dozen kinderheims, he was also precociously aware of the injustices of the wider world.

Josef Kates

Courtesy of the Family

“I was a Jewish kid growing up in depressed, anti-Semitic Vienna,” he told a North York Mirror reporter in 2011. “I don’t think I was a happy child. I was lonely and I was in a horrible world,” he said. He remembered feeling uneasy at the scene unfolding in Vienna when Germany invaded Austria in March 1938. “I walked down the street and saw trucks with Nazis celebrating.”

Schools remained closed in the chaos following the invasion but even when a semblance of order was restored, the 16-year-old Josef was keenly aware of the dangerous times in which he lived. He determined it was time to leave Austria and tried to convince his family to leave as well but, initially, they refused. Accompanied by a high-school friend, Josef made his way to Italy, where he spent his first night hidden in the floor of a gondola before continuing alone to England.

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A stroke of good timing secured his family’s future. The Katzes were taken in and given refuge by non-Jewish friends in Vienna and, though Josef’s father had by then been arrested and imprisoned, he managed to bribe his way out. One by one the family escaped to England just before war broke out on Sept. 1, 1939. Josef, who was then 18 and working for an optician in Leeds, England, was briefly reunited with his family.

He signed up to serve with the British army but was never deployed. Prime Minister Winston Churchill was taking no chances on spies or subversives being in their midst. In 1940, Josef and 2,300 other young men of German and Austrian origin were put aboard a steamer and sent across the Atlantic to an internment camp in Quebec.

Josef, who had turned 19, recalled being greeted by German detainees and Nazi sympathizers waiting on the other side of a barbed wire fence. “We marched into the camp in Three Rivers [Trois-Rivières] and the first thing we heard was the song, When the blood of Jews spurts from our knives.

A few days after the traumatic encounter, Mr. Kates was transferred to Camp B70, a.k.a. Camp Ripples, deep in the woods of Ripples, N.B. Nazi sympathizers were kept separate to avoid violence while Mr. Kates and fellow Jewish prisoners chopped wood to keep the camp warm. Mr. Kates recalled his Orthodox Jewish compatriots refusing to eat because they believed the guards urinated in their food. Mr. Kates, however, was happy just to feel full.

A self-described “poor student,” Mr. Kates began studying for his high-school equivalency at the detainment camp, writing on toilet paper instead of notebooks. Eventually proper supplies were provided. He threw himself into his studies and, ignoring his harsh and isolated environment, managed to complete his courses. The results placed him first in the entire province. Second place was secured by Walter Kohn, a fellow prisoner who went on to win a Nobel Prize for Chemistry.

In the fall of 1941, Mr. Kates was released from the camp but it was too risky to return to England. Based on his experience with optical lenses, he was offered work with Imperial Optical in Toronto. He worked in the precision department making gun sights and prisms for periscopes. He moved on to work with radar tubes at Rogers Majestic while simultaneously completing his PhD in Physics at the University of Toronto. He was awarded his doctorate in 1951. Instead of calling himself a “multitasker,” he favoured the more computer-savvy term “multiprocessor.”

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Mr. Kates married his first wife, Lillian (née Kroch), in 1944 in Toronto. The couple had four children, including a son, Philip, who is deceased. Two years after Lillian’s death in 1993, he married Kay Hill, a divorcee, who also predeceased him. Mr. Kates leaves three of his children, Louis, Naomi and Celena; Ms. Hill’s children, David, Margaret and John; and five grandchildren.

Well into his 90s, Mr. Kates remained interested in solving challenging problems. In a 2014 YouTube video, he advised the Toronto Transit Commission that it could relieve congestion on the Yonge subway line by employing the abandoned Lower Bay subway station.

In a eulogy, Louis Kates remembered his father as a man who exercised religiously and had a propensity to park anywhere he liked, if he felt he could get away with it. “He was dogged and persistent beyond belief and once he had an idea, there was really nothing that could dissuade him. He would pursue it with single-minded concentration. As with anything new, he was often met with resistance and told his ideas wouldn’t work,” Mr. Kates said. “He proved a lot of people wrong.”

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