Computing pioneer Kelly Gotlieb was quintessentially Canadian in that he united high technical achievement with a low public profile. Leaders in the field of digital computation, however, have long regarded the University of Toronto professor emeritus, who died on Oct. 16 at the age of 95, as the father of Canadian computer science.
In 1948, just a year after receiving his doctorate, Dr. Gotlieb helped establish the country’s first computation centre, at the University of Toronto, and in 1952, he imported Canada’s earliest digital computer, FERUT, to his new lab. This 800-pound thermionic-tube-filled monster was the second of its kind to be produced by the British firm Ferranti Electric Co. (FERUT is an acronym for ‘FERranti U of T’).
With FERUT up and running, Dr. Gotlieb collaborated with the University of Saskatchewan to process research data digitally. U of S sent metres of paper tape by Teletype to U of T over analog phone lines, encoding gigabytes of raw data. Dr. Gotlieb’s computation centre fed this into FERUT, which in mere hours had analytical output, also on paper tape, that was then sent back to U of S. The process was lightning-fast compared with previous snail-mail turnaround times of up to four months.
When the university established its Department of Computer Science in 1964 (for graduate students only), Dr. Gotlieb was appointed its first director. By that point, he had already distinguished himself in digital computation, calculating the dynamic stability of designs for the new Avro Arrow fighter plane and modelling the hydrological consequences of various configurations for the St. Lawrence Seaway then being mooted. Dr. Gotlieb’s calculations so reassured the U.S. Congress that it reversed its initial opposition to the Seaway, for the first time opening the industrial and agricultural heartland of North America to global seaborne trade.
Over his long career, Dr. Gotlieb co-authored four books and authored or co-authored more than 100 publications in peer-reviewed scientific journals; in 1958, he was a founding member of the Canadian Information Processing Society. He pioneered a computerized reservation system for Trans-Canada Airlines (now Air Canada), paved the way for the world’s first computer-controlled traffic lights (in Toronto), fostered today’s machine-readable postal codes and digitized U of T’s card catalogues so effectively that his system was adopted by the U.S. Library of Congress.
“We were,” he once remarked, “responsible for an entire nation’s calculations.”
Dr. Gotlieb was a visionary, not only in the technical issues of machine computation, but also in their potential social implications. In the 1960s, he was chosen by U Thant, Secretary- General of the United Nations, to be one of six world experts advising on how computer technology might assist international development. Years later, he served on Canada’s first federal task force on privacy.
When the University of Toronto Department of Computer Science grew to include undergraduate students, Dr. Gotlieb created an undergraduate course, Computers and Society, that he taught for 35 years, lecturing into his ninth decade.
Not surprisingly, Dr. Gotlieb’s wide range of attainments led to many honours. He was named a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and a member of the Order of Canada (1995), received five honorary doctorates and received both Golden (2003) and Diamond (2013) Queen Elizabeth II Jubilee Medals. In addition came kudos from his professional associates, including the Isaac L. Auerbach medal of the International Federation of Information Processing Societies, in 1994 and, eight years later, the Computer Award of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. This award was not just given to him; it was renamed in his honour.
Calvin Carl Gotlieb, who was known to his intimates as Kelly, was born in Toronto on March 27, 1921, to Jennie (née Sherman) and Israel Gotlieb. Young Kelly attended Harbord Collegiate Institute and went on to study physics at the University of Toronto, graduating with a BSc in 1942, an MA in 1944, and a PhD in 1947. Two years later, he married Phyllis Fay Bloom and the couple eventually had three children.
Dr. Gotlieb was a humane personality who attracted lasting loyalty and affection. To Allan Borodin, for example, he was more than a colleague and collaborator: He stood godfather to Dr. Borodin’s son. Although Dr. Borodin was a generation younger than his mentor, who hired him fresh out of Cornell, the younger computer scientist was struck by Dr. Gotlieb’s progressive attitudes regarding social issues.
“Kelly was ahead of his time in terms of his respect for women and how they were treated professionally,” Dr. Borodin said in a telephone interview. One of Dr. Gotlieb’s early colleagues was Dr. Beatrice Worsley, who under Dr. Gotlieb’s direction co-developed a precursor of the seminal programming language FORTRAN.
Nonetheless, Dr. Borodin admitted, the future of computation would surpass the wildest projections of its pioneers. “Neither Kelly nor I nor anyone else had any idea of how pervasive computing would become,” he said.
While Dr. Gotlieb was gentle in his personal relationships, he was not afraid to speak his mind, Dr. Borodin said. “Once at a conference, Kelly was annoyed by a presenter who rushed the delivery of her paper. Kelly stood up and called to her, ‘Slow down please! Listening to you is like trying to drink water from a fire hose.’”
Susan Reisler, a political journalist based in Toronto, was a long-time neighbour of Dr. Gotlieb and a fellow member of the National Yacht Club, where Dr. Gotlieb belonged to NOTSA, the National Old-Timers Sailing Association.
Their relationship was strengthened when Dr. Gotlieb’s son, Leo, married Ms. Reisler’s best friend.
“Kelly aged well,” Ms. Reisler remembers. “After his wife died, he continued to live in their apartment, doing all his shopping and making his own meals. He was creating and giving PowerPoint talks into his 90s. But he was modest to a T: His conversation was never about him. I had to interview him to find out what he had done.”
Dr. Gotlieb’s reticence was so ingrained that he rarely boasted. When pressed to state his own achievements, he did so with reluctance – though at least once, his diffidence had unintended consequences. Hospitalized in middle age for a surgery that developed complications, the professor was accosted by a brisk young resident who wanted to assess his general mental capacity and current cognitive state. He asked Dr. Gotlieb to tell him a bit about himself. The professor obliged – PhD thesis so central to cybernetics that decades later it was still classified, long chats with Alan Turing, organizing the Library of Congress, etc. The straightforward recitation was so astounding that the resident scrawled “DELUSIONAL” on his assessment sheet. His wife firmly set the doctor straight.
Kelly and Phyllis Gotlieb had one of the great love affairs. In a 2015 interview, six years after his wife’s death, Dr. Gotlieb said of their relationship: “A scientist who loves poetry and a poet who loves science … It doesn’t get any better than that.” Dr. Gotlieb spent his professional life on the frontier of techno-scientific knowledge, while his wife Phyllis (née Bloom) was an award-winning writer of poetry and speculative fiction who pondered how discoveries such as those of her husband might affect the mind, soul and society of humankind. In their breadth, depth and passion of interests, they were a two-person university.
One of her books of verse was a compilation of love poems sent to her husband over more than 60 years of marriage. The publication of Phyllis Loves Kelly marked their diamond wedding anniversary in June, 2009; six weeks later she died suddenly at the age of 83. His epitaph to her was: She Graced This World/And Imagined Others. Her tribute to him lies in her final volume of poetry, where she compares herself to the famous fictional cat created by American humourist Don Marquis:
If like a tom and tab
we sometimes hiss and scratch and jabI’m still from here to Heaven or Hellyour favourite MehitabelDr. Gotlieb leaves his three children, Leo and Margaret Gotlieb, both of Toronto, and Jane Lipson, the Albert W. Smith Professor of Chemistry at Dartmouth College, in New Hampshire.
He also leaves four grandchildren: Ethan, Jacob, Oren and Rachel.
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