Rare Computer a Pioneer in Canadian Industry

By Noelle Grosse

Keyboard .
The FP-6000 could accomodate up to 64 peripherals, like this keyboard (Western Development Museum)

In 1961, Canadians designed a computer that was years ahead of its competitors, but the success of the Ferranti-Packard 6000 was cut short when the British government pulled the plug. An expert design team for the Ferranti-Packard company in Toronto helped move computers out of university laboratories and into office buildings with the FP 6000 general-purpose computer. After only five machines were built, Ferranti-Packard's computer division was bought by the British government and the FP 6000 project was canceled.

Of the five FP 6000's sold, the largest unit was purchased by the Saskatchewan Power Corporation in 1962. The company used the FP 6000 for 20 years to perform the majority of its business operations.

"When the light panels came on it was impressive," recalls Bernard Cherny, who worked as a technician on the FP 6000 for SaskPower. The huge machine filled a room and required an air conditioner. The central computer alone consisted of four cabinets that were each over a meter wide. While the outward appearance of the FP 6000 bears little resemblance to modern desktop computers, the machine was among the first commercial computers to perform functions we now take for granted.

"It was one of the first computers to use an operating system," says Cherny. The earliest computers had to be rewired every time a different set of instructions was executed. On the FP 6000, programs were written on punched cards and compiled by the computer. Programs were saved on magnetic tape or in drums with a nickel-cobalt surface.

"You could always spot a programmer," says Cherny. "They were walking around with boxes of cards under their arms." The FP 6000 was also one of the first computers to "multitask", or run more than one program simultaneously. Cherny says operators could run a program that performed engineering calculations at the same time as a customer billing program.

"It ran 12 hours a day," says Cherny. "There were a lot of minor interruptions but fewer than half a dozen major failures in 20 years." The computer's memory core of 32,000 binary words (32K) seems small by today's standards, where an average household computer has over 1,000 times the memory core. But the FP 6000's ability to multitask was far ahead of competitors like IBM, the industry leader at the time.

One of the people responsible for the FP 6000's advanced abilities was Ian Sharp. Sharp, 67, was the chief programmer for the FP 6000. He recalls the excitement when members of the design team were developing the computer in Ontario. "It was one of those things where we were working long hours and weekends on it," he says from Florida. "It was great fun, and it worked."

The chief architect of the FP 6000 was Fred Longstaff. His team designed the machines at a rented building in Malton, Ont. near the Toronto airport. Malton was buzzing with high-tech design and development. One of the neighbouring buildings to Ferranti-Packard was owned by the Avro company, which had built the infamous CF-105 Arrow there just a few years earlier. The Arrow was a fighter jet that was praised as a triumph in Canadian aviation technology, but ended up on a scrap pile after the federal government canceled the program in 1959. Five years later, the FP 6000 was dubbed by some observers as the Avro Arrow of Canada's computer industry. In 1964, the British government consolidated all of its computer companies to form International Computers and Tabulators Ltd. Since the Ferranti parent company was British, the government moved its computer division, and the FP 6000, to England.

"ICL re-christened the computer as their 1900 series," says Ian Sharp. There was little difference between it and the FP 6000. ICL sold about 3,000 computers from the 1900 series around the world. Back in Toronto, the Ferranti computer team went off in various directions, unable to continue working on their design in Canada.

"There were mixed feelings," recalls Ian Sharp. "We were quite happy doing what we were doing and somebody pulled the rug out, so we went and did other things." Sharp and others formed I.P. Sharp Associates, which became Canada's largest exporter of computer services in the early 1980s. Ferranti-Packard continued to manufacture innovative electronics, but the company's role as computer pioneer ended with the FP 6000.

SaskPower donated the Ferranti-Packard 6000 to the Western Development Museum in 1983. Less than 40 years after its creation, the large machine looks archaic, but it will provide a lasting example of an important Canadian contribution to the Information Revolution.

Reprinted courtesy of the Western Development Museum