Computers could do everything!
Josef Kates (1921–2018) was a Canadian engineer and computer pioneer whose achievements include designing the first digital game-playing machine, and the world’s first automated traffic signalling system. Kates’s game-playing machine, the 4-meter-tall Bertie the Brain, was exhibited in August 1950 at the Canadian National Exhibition. The game was a version of Tic-tac-toe, with adjustable difficulty levels. Kates recalled: “On the UTEC we were actually playing games, so I said, ‘Look, we can build a game-playing machine’…. Practically everybody knows tic-tac-toe. I thought it would make a nice exhibit.” The University of Toronto Electronic Computer (UTEC) was one of the world’s first working computers developed by a group of engineers, that included Kates.
The game machine controlled the lighting of an overhead display to show the progress of the game and was built using a special electron tube, the Additron Tube, which Kates had invented a couple of years ago. The Additron Tube did the work of ten existing radio tubes, reducing the size and complexity of the machine. It was an elegant solution to reduce the need for a computer to have a dozen radio vacuum tubes to perform even the most basic of functions. It was patented in March 1957 and described as such:
An electronic vacuum tube having characteristics making it adapted to perform the functions indicated by a function table, for subtraction, for multiplication, for division, or for a switching arrangement.
Rather than a screen, Bertie’s display was instead made up of nine lightbulbs; each one lighting up a corresponding ‘X’ or ‘O’ on a display board. The ‘controller’ was a mini-version of the huge display, a nine-square pad that the player could press in order to place their naught or cross. When they did so it prompted Bertie to perform a binary notation to respond with a counter move. “It was a much bigger success than we thought,” recalled Kates. “There were always people surrounding it, lining up to play.” At the end of the CNE, its purpose served, Bertie the Brain was taken apart and largely forgotten. Unfortunately for its inventor, the Additron tube from which the computer derived its processing power became obsolete with the development of solid-state transistors.
Biography of Josef Kates
Josef Kates was born Josef Katz on 5 May 1921 in Vienna, Austria. He was the fifth of six children in an Austrian-Jewish family—Baruch (Bernard) Katz (born 1887 in Teofipol, Russian Empire, died 1969) and Chana Dwojra (Anna) Katz (née Entenberg) (born 1891 in Lviv, Russian Empire). Baruch and Anna married in 1912 and ran a grocery store as well as a modest import and export business in Vienna. Besides Josef they had: Gretl (died in infancy), Hermann (b. 1914), Cornelia (b. 1915), Lola (b. 1916), Olga (b. 1918), and Erika (b. 1924).
As his family didn’t have the means to raise properly all the children, Josef was sent, with two siblings, to live in different kinderheims, or children’s homes. He was admitted to Goethe-Realschule in Vienna in 1931. After the Anschluss in 1938, accompanied by a high-school friend, he fled to Italy to escape the Nazis, spending his first night hidden on the floor of a gondola. Italy was not a secure place for Jews, so Josef went through Milan, Zurich, and London, to Leeds in Yorkshire, where he found work as an optician’s apprentice. Fortunately, in 1939 his family also managed to escape and joined him in England. At the outbreak of World War II, Josef 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, so in 1940, Josef and 2300 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 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 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, he was transferred to a camp deep in the woods of Ripples, N.B. Nazi sympathizers were kept separate to avoid violence while Josef and fellow Jewish prisoners chopped wood to keep the camp warm.
Although he had been a poor student in Vienna, Josef 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, Josef was released from the camp but it was too risky to return to England, to reunite with his family. 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 BA and MA degrees in Mathematics and PhD in Physics at the University of Toronto, and was awarded his doctorate in 1951. At University, he and a group of engineers developed one of the world’s first working computers, the 12-bit University of Toronto Electronic Computer (UTEC). At the same time, Kates was busily developing a miniature vacuum tube of his own design, which he called the Additron, with help from friends at Rogers Majestic. Kates later set up his own consulting company and became instrumental in establishing Toronto’s computerized traffic control system, the first in the world. His company was later tasked with improving the flow of ships through the Welland Canal.
Kates served as a computer consultant to many Canadian and American firms and organizations. He was involved in the creation of Setak Computer Services Corp. Ltd. In 1974 he founded Josef Kates Associates Inc., for which he acted as president. In 1968, he was appointed to the Science Council of Canada and served as its chairman from 1975 to 1978. Kates was also chairman, CEO, and director of Teleride Sage Ltd. (1977–1996), and IRD Teleride (1996–1997) followed until his retirement. He was a holder of patents for Electronic vacuum tubes, Traffic monitoring and signal systems, and Systems and methods for documenting and enforcing traffic and parking regulations.
Kates married his first wife, Lillian (née Kroch), in 1944 in Toronto. The couple had four children: Louis, Naomi, Celina, and Philip Arthur. Two years after Lillian’s death in 1993, he married Kay Hill. Josef Kates died on 16 June 2018 (aged 97) in Toronto, Ontario.