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Vern Dettwiler (UBC)

posted Apr 6, 2015, 7:00 PM by Jeff Ogden   [ updated Jun 18, 2020, 7:07 PM ]
Displaying Dettwiler_Werner-350x526.jpg
Vern Dettwiler

From Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/RASayle/posts/10204032541997067?pnref=story

I was fortunate to be hired by the UBC Computing Centre in 1968. I was also fortunate to last 34 years there.

Those were heady times in so many ways. Computing technology was zooming ahead, lots of new staff and staff turnovers and the music was great.

Our Director was James M Kennedy and he passed away in 2004. Then the Associate Director was Al Fowler and he passed away in 1998. Back then when I started, the person in charge of Special Projects was a very brilliant electrical engineer named Vern Dettwiler. Vern could built anything electronic and was lured away from UBC by Dr John Macdonald to form Macdonald, Dettwiler and Associates. It was soon to become Canada's greatest aerospace industry.

I remember being shocked when he left UBC, feeling he left us with a huge void. But, as I said, those were heady times and we soon replaced him with other incredibly gifted people.

Time flew and I wasn't one of the people that Vern kept in touch with. I heard he had retired back to Switzerland. A few hours back, I was googling something or someone and put in Vern's name. I was shocked to see his obituary at the top of the list. Shocked that he passed away 18 months ago and there was no mention in either the local or national newspapers.

I just remembered what I was looking for. I discovered there was a Dettwiler Pavilion in the UBC Hospital buildings. I was looking to see if Vern was involved and how much was involved... Don't remember any mention of that either in the papers.

Lots of Vern stories out there, I'm sure.


A memorial service for Werner is to be held at the Eichfeld Cemetery in Steffisburg (Eichfeldstrasse 24), at 14 hrs on Tuesday 1 October.


  • Dennis O'Reilly Wow Ralph. Thanks for posting this. I remember working with Vern in the early years.
  • Ralph Austin Sayle Before they got MTS, Vern agreed to build an device to interface Teletype type devices for MTS. I heard tales that he figured out the IBM Channels by scoping them (reverse engineering) and then he and the shop built the interface.

    Peter M was telling
    me recently that the device would freeze the IBM channel which could only be reset by a re-IPL.

    Also before my time, the Systems Group (I think) roughed out the design for a software package to replace the hardware multiplexor that had never worked.

    That's about when I came along to pick up the implementation started by Don McWilliam and then you picked it up...

    By the time I joined the Communications Group in 1974, Vern had departed for other greener pastures.
  • Ralph Austin Sayle Something else I figured out from reading and googling about the Computing Centre's history... before i was hired.

    Vern was the machine room supervisor for the IBM 7044 and even built special hardware to make the machine more productive in the mid to
    late 1960s.

    Originally printing was done on-line as a job progressed. I remember one researcher telling me that his very long jobs occasionally ran out of time because it had to wait for the printer to be readied. His solution was to write out a few dozen lines of asterisks on the console "to wake up the computer operator".

    Vern changed the process so a CDC 8092 was used to create input (the waiting card decks were read onto a tape) tapes and also to drive the printer from the output spool tape created on the 7044. I remember those days quite well... I think there were even spool tapes to drive the plotter. to add a forgotten name, Norm Finlayson did Vern's programming. Norm was there when I started but he left for medicine.

    The spooling process was quite reliable but occasionally the 8092 hung up. the "solution" was to knee one of the panels. It worked. Hmm, I was never curious then why it worked or what was behind the panel.
  • Karl Acton Ah, Fortran IV and punched cards, a form of Hell.
  • Ralph Austin Sayle Vern in one of those old IBM posed photos from the UBC archives. I forgot about the bow ties.
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