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Pat Hume was Canada’s pioneer of computer programming

Pat Hume.

Thomas Hull/HANDOUT

Pat Hume has been called a pioneer of Canadian computing – an oft-repeated description dating back to his 1952 work developing software for Canada's first electronic computer, FERUT. Renowned as one of Canada's innovators of computer science, he wrote his earliest programs out by hand on paper tape, which then had to be fed into the university's massive vacuum tube computer for numerical processing.

The former master of the University of Toronto's Massey College, and writer and performer on some of the earliest episodes of the CBC show The Nature of Things, Prof. Hume was one of the university's first faculty members to work with FERUT.

In those days computers were vastly expensive, gymnasium-sized, vacuum-tube-laden monsters, designed and hand-built to order for the few universities and military organizations that could afford them. Having evolved from Second World War-era mechanical number-crunchers used to calculate gun trajectories, the first electronic computers, including ENIAC and MANIAC, were initially put to work processing subatomic reactions for the American hydrogen bomb project.

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Prof. Hume's pioneering efforts were far more docile, directed toward the invention of programming and operating systems that would make the computer more of a universal tool. His research led directly to the development of some of the world's earliest software, including TRANSCODE, a predecessor to modern computer programming.

Prof. Hume died in Toronto on May 9 at the age of 90. He leaves his wife, Patricia Anne Hume (née Molyneux) – "Pat and Pat" were in their 60th year of marriage – children Stephen, Philip, Harriet and Mark, and five grandchildren.

According to his colleague (and current master of Massey College), John Fraser, "Prof. Hume's work was always flawless," despite his having to write out endless and arcane input code by hand on long paper strips. The turnaround time for programming was actually faster in those early days using Prof. Hume's method than it would be following the advent of more standardized input techniques, when software had to be sent out to be adapted to punch cards and then returned for uploading into the room-sized calculating machines.

Despite ever-advancing automated software, Prof. Hume never lost the personal touch, nor his innate proficiency. His daughter Harriet handled the indexing and program testing on his hand-written programs and many textbooks. "They always checked out accurately on the first attempt," she said.

Prof. Hume wrote the books for the first generations of software engineers. In collaboration with R.C. Holt, he co-authored nine textbooks on programming language for Canadian high school and university students, while publishing numerous papers on topics including batch scheduling, data security, software engineering and systems analysis.

In addition to his academic work, Prof. Hume believed in the democratization of information, particularly the latest research breakthroughs that could be difficult for non-professionals to grasp. "He had the ability to explain physics in plain language that made it clear and easy for anyone to follow," said his daughter Harriet.

His passionate need to share the wonders he'd uncovered led to a secondary, lifelong career as a popularizer of science. In 1958, Prof. Hume and his office mate, Donald Ivey, were asked whether they knew of anyone who could put together a concise yet entertaining live television show about physics. The two quickly volunteered for a side job that would eventually see them write and perform nearly 75 television programs and films between 1958 and 1966.

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Many of these programs aired as the earliest episodes of a show that continues to be popular today, CBC's science series The Nature of Things. (Prof. Ivey became the series' first host). Profs. Ivey and Hume became known informally as the Wayne and Shuster of science, and both were internationally recognized for their work. Awards included a silver medal from the Scientific Institute in Rome for their film Random Events and the prestigious Edison Award for best science education film of 1962 for Frames of Reference, now considered a classic in its genre.

James Nairn Patterson Hume was born to Canadian parents in Brooklyn, N.Y., on March 17, 1923. When he was seven, his father lost his job in the Depression. Returning to Canada, the family settled in the picturesque town of Goderich, Ont. His daughter Harriet believes that living in a cramped house with 14 other relatives sparked in young Pat a curiosity about other people that would last throughout his life. "He loved people – his family most of all. He wanted to know all about everyone he met – where they lived, what they thought about any subject he could ask them. He found everybody absolutely fascinating."

In 1941, he started studying math and physics at the University of Toronto, graduating with his BA in 1945. He went on to earn both an MA and a PhD in physics by 1949 from U of T. After graduation he spent a year teaching at Rutgers University in New Jersey before rejoining the University of Toronto as an assistant professor of physics.

The university would become his home base for the remainder of his academic career, leading to a full professorship in computer science with a cross appointment to physics in 1963. He served as associate dean of physical sciences for the School of Graduate Studies from 1968 to 1972, and chaired the department of computer science from 1975 to 1980. From 1981 to 1988, he was master of Massey College. As John Fraser observes, Prof. Hume found himself facing an incredibly daunting task when he took over after founding master Robertson Davies's 18-year run.

During his seven-year term, Prof. Hume changed the tenor of the job, blowing the whistle on profligate spending while expanding the membership of the college community among younger people. "Most important," said Mr. Fraser, "was his ability to bring scientific discipline to an institution long known for literary pursuits."

Two of Prof. Hume's sons became Junior Massey Fellows, while his granddaughter, Stephanie, is currently pursuing her masters in biomedical engineering, making the Humes the first three-generation Massey Fellowship family.

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Despite his long, remarkable and varied career, Prof. Hume was never one to boast of his accomplishments. His granddaughter Stephanie only became aware of his legacy when, by coincidence, the premiere episode of Frames of Reference was screened for her first-year physics class.

Ms. Hume described her grandfather as "warm, caring, professional and wonderfully silly," especially during get-togethers at the family cottage near Gravenhurst, Ont. "He would be the first one in the lake every morning, then he'd have pancakes on the griddle before anyone else was up." Prof. Hume had his own technique for getting the rest of the family into the sometimes-frigid lake water. "He'd have us chant, 'A one and a two and a grand shampoo!' You'd be in the water before the chant was out."

Prof. Hume brought this sense of joy to everything he took on, from household chores (according to his daughter Harriet, he could make any activity fun), to his academic pursuits to the yearly musical shows he'd write, produce and perform in for the Arts and Letters Club of Toronto, where he served as president from 1976 through 1978.

A Member of the Order of Canada, Prof. Hume was also a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and recipient of many professional honours. He received the Sandford Fleming Award in 2001 and was recently awarded the Diamond Jubilee Medal.

Prof. Hume travelled frequently and far with his wife, Pat, throughout his long retirement. He was a talented painter, a lifelong joy he had to relinquish when macular degeneration robbed him of his sight in his early 80s.

Although he didn't follow developments in his professional field to the same degree post-retirement, he was astonished by the rapid explosion of computer technology over the past few decades – an evolution in human development that he helped pioneer, though one he never saw coming.

Editor's note: A earlier version of this obituary incorrectly said the family cottage was near Bolton, Ont. In fact, it is near Gravenhurst, Ont. It also said incorrectly he was a talented pianist. He did not play. Three comments about Mr. Hume were wrongly attributed to his son Mark when they should have been attributed to his daughter Harriet. The story said incorrectly that his granddaughter Stephanie became aware of his legacy when The Nature of Things was screened for a university class. In fact, it was Frames of Reference that was screened.

The photo credit was not included. The picture was taken by Thomas Hull.

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