Friday, July 30, 2010

Meet The Univac 1107 Supercomputer

The Univac 1107
Meet the Univac 1107 Thin Film Memory Computer. Back in the '60s, the "Seven" (as all the hip computer scientists called it) was on the cutting edge of technology. All it needed was a small team of people to type up punch cards, transfer tape reels, flip some switches, turn some knobs, and occasionally unjam the cards when they got stuck and the Univac 1107 could calculate an entire company's payroll in just about four hours. You could even get it with a "high-speed" printer. Miraculous.

Univac's were originally developed to help with the US census, and they were made by the world's second biggest computer company, Remington Rand. They're probably better remembered for their typewriters and electric shavers, but back in the day, apparently only IBM was ahead of them when it came to these things. In total, 36 Univac 1107's were sold and one of them—with a 6 MB hard drive and 256 RAM—was sold to the city of Toronto. We paid $1.5 million for it in 1966 and used it to control all of the traffic lights in the city.


A friend of mine stumbled across a great picture of our Univac as she was flipping through the most beautiful Toronto history book I've found so far, the Historical Atlas of Toronto. I can't find the photo online, but it shows a big console station surrounded by banks of electronics and tape reels, and a huge map of Toronto on the wall behind it, with little lights showing all the relevant intersections in the city. It looks like something from 2001 and Sleeper and Dr. Strangelove all rolled into one.

If you've got 17 minutes to kill, you can also watch this great promotional video Remington Rand released about the history and features of the Univacs:

Friday, July 16, 2010

Babe Ruth's First Home Run

Hanlan's Point Stadium

1914 started out as a pretty darn good year for George Herman Ruth. In 1913, he had just been an 18 year-old kid playing baseball at an orphanage in Baltimore. But by the start of the 1914 season, he'd caught the eye of the Orioles, had been signed to a contract for $250 and took his place as a rookie pitcher in a professional rotation. It didn't take long for him to become a rising star, quickly winning 14 games, leading the Orioles into first place and earning himself two big raises in the process.

But the Orioles were in financial trouble. Halfway through the season they were forced to trade him the Red Sox and, unfortunately for Ruth, the Red Sox already had more than enough great pitching. And so, only a few months into his very first season, the Babe was sent down to the minors.

Despite the setback, the young pitcher didn't miss a beat with his new team. He won nine game in his first two months with the Providence Grays and led them into first place ahead of outfits like the Jersey City Skeeters, the Montreal Royals and the Toronto Maple Leafs.

The Maple Leafs had been playing baseball in Toronto since 1885, back when they were known as the Toronto Baseball Club and played their games on an old lacrosse field at Jarvis and Wellesley. By 1914, though, they had already gone through a whole series of real stadiums and—once most of them had burned down—built the biggest ballpark in the minor leagues: a gorgeous 17,000-seat facility on the island called Hanlan's Point Stadium.

It was on September 5, as the season was drawing to a close, that the Providence Grays came to town with their new star pitcher. He threw a one-hit shutout that day, winning 9-0, but that's not what people remember. What they remember is that he hit a home run right into the lake, the first he had ever hit in his professional career. The ball must still be rotting away at the bottom of the lake somewhere.

A year later, Ruth would be back in the majors with the Red Sox, helping them to win the World Series. Four years after that, as he started to focus on hitting rather than pitching, he would set the single season home run record for the very first time.


You can see more photos of Hanlan's Point Stadium here and here, which I got from this website with a bunch of historical images of the island. You can also take a look at Babe Ruth's 1914 Baltimore Orioles rookie card over here.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Toronto's Oldest Tree

The oldest tree in Toronto (and a tiny person on a roof)
When John Graves Simcoe, the Lieutenant-Governor who founded Toronto, first sailed into our bay in 1793, what he found, of course, was an untamed wilderness. An ancient forest covered almost all of the area, right up to the shore of the lake in places, with enormous oaks and pines towering hundreds of feet into the air, lush canopies of maple and ash, streams and brooks and rivers filled with salmon and trout, plus deer and bears, wolves and foxes, bald eagles and flocks of passenger pigeons so thick that they blocked out the sun.

Simcoe picked out a spot on the shore for Fort York, laid out ten blocks of a new town, and ordered his men to begin the arduous task of clearing the trees and building a city in their place. The clear-cutting would continue decade after decade as vast stretches of open land were carved out of the wilderness. (The scale of it was enough to shock some people even in those days—nearly 150 years before the birth of environmentalism. After her arrival in Toronto in 1836, the outdoorsy wife of the Attorney-General complained, "A Canadian settler hates a tree, regards it as his natural enemy, as something to be destroyed, eradicated, annihilated by all and any means.") But that, of course, was just the beginning. Despite our "city within a park" slogan, Toronto's total canopy coverage today sits at just 17%. That, depressingly, is about the same as Los Angeles'—less than half of the 40% boasted by other unlikely American cities like Washington, Atlanta and Houston.

Still, amazingly, a few of those same ancient trees that stood in the lush forest of Simcoe's day have survived more than 200 years of Toronto. The oldest of them all is a giant Bur Oak. It stands in the backyard of a house in the Annex, more than 35 meters high with a trunk almost 6 meters around. It's somewhere between 350-400 years old, which means it had already been there for 150 years when Simcoe first arrived, and must have started growing right around the same time that Étienne Brûlé is said to have become the very first European to visit these parts alllllll the way back in 1615.

And that, my friends, is nothing. The oldest tree in Ontario—a White Cedar on the Niagara Escarpment—germinated in 688 AD. That makes it 1322 years old—only about 50 years younger than Islam.


Back in November, the Toronto Star published a profile of that Bur Oak, which I borrowed the photo from and you can read here. And back in 1923, they published an article by Ernest Hemingway, worrying about the effect car exhaust was having on Toronto's oaks in general. It's over here. Long before that, Simcoe's wife Elizabeth painted watercolours of the ancient forest, some of which you can find here and here and here. And, in a happy coincidence, NOW published an article about Toronto's trees today, including the city's current efforts to get the canopy coverage up to 30-40% by planting more than 100,000 trees a year. It's here.

This post is related to dream
01 Metropolitan York
John Graves Simcoe, 1793

Monday, July 12, 2010

The Most Whiskey In The World

The Gooderham & Worts Distillery
There are lots of names that keep popping up over and over again in my research, but few as often as the names Gooderham and Worts.

Their story goes all the way back to the city's first few decades. In 1831, James Worts, a miller from Suffolk, moved here to build an enormous windmill at the spot where the Don River met the lake. More than 20 meters high, it was easily one of the biggest and most striking landmarks in Toronto's early days—one website I've wandered across calls it "the CN Tower of its day".

The next year, Worts invited his brother-in-law, William Gooderham, to come join him and the Gooderham & Worts company was born. It would quickly become one of the city's most successful enterprises, grinding grain into flour and then shipping it out across the lake or down the St. Lawrence. Worts, sadly, wouldn't live to see much of that success. Only three years after he arrived in the city, he lost his wife in childbirth. Later that day, devastated, he threw himself into the windmill's well and drowned.

Gooderham continued on with Worts' son, and a few years later they made one of the most important decisions in Toronto's history. Saddled with extra wheat, they decided to try their hands at distilling it into beer and whiskey. It turned out to be a damned good idea. Within a few decades, Gooderham & Worts would be making half the alcohol in Canada and more booze than any other distillery in the entire world. The windmill came down; in its place rose an entire complex of facilities: a huge new distillery; flour mills; storehouses; buildings for an ice house and a cooper and a dairy; even their very own wharf at the edge of the lake.

And their influence didn't end there. Throughout the 1800s, Gooderham, his son George, and James Worts Jr. were towering figures in the city. They ran railroads and ferries, teamed up with Prime Minister John A. Macdonald to found the Manufacturer's Life Insurance Company (now Manulife) and each served a term as the president of the Bank of Toronto (which would eventually merge with the Dominion Bank and become TD). George Gooderham built a brand new head office for their company at the intersection of Front and Wellington—and the Gooderham Building, better known as the Flatiron Building, is still one of the most iconic sights in Toronto. Once that was up, he built the King Edward Hotel. Even his house is a landmark: the mansion behind the red brick wall on the north-east corner of Bloor and St. George.

The 20th century didn't go quite as well. During the war years, Gooderham & Worts cut back production and pitched in with the military effort by producing acetone and antifreeze. Between the wars, they were crippled by prohibition, forced to merge with Ontario's other world famous whiskey manufacturer, Hiram-Walker, and dedicate themselves to making that company's Canadian Club brand.

The distillery itself was kept running, though, right up until the early '90s. And when it finally did close, it didn't stay that way for long. In 2003, the Gooderham & Worts distillery reopened as one of the most beautiful places in Toronto. Instead of mountains of grain and giant vats of whiskey, the gorgeous Distillery District is now home to cafés, restaurants, art galleries, theatres, the Mill Street Brewery and, as Wikipedia puts it, "the largest collection of Victorian-era industrial architecture in North America."

Friday, July 9, 2010

Toronto Before

King Street, looking east from Yonge

Thought I'd post a quick link to one of the other Toronto history blogs I've stumbled across during my research. Toronto Before is run by Aiden Cudanin. It's mostly old photos—some of the TTC, some cleverly photoshopped to show you what familiar parts of the city used to look like.

And, in a weird coincidence, just as I signed in to write this post, I noticed that he's also now also lending his services to the always kickass Spacing.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Keanu Reeves, Gay Werewolf

After living in Beirut and New York City, Keanu Reeves came to Toronto, where, as you probably already know, he spent most of his childhood. He went to Jesse Ketchum Public School before bouncing around from one high school to another, finally giving up on education entirely after he got kicked out of the Etobicoke School for the Arts (which happens to also be where Broken Social Scene's Kevin Drew, Metric's Emily Haines, Stars' Amy Millan, The Deadly Snakes' Andre Ethier and members of The Most Serene Republic and The Diableros also went).

But all that's just a way of introducing this Wikipedia quote about what he did next: "Reeves bounced between odd jobs, television commercials and theater gigs – including Brad Fraser’s 'Wolfboy,' a gay-themed drama with werewolf overtones".

I really want to see that play.


Monday, July 5, 2010

There Are Some Crazyass Fish Living In Our Lake

Lake Sturgeon
This is a lake sturgeon. Sturgeon have apparently been around for about 100 million years, swimming the lakes of North America while there were still dinosaurs walking around on the land. They can live to be more than 100 years old. Some even make it past 150. And they're huge; Wikipedia says they can grow to be more than nine feet long.

So, to recap: there are ancient fish living in our lake that are bigger than you and may have been alive since before the American Civil War.

There used to be tons of them in the Great Lakes, but (surprise!) once the Europeans showed up, overfishing and habitat destruction killed most of them. Now they're protected as a species of "Special Concern" (the same as polar bears) and you can't fish them anymore. (Unless, of course, those same Europeans massacred your ancestors and forcibly occupied all of their land, in which case letting you fish what you want is literally the least we can do.)

Lake sturgeon spend most of their time in the depths, feeding along the bottom, but sometimes they're seen in the shallows, especially during breeding season. And that means next time I'm down by the lake, I'm not going anywhere near the water.


The Great Stork Derby

Charles Vance Millar
Charles Vance Millar loved practical jokes. And the biggest prank he ever pulled came in the form of the will he left behind when he died in 1926.

To seven Protestant ministers who fought hard for prohibition, the rich Toronto financier left $700,000 in O'Keefe brewery stock. To some of Ontario's biggest opponents of horse racing, a $25,000 investment in the Ontario Jockey Club. To three local lawyers who absolutely despised each other, a shared vacation home in Jamaica. And, as a satirical comment on a conservative province where birth control was still very much illegal, the rest of his money—$750,000—was left to the woman who managed to produce the most offspring over the course of the next ten years.

So began the Great Stork Derby.

People were appalled. Millar's relatives were outraged. TIME worried that the prize might be won by "mental defectives". Or, worse, an immigrant. One legal challenge after another was mounted, but the will was airtight; each, in turn, was defeated in the courts.

In the weeks leading up to the deadline, the race heated up. Toronto's most fertile women started coming forward to make their claims. One was disqualified for having married an illegal Italian immigrant. Another because half of her ten children weren't her husband's. Others were ruled out because their children had died—at least one killed by rats.

In the end, the prize was split between four women who had given birth to nine children in ten years. Another two settled out of court for smaller amounts. Procreation went back to being the boring, ho-hum task it has always been...

At least, that is, until 1945, when the death of Thomas Foster—a former mayor with a familiar sense of humour—started the whole thing over again.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

"Formidable Engines of Oppression"

Toronto police constables around 1880
It's been more than a week since my last post, which, as you might imagine, has more than a little to do with what happened last weekend. Whatever you think of the events surrounding the G20, this has been a sad, upsetting week for anyone who loves this city. To be honest, it took more than a few days to remember how to find joy in the hidden nooks and crannies of Toronto's history. But with so many questions about the police force being raised, it seems like a good time to get back into the swing of things by taking a look at the force's origins as little more than Tory-appointed, political-dissent-smashing thugs and the reform movement that fought to turn them into something better.

There are very, very few cities in the English-speaking world with a police force older than Toronto's. It's even older than many of the most legendary and storied departments on earth: older than the New York City Police Department or the Boston Police Department; only five years younger than the oldest of them all, the London Metropolitan Police force, which was created in 1829.

But things didn't get off to a great start. In its earliest days, the Toronto Police Service was ridiculously corrupt. Tory politicians—who could hire and fire constables at will—used them to consolidate their power. Policemen violently crushed opposition party meetings, denied liquor licenses to anyone who didn't support the Tories and fought in the streets alongside Orange Order Protestants, brutalizing the city's Catholic minority in the more than two dozen riots that plagued Toronto in the 1840s and '50s.  In 1841, they stood by while Tory supporters attacked a victory parade for a Reform Party candidate and murdered one of his supporters—an event so shameful that even Charles Dickens would write about it disparagingly after a visit to the city the following year.

Things were so bad that only seven years after the police service was formed, the province launched the first public inquiry into their behaviour. The report was scathing. Toronto policemen, it declared, were "formidable engines of oppression". And it called for sweeping changes.

Toronto's Tory politicians ignored the report—even appointed one of the men who had attacked the parade to be the new chief of police. Their oppressive and violent behaviour continued unabated for years, eventually peaking in the two riots which would finally spark reform.

The first was the Firemen's Riot in the summer of 1855. Two rival companies of volunteer firefighters got into a brawl over who had the right to put out a blaze on Church Street. Police were called in to break up the fight, but instead the constables joined in the melee and later lied about it in court, looking to protect the firefighters who were also Protestant Orangemen.

A few weeks later came the Circus Riot—the most ridiculous riot in the history of the city.  It was the firefighters, again, who started the trouble when they—get this—burned down a visiting circus after some clowns cut in line at a King Street brothel. The police watched it all happen, did nothing, and again found their memories to be mysteriously unreliable when the time came to testify in court.

But by this time, things had changed. Immigration had begun to erode the Orange stranglehold on power. The growing middle class was looking for police to protect their property instead of picking fights. And Reform Party candidates were getting elected over their Tory opponents more and more often. Finally, in 1858, the provincial government was able to bring in the sweeping reforms that were needed. Most of the police force was fired along with their chief, and the Toronto Board of Commissioners was put in place to oversee the force. From then on, policemen would be subject to a set of strict new regulations dictating everything from where they should be during their shift to the limits placed on their use of physical force. Not to mention that they would now, for the first time, be expected to fight crime. When the policemen rose up against the reforms, they were all fired again; only those who agreed to follow the new rules were hired back.

It would hardly be the last time that the city's police force would be accused of abusing its power—the violent suppression of early unions, the anti-Communist Red Squad and the reign of Chief Dennis Draper in the '30s and '40s all deserve their own posts, not to mention what we saw last week during the G20. But it was an enormous step forward. That first decades-long fight for reform—from the public inquiry of 1841 to the formation of the Toronto Board of Commissioners—set the stage for all of the incredibly good work the Toronto police force would go on to do.