World’s first video game built in Leaside

Film actor and comedian, Danny Kaye, rubs his hands in glee after beating Leaside-built Bertie the Brain in Tic-Tac-Toe at the 1950 Canadian National Exhibition.

Computerized video games are common today. Just ask any parent. But they were unknown back in 1950. That was the year the world’s first publicly displayed electronic video game was created. And it happened right here in Leaside.

A wartime immigrant to Canada named Josef Kates was hired by the electronics company Rogers Majestic, which at the time had a plant in Leaside at Brentcliffe and Eglinton. Kates was a PhD student at the University of Toronto’s newly created computer studies centre. There, with help from his colleagues at Rogers Majestic, he developed a revolutionary new kind of vacuum tube called the Additron Tube – capable of doing the work of multiple tubes and circuits at lightning speed.

To demonstrate the new tube’s potential, Kates and others developed “Bertie the Brain.” Bertie was essentially a 13-ft. tall computer that used Kates’ Additron tubes to power an interactive Tic-Tac-Toe game. The machine was built at Rogers Majestic’s Leaside factory. The company liked Bertie so much that it decided to showcase the machine as part of its electronics display at the 1950 Canadian National Exhibition.

Bertie turned out to be a huge sensation. “It was a much bigger success than we thought,” Kates later recalled, as quoted in Spacing Toronto, August 13, 2014. “There were always people surrounding it, lining up to play.”

The computer attracted hundreds of visitors to the Rogers Majestic exhibit, all of whom tried to beat the electronic brain – but to no avail. Bertie was just too smart. One of his opponents was the American movie celebrity Danny Kaye, who was the CNE’s headliner that year. Bertie won so often that the entertainer allegedly kicked the machine in frustration. Luckily, Bertie’s level of difficulty could be reduced when necessary, which allowed Mr. Kaye to finally defeat his mechanical opponent. The event was captured in photos by Life magazine.

Once the CNE finished for the year, Bertie was dismantled by Rogers Majestic and never heard from again. But he was not forgotten. Years later, in 1975, when Josef Kates – now a successful engineer and businessman – was named chair of the Science Council of Canada, newspapers reporting the event remembered his role in creating Bertie. And in 1983, Bertie was mentioned again – this time in the movie War Games.

Bertie the Brain – another fascinating (if obscure) episode in the history of Leaside.

This article was guest contributed by Ted DeWelles, Leaside Heritage Preservation Society.