Our Story


Written by Professor Ben Etkin

In 1947, there came to U. of T. an ambitious young applied scientist named Gordon Patterson with an extraordinary sense of mission. The story of the founding and initial growth of the Institute for Aerophysics (UTIA), as it was then known, is the story of Gordon Patterson – the two are inseparable.

Originally from the University of Alberta with an undergraduate degree in Engineering Physics, and with a doctorate in physics from the U.of T, Patterson had already established a reputation in aerodynamics research at the RAE in Britain, in Australia, and in the USA at Caltech and Princeton, and with the US Navy. He came to Toronto with a burning goal – to establish there, in Canada his homeland, a major independent research and teaching activity in aeronautical science. There was already a base at the University of Toronto on which to build. U. of T. had a history of aerodynamics research going back to the work of Prof. John H. Parkin, in the Dept. of Mechanical Engineering at the time of WW I, including the first research wind tunnel in Canada. There was in place an undergraduate option in the then course in Engineering Physics that specialized in aeronautical engineering, and there was some postgraduate work at the master’s level. We had a reputation as being the only university program in aeronautical engineering in Canada. There was however no administrative or teaching department of Aeronautical Engineering. Most of the specialized aeronautical teaching when Patterson arrived was being done by the writer, in the Department of Civil Engineering.

Patterson insisted, as a condition of his coming to U. of T., that a separate department of aeronautics be established, and after some equivocation, and resistance within the Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering, the University complied. Thus when he arrived, Patterson came as the head of a new Department of Aeronautical Engineering, and inherited as resources one staff member (me) and a subsonic wind tunnel. I had graduated some years previously from the above-mentioned option in Engineering Physics, and had worked part time in the aircraft industry and at NRC.

With a deceptively mild manner, Patterson was a consummate master of University politics. He was always successful in achieving his objectives within the structures of the Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering (primarily responsible for undergraduate work) and the University-wide School of Graduate Studies that controlled all post-graduate work. He quickly succeeded in establishing a Department of Aeronautical Engineering in the School of Graduate Studies, that made possible the acceptance and registration of graduate students under his direction. After lengthy and complex negotiations involving the University, NRC and DRB, in which DRB’s Dr. Omond Solandt played a crucial role, he succeeded in establishing a supersonics laboratory, which opened in 1950 as the Institute of Aerophysics. The Institute was a research/graduate-studies unit of the University of Toronto, situated administratively in the Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering, but with somewhat ambiguous reporting responsibility.

Patterson was an innovator, both scientifically and administratively. In the latter respect he often broke new ground, usually by administrative actions, allowing policy to follow along later. He was successful in using the fact that most of the Institute’s financial support came from outside the University to create a physical and administrative situation in which the Institute was remote from the campus, and operated largely independently.

UTIA differed in one crucial respect from other university centres and institutes. Its members were not cross-appointed from other administrative units and it had its own space and facilities. Thus the staff were not divided in their identification and loyalty, as was often the case with other centres and institutes. I am firmly convinced that this is why UTIAS was an outstanding success in the university milieu when other centres and institutes were by comparison mediocre.

The first home of the Institute was, courtesy of the Defence Research Board, a renovated former RCAF hanger at Downsview, with its landmark 40 ft steel sphere, running a blowdown supersonic wind tunnel, standing outside the entrance. There was sufficient space there to start developing experimental facilities such as the supersonic tunnel, shock tubes, and courtesy of the RCAF, a flight simulator. Conditions in the Downsview hangar were rather primitive. The decor was ‘warehouse modern’; in the winter, snow blew into my office through cracks in the walls; Patterson had a phone in his office, but the rest of the academic staff shared one phone in the upstairs hall; there was a combination receptionist, librarian, and secretary in the front office, and one or two machinists in the shop. The original machinist, Bill Kubbinga, was enticed away from the department of Civil Engineering and remained a fixture of the Institute for decades, until his retirement. The emphasis on experimental research generated a huge load on the shop, and bottlenecks there were a frequent source of frustration.

Nevertheless, this was a period of intense activity and much productive work. The academic staff and the student body were small in numbers in those early years. The staff met every week to discuss every aspect of the Institute’s activity- student intake, thesis projects, exam results, administration, etc. All the staff knew all the graduate students and the support staff. Each member of the academic staff was familiar with the research of each graduate student. It was an intimate closely-knit group of committed researchers. At first graduate students were not assigned to individual supervisors, but somewhat on the principle of a commune, all students were the responsibility of all staff. Morale was high and the atmosphere was creative. The staff traveled a lot, visiting other research groups and attending scientific and professional meetings. There were frequent seminars in which prominent researchers and academics from around the world came to talk to us; and each of those events, as well as many others, was also an occasion for a social gathering of the academic staff in Patterson’s home, hosted by his wife Alberta. Staff and students remember fondly the annual Christmas parties made by the Pattersons in the Institute’s (only) lecture hall.

Patterson often said, in the early days of the Institute, that his goal was to create a place where there were good people doing whatever they wanted to do. He believed that, “the scientist works best at what is closest to his heart.” Two key elements of Patterson’s leadership were established at that time, elements that were in my opinion the foundation of the Institute’s meteoric rise to prominence on the world scene over a period of little more than one decade. These were:
(1) Emphasis on experimental facilities and experimental research for graduate theses. A large majority of the first theses were experimental. Even a graduate student who came to us from a mathematics background, and did primarily theoretical work for his thesis, was required to make some wind tunnel measurements. Patterson was convinced that this approach provided the best training for an applied scientist. Although at first I did not agree, I was subsequently won over to Patterson’s view. I came to see that the discipline of Mother Nature was imposed in important and unique ways in the laboratory and that the design of facilities and the conduct of experiments was indeed a splendid way to train future engineers and applied scientists.
(2) The creation, both explicitly and implicitly, of an expectation of excellence that pervaded the atmosphere of the Institute. It was simply assumed, and understood by all, that we could and would compete with the best of academe elsewhere- MIT, CalTech, Princeton, London etc. Staff and students responded, and were soon publishing in the best journals, and presenting papers at the most prestigious meetings. Other members of the staff beside Patterson soon rose to prominence on the international scene, and were ultimately the recipients of many prestigious awards.

Between 1958 and 1963 we moved by stages into a new building on a new site on property owned by the University, also in Downsview. For a few years we suffered the inconvenience of operating in both locations. Patterson was the prime mover in raising the funds for the new facilities and orchestrated the expansion that went with it.

The move into what has become the permanent location of the Institute around 1960, and its subsequent change of name from “aerophysics” to “aerospace” in 1963 can be taken as the end of the beginning, and hence of this reminiscence. What followed later was the mature phase of the Institute, with growing staff and student numbers, diversification of its fields of research, and more prominence on the world scene in aerospace science. I hope that my reflections will give the reader some perspective on this truly unique Canadian institution.