Technology Tuesdays: DATAR

Despite its small size, the post-1945 Canadian navy has a reputation for innovation.  The Beartrap helicopter haul-down system and the anti-submarine hydrofoil Bras d’Or are only the best known of its inventions.  One of the most important, if short-lived, experiments was the digital command and control system called DATAR.

As the Second World War drew to a close in 1945, Canada found itself with the third-largest navy in the World.  The Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) had been a mainstay of the fight against German submarines in the Atlantic, and expected to have a similar role in any future war against the Soviet Union.  Towards the end of the war the Germans had introduced the snorkel, underwater streamlining and hydrogen peroxide power, all of which meant that future enemy submarines were likely to be much faster and harder to catch.  That meant the RCN would need faster ways to collect targeting information and exchange it between convoy escorts.  The Development section of the Electrical Engineer-in-Chief’s Directorate imagined a computer that would combine the data from all of a ship’s sensors and create a simple image that could be shared between warships.  They called it Digital Automated Tracking And Resolving (DATAR).

Commissioned in 1949 from Ferranti Canada, a spin-off of the British electrical engineering company, the DATAR prototype was an ambitious project.  Unlike it’s British equivalent, the Comprehensive Display System (CDS), DATAR was to be an all-digital system tracking 128 targets simultaneously and computing their course and speed on demand.  It was a tall order, and while Ferranti Canada and the RCN got several prototype sets working and onto navy ships the project was doomed by its own ambition and by the limited financial support that Canada could give it.  The biggest problem was that it used vacuum tubes and magnetic drum memory, both of which were bulky and balky technologies soon to be replaced by transistors and ferrite cores.  When neither the Royal Canadian Air Force or the US navy showed any interest in buying the system and splitting the development costs, the RCN shut down the project in 1955.

Despite the fact that DATAR never made it into active service, it had important consequences.  US Navy engineers watched the Canadian experience closely, and when they started designing their own naval computer system in the mid-1950s they adopted some of DATAR’s basic principles.  The DATAR team invented the trackball input device (remember when laptops used those?), and got Canada a seat at the table when it came to standardizing the digital transmission of data.  The Tactical International Data Exchange group (the acronym TIDE was chosen because the resulting standard would “clean-up” messy tactical plots) consisted of Canada, Britain and the US – the standard they set spread throughout NATO.

The most important aspect of DATAR was that, unlike earlier analog command and control systems, it was non-hierarchical – instead of sending all the information up the chain of command to be collected at the top, it shared as much information as possible between all the ships in the task force.  The US Navy adopted the same structure in their Naval Tactical Data System, as did most commercial computer networks.  In the late 1990s the sharing of information between military elements became the basis for what Admiral Arthur Cebrowski called “network-centric warfare.”  Since then, the flow of peer-to-peer systems, wikis, Cooperative Engagement Capability and other information-sharing systems into the world’s militaries has become a flood – one which DATAR helped to pioneer.

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