These vintage photos illustrate some of the equipment used to communicate with Canada's embassies and missions in various countries around the world under Foreign Affairs Canada. Where the caption indicates "East Block", it means the equipment was located in the East Block of Parliament Hill in Ottawa, the seat of Canadian government. The "hill" consists of the Parliament Buildings plus two large, ornate buildings known as the East and West Blocks. On August 1, 1973, External Affairs moved from the East Block to larger premises at the Lester B. Pearson Building, a short distance from the Parliament buildings.

In 1995, Parliament adopted legislation that formally recognized a name change from External Affairs Canada to Foreign Affairs Canada (FAC). Unless otherwise noted, all photos are those of Foreign Affairs Canada and kindly submitted for use on this web document by Ray Fortin.

Next , the Department of Trade and Commerce joined FAC and the ministry was renamed the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT). International Trade then divorced from Foreign Affairs and the name changed to Foreign Affairs Canada again. Once more, Trade and Commerce was added to FAC to become DFAIT and that's what it is in  2008. Who knows what name changes will transpire in the future.

On June 1, 2009, the department will mark its 100th anniversary, a noteworthy achievement for a ministry that started out with a handful of employees and a modest office over a barber shop at the corner of Ottawa's Queen and Bank streets. The transformation of the department during the past 100 years from little more than a glorified registry office into a modern, dynamic foreign and trade ministry is a tale of accomplishment and success that deserves to be celebrated. In doing so, the Ministry will have an opportunity to look back on its past, reflect on the present, and build for the future.

OLD: The East Block of Parliament Hill where External Affairs Canada was an occupant until 1973.  This is how the building looked in July 2005. (Photo by Jerry Proc)
NEW: The Lester B. Pearson building at 125 Sussex Drive, Ottawa. (Photo courtesy Foreign Affairs Canada)


1973: Technical repair shop in the East Block, prior to the move to the Lester B. Pearson building. At the right,  in the cabinet,  was equipment for generating the RY baudot code test pattern, an oscilloscope, a DC power supply for the test loop and a signal generator. (Photo submitted by Ray Fortin)
This is a bank of ALVIS (BID 610) machines (with covers on) in the East Block. (Photo  submitted by Ray Fortin)
The transmitter-distributor (TD)  bank in Communications Centre in the East Block.  In the top left corner are Telex machines with rotary dials which were used to connect to other Telex machines overseas. When calling New Delhi, India as an example, it would take minutes to get an answerback - a  confirmation that the line was still connected and assurance that the message got through. (Photo submitted by Ray Fortin)
A row of ROCKEX machines in the East Block. (Photo submitted by Ray Fortin)
Another view of the technical repair shop in the East Block prior to moving to the Pearson Building in the summer 1973. (Photo submitted by Ray Fortin)
This is a bank of transmitter distributors (TD's) which connected to various circuits - New York, Washington, local outlets in Ottawa and so on. The photo was taken at the new Comm Centre in the Lester Pearson Building. (Photo submitted by Ray Fortin)
David Smith adds the following in reference to the TD distributor photo. "The TD bank was simply rows of torn-tape transmitter gates. The reason it was so large and high is that bins behind would collect the tapes we had sent through the gates. If anything went astray or someone need a repeat - we would "dig" in the bins.  Actually that rack is only half the setup. Behind the operators was another bank of printers and a large reel for each printer which would print and "record" all transmissions  giving us a back-up if tapes got lost, torn etc.   What hasn't been mentioned is that the circuits attached to those Transmitters were different speeds. When a message would be destined for a number of missions, the trick was to loop the tape from gate to gate.  The real trick of course was to begin with the fastest circuits and loop to the slower ones - anyone trying it the other way would quickly find out why it wasn't recommended!   The right hand bank on the top and bottom were all 100 wpm circuits so you could loop the same tape up to six times if needed.  Of course if someone stepped on the tape or it snagged it would cause some grief".
PLAY IT AGAIN SAM - The Lockhart Era 1955-1966
By Buck Arbuckle

Just after World War II there was but a small comcentre in Ottawa with a handful of communicators and four or five technicians. Only about four posts had machine cypher capability and much encryption was hand-done by book cyphers, a slow and tedious procedure. An interesting note is that Mr. Thomas Stone, a multi-millionaire, worked in the comcentre as a book cypher clerk for one dollar a year while awaiting a posting as ambassador. The machines available were Typex, an approximation of the war time German enigma machine, and a few Mark II Rockex. A large percentage of traffic was sent by CN/CP telecommunications at considerable cost with many transmission errors to the encrypted texts. This small comcentre provided an almost personal service as borne out by the fact that Prime Minister Mackenzie King sometimes left his East Block office, less than a hundred feet down the hall, to enquire if there was any reply to one of his telegrams. Under the circumstances, communicators could legitimately say NO to the Prime Minister. This small Ottawa communications effort, a mere section of the Supplies and Services Division of External Affairs was under the tutelage of Mr. Stanley

Transmission to Washington and New York was by land line protected by a crypto system known as Telecrypton. Overseas traffic went to the army signal corps in Ottawa where, at their leisure after military traffic was cleared, it was sent on an inconsistent radio circuit to the British Diplomatic Wireless Service in London who then forwarded it on to Canada House. Many departmental dispatches were bagged and entrusted to the British diplomatic courier service which took days to deliver. This was all very unsatisfactory and the department was demanding a more efficient and faster service.

Col. W. Lockhart, a retired army signals officer, was hired, designated Director, and given the job of forming a communications division with the primary goal of improving the service. Lockhart scanned his available staff and selected a core of competent people from the comcentre. His Deputy Director was Archie Matthews, with banking experience came Catherine O’Keefe to look after the accounts, and Lucille Pothier served as his secretary. With this nucleus of experience he went to work.

Although leased circuits to London and Paris may have preceded Lockhart, credit for eliminating delays inherent in the army’s radio circuit seemed to accrue to him. Certainly he opened up Telex circuits to many embassies thus vastly improving on the accuracy and speed of CN/CP services. Paris and London became Telex relay centres to area embassies but he often forsook this route through London and Paris and deliberately directed traffic onto Telex direct from Ottawa. When these costs exceeded that of a leased circuit, he installed a dedicated circuit to “save money”. All these improvements were immediately apparent to the geographic/political divisions who began getting same day responses to telegrams, even over several time zones. They enjoyed and used the new service to the fullest. Dispatches which previously would be sent by diplomatic bag were now appearing as 10 and 15 page telegrams. As traffic increased, Lockhart needed more machines.

Having curried favour with the political arm of the department he decided to ask Finance Division for more money. They balked. Lockhart tendered his resignation. The department paid. After all, an administrative division such as finance was not willing to tell the political divisions to cool it. With more machines he needed more staff. Operating 7 days a week and catering to 24 time zones he had to provide service 24 hours a day 365 days a year. It took 7 communicators to put one communicator on each shift so he always asked for communicator positions in multiples of seven, something the department wasn’t used to. Personnel Division balked. Lockhart offered his resignation. Again the department capitulated and found the man-years. He repeatedly asked for more staff and more resources and usually won his arguments against a tight-fisted department. Occasionally he would make a Treasury Board submission and when approved, he told the department he already had authority to proceed. With fewer dispatches consigned to the diplomatic bag, reliance on the British services declined.

But with more and more embassies on machine cyphers, it was now necessary to ship a steady stream of boxes of secret keying material to each post. Instead of limiting our dependence on couriers, our requirement increased so Lockhart started up a global Canadian Diplomatic courier service. Many embassies had very limited ability to meet couriers so in a few cases Communications bought them cars to ensure that couriers were always met at the airport. Our dependence on the British services, which we paid for, was on a steep decline and Lockhart was determined not to lose a valuable liaison and cooperative relationship with the British
Therefore he seconded four technicians to the British technical service to learn techniques and participate with them in the sweeping of embassies in the search for clandestine bugs. These technicians and their successors became a Canada based divisional unit who carried on sweeping operations according to our own timetable. New equipment meant more technicians and extensive training. A technical school was opened. The induction of new communicators required the opening of an operator’s school. The explosive expansion of communications traffic necessitated the establishment of a duplicating section. Though communications did prepare advance copies of all telegrams for delivery, the mountains of paper pressured the registry to hire more bodies to sort and file.

The department loved its improved service and kept calling for better communications in the hinterland. As fast as equipment and staff were available, they got it. In the end Lockhart had command of over three hundred personnel and a secure network that reached around the world. However, compulsory retirement came at age 65. He retired having set an expansion program in motion, built an empire and established a world class communications system second to none.

From The The Communicator Newsletter
Volume VI, Edition III, Fall 2006
David Smith, Editor

By the early 1970’s, Canada had established some 120 embassies and missions in more than 100 countries around the around the world and in widely dispersed locations. There became a growing need to communicate quickly and easily with the “home office” and with each other. As a result, in 1974, Canada's Department of External Affairs (now Foreign Affairs Canada), developed a message switching system called OCAMS (Ottawa Communications Automated Message Switch). It had a capacity to initially service 64 circuits but some circuits required two channels which imposed limitations on scalability.

Canadian National/Canadian Pacific (CN/CP) Telecommunications was awarded the contract to build the OCAMS system and later, NOCAMS (New Ottawa Communications Automated Message Switch. NOCAMS was just an expanded version of OCAMS with better, faster and bigger hardware which could handle up to 512 full duplex circuits. CN/CP chose the Data General Corporation as an Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) for the computing hardware after carefully evaluating the majority of small computer manufacturers in that era. The equipment selected for the task had to be efficient, reliable, economical and scalable.

Faced with developing a software application far more complex than routine message switching, CN/CP successfully incorporated provisions for handling classified and unclassified traffic. The application would queue messages according to established priorities, then switch them over a world-wide network. In that era, the Department of External Affairs averaged 20,000 messages daily from 24 time zones. With a speed of 5,000 messages per hour the system was more than capable of meeting immediate requirements.

NOCAMS was designed in a redundant configuration with two Data General Eclipse S-230 mini computers for message switching and four Data General Nova 3’s as the front end. Only one Eclipse and 2 Novas were on-line at any given time while the other computers remained in standby mode. Both the Nova and Eclipse machines had a 16 bit Input/Output bus. Eclipse was based on many of the same concepts as the Nova, but included support for virtual memory and multitasking. Nova was a popular 16-bit minicomputer built by the Data General starting in 1968 while the Eclipse line was released in early 1974.

To ensure the integrity of Tempest requirements, OCAMS and NOCAMS systems were installed inside a shielded enclosure which was fabricated  in the UK and shipped to wherever it was needed. External Affairs referred  to it as "The Box".

Data General peripherals included two 192 megabyte moving head disks and two 24 megabyte fixed head disks. Later, the 192 mb disks were replaced with units having 600 mb capacity. A Dasher display was used for displaying system alarms, dumping memory contents, loading and  restarting the computers as well as deleting or adding peripherals or circuits.

Data General Asynchronous Line Multiplexors (ALM’s). Multiprocessor Communications Adapter  (MCA’s) and Automatic Call Units controlled  system communications. In OCAMS, messages  were transmitted over full-duplex , leased and dial up asynchronous lines of varying speeds. Up to 30 days traffic was stored in an active file for recall or a repeat transmission. With NOCAMS, the front ends could be scaled up to 512 full-duplex circuits; OCAMS was limited to 128 circuits.

Circuit speeds on OCAMS ranged from 1/4 of 66 baud (quarter speed circuits) to 9600 baud. When NOCAMS came on line, the quarter speed circuits were retired thus allowing the 9600 baud interfaces in the front end to pass more data . Initially this faster throughput was much to fast for the new IBM PC’s which were just coming on stream in the early 1980’s. Flow control had to be employed until the IBM improved the PC to accept a 9600 baud data input without interruption. OCAMS operated 24 hours per day , 7 days per week with a recorded uptime of 99.9%.

NOCAMS finished its life cycle under the Larose software. For Personal Computers located at the missions, he wrote a version of NOCAMS which made the PC behave (more or less) like a mini NOCAMS switch thus making the operator's life much easier. This application prepared  the NOCAMS message with all of the prerequisite formatting thus relieving the operator of this tedious task.

COSICSs, although short lived (1986-1996),  was intended to provide world-wide desktop secure communications. As COSICS was being developed however, new and better technologies quickly came on the market and the decision  to replace COSICS with a more flexible PC based system called SIGNET  was adopted. Costing some $56 million to develop, COSICS was only installed in Ottawa and consulates in the United States along with the Canadian Embassy in Washington DC and the mission in New York. COSICS consisted of three different sections - CAMS, CATS and CAIPS.  CAMS did the message switching. CATS did the archiving while CAIPS provided Immigration specific software. For additional information see Canadian Online Secure Information and Communications System

After the end of COSICS, SIGNET provided a secure messaging system. During the late 1970’s and throughout the 1980’s, Canadian National Railways divested itself of several non-rail transportation activities such as trucking subsidiaries, a hotel chain,  real estate, and telecommunications companies. The biggest telecommunications property was a company which was co-owned by CN and CP called CN/CP Telecommunications. Upon its sale in the 1980s, CN/CP was renamed Unitel (United Telecommunications) and upon corporate affiliation with Rogers Communications, was renamed AT&T Canada.

Ottawa Communications Automated Message Switch (OCAMS) which was comprised of a Data General Nova minicomputer with 64 kb of memory and inaugurated in the fall of 1974. (Photo by David Smith)
New Ottawa Communications Automated Message Switch (NOCAMS). 

At the left, is the NOCAMS controller position where Angel Sarzynski is the duty operator.  Short wire messages and other traffic from missions abroad were handled here. There was one main controller position and two secondary terminals that handled different functions. NOCAMS was eventually replaced by the Signet secure e-mail system. When SIGNET came on line and everyone switched to using e-mail from their desktop computers, there was no further need for a message switch. (Photo by David Smith)

Another view of the NOCAMS installation. (Photo by David Smith)
A cleaner view of the (Photo by Lou Berube) 
The gentleman in the background was the technician from CN/CP Telecommunications who stayed for almost a year getting OCAMS bug-free. Glen Ullyot in the foreground. Note the lack of ergonomic furniture. (Photo by Lou Berube) 

The three photos in this table illustrate the COSICS system. What a contrast to the NOCAMS  system. COSICS was never scaled up for full international service. It only communicated with terminals in the United States.  (All photos in this table by Lou Berube) 

To view some vintage photos of communications rooms at Canadian embassies, select this link.

Credits and References:

1) David Smith <drdee(at)
2) Lou Berube <mberube(at)>
3) Foreign Affairs web page
4) Ray Fortin, Foreign Affairs Electronic Technician (retired).  e-mail: raymondfortin(at)
7) Buck Arbuckle -  FAC Ret'd.
8) Lou Berube  <mberube(at)>

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Jan 29/11