Copywriter, technical writer, translator (FR>EN, ES>EN, IT>EN), journalist

Genius in our midst


Originally published in Business Niagara Magazine

In his Portage Road warehouse, John Bordynuik leads me past a shelf holding his remote control submarine towards skids piled with 30,000 pounds of computer backup tapes shipped here by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Every bit of information on these tapes – two terabytes in total – is part of a thesis, a technical journal or other priceless intellectual property generated by the venerable institution from the 60s to the 90s.

MIT wrote backups onto seven- and nine-track reel-to-reel tapes reminiscent of those in the movie “The Italian Job” – the original, starring Michael Caine. Unlike the movie, though, nobody updated the tapes.

MIT doesn’t have any other copies of the data on these tapes, so when the institute found it couldn’t read them anymore, it launched several attempts to recover the data. Each one failed. In 2003, MIT heard about Bordynuik and contacted him. Having already developed hardware for this purpose, he started spinning the tapes to the amazement of those who already tried.

But data recovery is a sideline. Bordynuik doesn’t just want to recover intellectual property. He wants to create it, and by extension the future of Niagara’s manufacturing sector.

To illustrate, Bordynuik shows me seven circuit boards extracted from a client’s electronic device. Seven boards is six too many for his client, so he and his team of engineers created one board that does the job of the original seven. Topping off the package with industry-standard USB or Ethernet connectivity, Bordynuik’s client gets a more efficient product that costs less to make. He extends this philosophy to create products, too. For example, lists a dirty bomb detector that he somehow squeezed into a key fob.

Projects like this may prove a godsend to the close-knit Niagara community of ISO-accredited companies. “If the products are more intelligent and cost less to produce, that will give (assemblers) quite a competitive advantage,” he says.

Meanwhile, Bordynuik’s reputation as a data recovery expert keeps his sideline cooking. Certain makes of tapes become sticky over the years, so Bordynuik bakes them in ovens of his own design. Once hardened, tape transports can read them without mangling them, and Bordynuik copies their contents onto modern media for his clients.

Given the results he brings and those he’s shooting for, Niagara’s business community might well ask: how does one bake more John Bordynuiks? The recipe is not conventional. It calls for, among other things, business experience at an early age, a passion for robotics, big iron and untold numbers of blown fuses.

Born in Niagara to John and Shirley Bordynuik, John Junior grew up in Fonthill. Shirley’s 25-year teaching career spanned primary schools, Niagara College, and Brock University, plus several years raising John and younger brother Mike. By the time he started kindergarten, Bordynuik had attained fourth-grade literacy. “She spent a lot of time with me reading and writing and I enjoyed it,” Bordynuik recalls.

Aged seven and ravenous for reading, Bordynuik dived into the Electronics TAB Book Club. It was in the pages of the ambitiously titled “How to Build Your Own Working Robot” that he found his calling.

Bordynuik soon realized these contraptions, like “Buster” in his book, were expensive to build and called for many parts that weren’t locally available. So John Senior started talking to salvagers, people at Atlas Steel where he worked as a machinist for 42 years and anybody he knew with a lead to the kind of equipment his son longed for.

Soon, local companies were giving Bordynuik the mainframe computers that they would write off every two to five years. He scored the “big iron” of the day from technology leaders like Honeywell, IBM and Digital Equipment Corporation, some of which would overwhelm both the basement and the electrical system of his parents’ house. He often dragged computers from one outlet to another whenever he blew a fuse. “If more than four or five went,” Bordynuik recalls, “my dad would start looking around the house for problems. But when I was working on a problem, I would blow a lot of fuses.” John Junior continued to get more computers. John Senior got circuit breakers.

Along with big iron came big books – manuals, schematics and operations guides. To learn from his systems, he had to keep them working, and that meant repairing them at the component level. The aspiring roboticist had to navigate thousands of parts in the leading computers of the 60s and 70s using manuals that weren’t publicly available, not even in universities.

“I wanted to make a robot as intelligent as possible,” says Bordynuik, so by ten he started programming in assembly language, the level above the ones and zeros of binary that computers understand, and progressing to simple systems and interfaces at 12. He studied what he found on the computers themselves, and later supplemented his knowledge by contacting the people who designed the devices, most of whom welcomed his questions.

Teachers at Fonthill’s E.L. Neil Crossley high school soon found out about Bordynuik’s interest in gadgets. For one science fair, “I built a high-voltage generator, put electrodes into a vacuum, pumped gas in there and smashed atoms,” he recalls. He also unfortunately hit a nearby steel table with a high-voltage bolt, so his teacher promptly confiscated the device and locked it in a school vault.

Working part-time since Grade Eight repairing electronics at a local shop, the student soon became a part-time computer consultant. Bordynuik wrote Grimsby Hydro’s mainframe security system and the school board’s accounting system, among others, as a teenager.

You might think a teenager with that kind of access to school systems would try a little electronic horseplay, but Bordynuik’s denial of any e-wrongdoing sounds plausible. “I was being paid 20 dollars an hour. Back then, to make that while attending high school was pretty cool. I wasn’t about to tinker with it!”

Teachers soon treated him less as a student and more as an equal. When he asked his principal/client how many classes he had missed one year (due to consulting activities), the principal returned twenty minutes later with an eleven-page dot matrix printout, handed him the sheaf and quipped: “It would have taken less time to print out the number of classes you actually made.”

Any doubts about his integrity vanished in 1989, when he told his bank he found $1.2 million in his account that he didn’t remember depositing. Bank officials in Toronto insisted there was no mistake and the money belonged to him, while staff at the local branch scrambled to reconcile more than a million missing dollars. Bordynuik stuck with his story, which soon made headlines across Canada.

Papers proclaiming “Honest John Returns $1.2 million” caught the eyes of influential Ontario Legislature IT staff, but they couldn’t find him before he started first year physics at Brock University. They did find him at the end of first year, though, and lured him out of Niagara to work on provincial systems in Toronto. Bordynuik’s initial system administration responsibilities soon evolved into research and development, all the while fielding calls from government officials anxious to recover data from crashed hard drives and ruined tapes that nobody backed up.

Leaving Brock for Queen’s Park may have helped Bordynuik more than it hurt. Firsthand dealings in politics and business during a ten-year public sector career taught him things he never read in manuals. Also, a substantial training budget opened doors to Digital University in the U.S where he earned his designation as a CPU Architect from Digital Equipment Corporation, the closest Bordynuik has yet come to attaining a post-secondary degree.

Meanwhile, he both saved and added to the collection of big iron from his youth. The machines he restored he kept in a friend’s Waterloo warehouse and in storage owned by Helen Brown, aunt to MPP Peter Kormos. These non-Y2K compliant machines, seemingly destined for scrapheaps, appealed to a new kind of buyer.

“Just before the year 2000 boom, all the technology billionaires were looking for the computers that they developed with at university because, really, that’s what made them all their money,” Bordynuik says. For example, in 2000, Bordynuik listed a 1972 PDP11/35 computer on eBay for $200 with this promise: “I’m not telling you it’s a working computer; I’m going to prove it. Click here and you can connect to it.” Among the 4,000 people who connected that weekend was Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, eventual buyer of 36 systems from Bordynuik, and valuable referral leading to a 2002 stint at Microsoft.

Another unusual door opened in 2003, when MIT signed Bordynuik as a collaborative researcher in their massive computation group. (Collaborative researchers at MIT usually have at least a few months of post-doctorate work under their belts.) As other firms continue to ask him to recover data, he expects to finish the MIT work within the year, when MIT will grant him an honorary degree, his first certificate from a recognized post-secondary institution.

Today, as his youngest son builds Buster at home, John Bordynuik builds better Busters, optimizing and consolidating processors and circuits in existing products like the seven-processor-in-one example he showed me.

The drive towards more intelligent parts dates back to his days as an amateur roboticist, but today his focus is much different – keeping final assembly jobs in the Niagara region.

Not that offshoring is taboo: Bordynuik himself deals with Chinese manufacturers. But he points to the rising labour rates in the world’s most populous country as evidence that the playing field will level out. He also believes outsourcing rarely fits the bill when a firm makes highly specialized products. “Let’s use Asia for what they’re really good at, which is manufacturing individual components,” he says. “(But) final assembly in China isn’t always practical. If quality control is a serious issue, it should be done here.”

The quality of the first several thousand units of a product concerns him most, since Bordynuik shuns generic off-the-shelf parts. He custom-builds the main processor and optimizes everything else on a board specifically for the task at hand.

His clients’ engineers don’t. They have a penchant for reaching into the Lego parts bin for general-purpose processors and other generic bits to meet the specifications of a given design. Manufacturers often find the results fat and expensive to both produce and operate, so Bordynuik makes his own Lego from scratch to fit the product.

“I learned programming on machines with 1,000 transistors. (Today’s PCs have more than 65 million). I can do as much with 1,000 transistors as others can do with 65 million,” says Bordynuik in a matter-of-fact tone. “Fewer transistors mean less power draw, less cost, less problems.”

Along with board, Bordynuik builds strong ties with his clients. “It’s not just: ‘Here’s your product redesigned. We’ll have the electronics manufactured. You go off and assemble the product.’ Because we supply the electronics that are assembled, we have a small stake. We want the product to take significant market share. We constantly evolve the technology to make it better for that particular industry.”

Next on Bordynuik’s to-do list is battery production, a natural extension of product optimization work. His battery development group custom-designs and tunes lead-acid models to power devices that draw between two and ten amps (larger than notebook PCs and smaller than electric vehicles). From hospital medical exam carts to mobile pricing and inventory workstations in grocery stores, users want to work a full shift without having to plug in the device, which would counter the portability that makes it attractive in the first place.

Bordynuik’s bottom line: to make products that cost less, are more intelligent and more competitive – and keep jobs in Niagara, at the businesses that contributed big iron to a young roboticist in his formative years. He explains the business benefits to his clients, and when they do their homework, Bordynuik claims, “the numbers fit.”

“Anyone can make plastic or steel. Can you make intelligent plastic or steel? That’s the competitive advantage now.”

For a PDF of this article, click Technologist_inventor.

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