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 the name change from External Affairs Canada to the Department of Foreign Affairs. Unless otherwise noted, all photos in this are those of Foreign Affairs Canada and kindly submitted for use on this web document by Ray Fortin.

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)


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 (1989-1996),  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)
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)

This page is a mirror from Jerry Proc's Crypto Machines web site.

Jan 15/06

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Last Updated December 30, 2009
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