When the Himalayan region of Kashmir became the centre of a war between India and Pakistan in 1965, Al Javed found himself looking for a way out before he got drafted.
A couple of his uncles had ministerial connections, he said. Before long, the PhD student found himself travelling from Pakistan to Edmonton.
He got his degree and, new wife in tow, trekked back to his home country to teach once the conflict had cooled down. But his Canadian-born spouse couldn't adjust. And after years in academics, Mr. Javed said he needed a change of pace.
"I realized that I was not applying my knowledge in a fruitful fashion," he recalled.
"I'm creating knowledge and it's not going anywhere ... it was not turning into anything tangible and useful. So one evening I decided - just like that - I was going to quit academics and change my life and go into industry."
His friends called it career suicide when he moved back to Canada to take on a job with Bell Northern Research in 1977. However, he said his peers overlooked the broad spectrum of telecom technologies that the nascent Nortel Networks Corp. was taking the lead on at the time.
'There was absolutely some mistakes made'
The nostalgia is thick when engineers like Mr. Javed look back upon their time at Nortel a generation ago.
Things aren't as sunny today. At the end of July, the company began selling itself off piece by piece as it proceeded through insolvency.
MatlinPatterson, Ericsson and Nokia Siemens battled over the company's lucrative wireless division, while Avaya Inc. offered US$475 million to buy Nortel's enterprise business.
"There was absolutely some mistakes made (by Nortel), especially in hindsight," said Paul Smelters, a Nortel alumnus now with VenGrowth Private Equity Partners.
"But prior to that, there was a lot of innovation. There was a lot of great people working there, and although it probably was not a focus, I think that was not unlike a lot of the industry at that point."
Many engineers liken their time at BNR, as Nortel's research arm was known at that time, to their degrees at university.
It was the RIM or Google of the 1960s, where self-described geeks often found themselves working on technologies 15 or 20 years into the future - solutions such as broadband networks or wireless communications.
"We used a blackboard with chalk, and this was actually before a lot of computers (were used)," said Mike Dagenais, the current chief executive of Continuous Computing, who joined Nortel's Ottawa office as a co-op student in 1978.
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"But I was one of these guys who had a printer in my house," he recalled, "so I would run these batch jobs from home in the evening.
"The printer would go off at three or four in the morning. It was one of those dot printers (that would go) 'dat dat dat' (and) wake us all up. I'd print out the results ... modify a few parameters, reset a few things, set it up for another run."
The birth of BNR came with the dawn of the telephone, when in 1874 Alexander Graham Bell patented his invention under the National Bell Telephone Co. in the U.S. and Bell Telephone Co. of Canada.
Just over 20 years later, Northern Electric Manufacturing Co. was created to sell non-telephone apparatuses. A merger recreated the company in 1914 into Northern Electric Co. Ltd.
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But it wasn't until an antitrust suit forced communications giant AT & amp;T to sell off its stake in the two companies in 1949 that Northern began its own internal research and development.
By 1961, the first branch office was opened in Ottawa and underwent rapid expansion, which continued through the late 1970s.
"You could be an engineer coming out of school and within five to seven years, you could be a first-level manager," said Mr. Smelters.
"I think a lot of it was the growth they were going through. A lot of it was also (because) the talent base was extremely high. I remember back then Nortel was (the) place to come out of and work ... so (it) was getting a disproportionate percentage of the top graduates in programs across the country."
Half of the challenge of working at BNR, said Mr. Javed, was keeping up with rapid change in the communications industry.
"We would sit there and say, 'What is the new technology? How do you fit it together and create value that was higher than your competitors had?'
"We continuously read and (went) to conferences, talked to our peers, passed the word and read the literature. That was our job, to continuously do that."
A veritable stream of inventions emanated from Northern's (and later, BNR's) labs during the two decades after they took research in-house.
Their creations included the Trans-Canada Skyway - the world's longest microwave line, stretching more than 6,000 kilometres - as well as advanced video switching and the first dial-in hand telephone.
In 1971, Don Chisholm began his tenure as the first president of the newly formed BNR, which came about after Bell and Northern's research labs merged.
The former Apollo space program scientist pegged digital communications as the direction his company should go in, and emphasized in-house development to get the job done. By mid-decade, sales of internal products had multiplied more than seven-fold, reaching 75 per cent.
The best-known invention that he presided over was the DMS-100, completed in 1979. It was the first digital switch of its kind.
The switch could handle up to 100,000 telephone lines and formed a huge chunk of Nortel's revenue stream for more than 15 years.
"Nortel was in the process of evolving technologies from purely mechanical switches to software-controlled switches, and they needed a lot of software-capable people," said Steve Hume, who was hired on specifically to work on the DMS-100 in 1978.
Mr. Hume, who's currently a consultant, said there was a large spurt of hiring that started "to burst the buildings" on the company's Carling Avenue campus, so he found himself in an office with a window view of the Experimental Farm.
"We talked directly to Bell Canada engineers to plan what they needed so we could (practise) with a direct customer," Mr. Hume said. "They became the prototype customer for many Nortel products, and this gave us insight of what to work on."
After the birth of the DMS-100 came a switch to Internet infrastructure, which formed Nortel's core business throughout the 1980s and 1990s.