Monday, February 08, 2016

Part 1: A Short History of COM DEV International

John Hansen, Samuel Singer and Michael Valentine O'Donovan

By Robert Godwin 
The COM DEV website on February 8th, 2016.
We have grown accustomed to the fact that some of our industries are protected from being swallowed whole by foreign interests. 
For example we don't allow foreign ownership of our chartered banks and in exchange for that quasi-monopoly our banks have acceded to some relatively stringent regulations. This had the fortunate side effect of cushioning our economy from the worst vicissitudes of the global meltdown of 2008. In 2009, we also refused to allow BC based MacDonald Dettwiler (MDA) to be purchased by US based Alliant Techsystems (ATK).
In this new age of mega-data, information and incessant global security fears, it would simply seem prudent to establish safeguards to protect our high tech industry. 
However, the only safeguard which seems to exist is an arbitrary market cap of $600Mln CDN before the baleful eye of the Ottawa regulator is stirred from its repose and a review is triggered under the Investment Canada Act (ICA).

COM DEV International (COM DEV), primarily based in Cambridge Ontario, has just been purchased by Honeywell, an American super corporation, and the reaction from Ottawa has been to keep calm and carry on. Any concerns about national security were essentially considered moot by the newly established Trudeau government.

As outlined on the February 5th, 2016 Wall Street post, "COM DEV Details TSX Delisting, exactEarth to List Feb 9 (TSE:CDV)," common shares of COM DEV will be delisted from the Toronto Stock Exchange (TSX) by the close of trading on February 8th. As a result of the sale, COM DEV subsidiary exactEarth would be spun off into a separate, publicly traded company beginning on February 9th. Screenshot c/o

So what is COM DEV and what did it represent to Canada's interests? Should we be up in arms about losing this company to the United States or should we follow Ottawa's lead and just carry on?

O'Donovan's 1962 paper. Graphic c/o Space Library.
If we were to take a truly genealogical approach to any analysis we would find that COM DEV was formed in 1971 in Montreal by John Hansen and Samuel Singer, two ex-RCA Canada employees. They were spurred by the opportunity to cash in on the promise of Canada’s new ISIS satellite program, and created their company near the Montreal railway yards to sell parts for satellite tracking stations.

But these founders wouldn't play any meaningful role in the story of the company they created.

In 1962 at Pye Electronics in Cambridge, England, a young Irishman named Michael Valentine O’Donovan described a method for creating a branching system for microwave radio relays that allowed multiple transmitters and receivers to use the same aerial. Tellingly it also described his construction of a prototype at Pye. He articulated his design in a paper in May of that year entitled “Microwave branching systems,” It would be published a year later and won O’Donovan a prize.

A few months later he spotted a newspaper advertisement, typical for the time, inviting qualified engineers to come to Canada. In this case the job opportunity was with RCA in Montreal. RCA Canada was a division of RCA of New York, the company that built the world’s first geosynch satellite Syncom 1. RCA Canada had carved out a worthwhile role for itself, but it wouldn’t have existed at all without its quasi-government parent in the USA.

In November 1963 O’Donovan and his pregnant wife took a chance and headed for Canada and a job with RCA. By 1965 O’Donovan was made group leader for microwave devices and sub-systems and in this role he developed microwave components and subsystems for the Canada Wide Radio Relay network and the first generation of satellite earth terminals in Canada.

Between 1971 and 1973 his team created the microwave payload for the Canadian government-funded experimental Communications Technology Satellite (CTS), also known as Hermes, which would be the first demonstration of direct television to remote places on the ground.

O'Donovan's book. Graphic c/o Space Library.
That same year O’Donovan and his team wrote a patent for RCA, “Metal Plated Body Composed of Graphite Fibre Epoxy Composite.” This innocuous title disguised a very clever idea for creating lightweight microwave filters out of the burgeoning new composites technology. Their device could lower launch costs due to its light weight and it had the ability to still maintain its shape while remaining an efficient conductor. The patent was issued to RCA in the United States in 1976.

By 1974 Hansen and Singer were making little progress growing COM DEV and were apparently arguing most of the time. O’Donovan offered to buy Hansen’s 40% of the company for $5000, making him an equal partner with Singer, with the remaining 20% held by another RCA man, Kenneth Flood.

This change of venues didn’t come without an added perk. RCA didn’t want to lose O’Donovan, so he agreed to keep working for them if they in turn agreed to give COM DEV a fair shot at bidding on satellite contracts.

Astonishingly, they consented to this extraordinary arrangement. At the end of 1974 O’Donovan and another of RCA’s scientists, Chandra Kudsia, wrote a book together entitled “Microwave Filters for Communications Systems.” All of O'Donovan's ideas distilled down to a few simple goals. Make satellites communicate more efficiently using lighter components.

Robert Godwin.
In 1975 he made what he considered to be one of his best decisions, to hire engineer Keith Ainsworth as a project manager. Ainsworth would go on to run the company for most of the next 30 years and would be involved in many of the future key decisions.

Robert Godwin is the owner and founder of Apogee Space Books. He is also the former space curator at the Canadian Air & Space Museum and the curator of the The Space Library, an online repository of 30,000+ pages of space information and papers. 

Please consider subscribing to the library for only $5. Your contributions help to support new research and the maintenance of the existing repository.

Next Week: O'Donovan Grows His Team (and his Company) as part 2 of "A Short History of COM DEV International" continues!


  1. Canadian industry, other than resource minerals, water, and forestry has been, it is, and will always be a branch plant industry, including space, of larger entities in much more powerful countries such as US and China.

    Why maintaining the politically correct discussion of ‘Canadian technology industry’ where is going, what heart breaker is generating when sold, etc.?

    Why not focus on how to create jobs – the only reason for this discussion to go on – as a branch plant? Why not abandoning the emotional nationalistic overtone in these discussions?

    Perhaps you could help with your very useful blog, which I read as often as it is published, assuming that my unconventional, unemotional, practical view you would support.



    P.S. ESI has been acquired by a very large Chinese consortium last May. See notes on What’s New of the web site.

  2. Andrew Goldenberg is the founder of Engineering Services Inc. He was last profiled in the October 25th, 2010 post, "Overnight Success Plus IP Rights," at


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