OIT celebrates 50 years of computing at UMass

By Chris Shores

Hannah Cohen/Collegian

When the University of Massachusetts chemistry department established the Research Computing Center (RCC) in 1961, the electronic computer had been in existence for only 15 years.

Fifty years later, computers and networking tie the strands of the University together. To honor the semicentennial anniversary of the RCC, the Office of Information Technologies hosted a celebration last Thursday, Oct. 27.

A timeline of important events during the last six-plus decades stretched along the first floor wing of the Lederle Graduate Research Center lowrise. The timeline featured campus and national events, tracing the history of computing beginning with the invention of the first electronic computer in 1947. It spanned until current day in 2011, a time when the University hosts a database, according to a timeline event sheet, of over 940,000 persons and has plans to soon move off the SPARK learning management system.

Among those on hand for the event was J.A.N. Lee, who took over as director of the RCC in 1964 and worked at the University for the next 38 years, seeing during his tenure the creation of the undergraduate computer science program.

“We really went from humongous to ubiquitous in terms of hardware,” said Lee, during his keynote address in the Student Union Ballroom. Lee began his speech by showing a picture of a 1947 single byte hardware drive, which was huge in comparison next to his small SD memory card.

Computing was very underdeveloped at the time, said Lee, who also noted that there was only one computing center on campus, used primarily only for chemical research.

Determined to start a masters in computer science program, Lee helped the University to upgrade the computing center.

“Getting a new computer was my first job,” he said.

According to Lee, the University wanted a unique installation of the computers, which resulted, he said, in “one of the great myths of computing.”

Lee claimed that UMass’ computing center was the first system to use email. Emails were sent through the Northeast Regional Computing Program (NERCOMP), a network of computers between the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and UMass, as early as 1969. This is contrary to the popular belief that the first email was sent by the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network in 1971.

As the program’s popularity slowly grew, Lee proposed plans for a graduate computer science research center. He received $16 million dollars from the University to pursue his plan, and the resulting building was named the Moore-Stein-Lee Building, after Lee and his two colleagues who served as the proponents of the computer science program. The building is now called the Engineering Annex.

Lee then tried to propose the formation of a doctorate program, but the University rejected the proposal because of questions of legitimacy. Instead, Lee then pushed for the formation of an undergraduate program. The University eventually agreed with his vision and started the program in 1970. Since its creation, the program has attracted two to three more students each year.

Following Lee’s address, a reception was held at Lederle.

Bo Mack, director of administration of computing for OIT, stood observing some punch cards that hung loosely on the wall as a part of the timeline. Mack, who was a transfer student in 1971 from Bowling Green, said that these cards served as an older version of SPIRE.

“It’s pretty interesting. We really used those punch cards,” he said, who added that if students were to put all of their SPIRE information on the punch cards today, it would reach 215 miles high.

Mack has been a programmer since 1980 and found the event at OIT very telling of how technologically has dramatically shifted over the past 50 years.

“It’s probably the most exaggerated change I can think of. It’s definitely dramatic,” said Mack.  “[It’s] nice feeling that things have come so far.”

Running the event with Mack was Heidi Dollard, the associate director of administration of applications for OIT. Dollard said she worked with retirees and OIT veterans in constructing the event.

“It really came together really well,” she said. “Retirees contributed to this which was great news. I think it’s wonderful.”

Dollard called their contribution a vital element to producing the event, because it allowed people to look back at the history of computing on campus.

“It’s good to remember who we were,” said Dollard. “I’m very pleased. We’re catering to people who did care and are collectively thrilled. I get to look at OIT as a whole – where we’ve been and where we’re going.”

John Miller, an employee of the University from 1985 to 1992, traveled to the event with his wife Vivian from their home in Macungie, Pa. Miller was a part of a team that handled a transfer of telephone servers, beginning in the late 1980s.

“I met a lot of people I haven’t seen in some time. It’s nice to see some old friends,” he said. “I’m impressed with how things are going and how [the University has] kept modernizing. They didn’t just let it die.”

Miller took a walk upstairs to the second floor, where OIT had set up a “memory booth,” a place for people to record their recollections from their time at the University.

JC Sawyer, instructional design coordinator at OIT, said the video and audio files of people’s personal accounts would ultimately become a part of an archive at the UMass libraries. In preparation for the event on Thursday, five people had already given accounts, some of which were displayed during the reception on TV monitors in the lobby of Lederle.

“Personal narrative is the element that holds everything,” said Sawyer. “It’s one thing to have material artifacts but [it doesn’t have the same impact] if you don’t know how the artifacts fit into the growth of an organization or a personal history.”

She added that the personal narratives give computing history at UMass, “an emotional hook. Digital story is really important. It’s what draws people in and makes them interested in history,” she said.

In addition to bringing together current OIT employees and retirees of the University, the event also attracted current students.

One student who had seen a large spectrum of computing was Daniel Buckminster, an engineering undergraduate student. Buckminster explained at the event that his parents had a lot of experience with computers, which got him interested in the field.

“This was huge,” said Buckminster, gesturing at the Toshiba T110 Plus portable personal computer, a device from the mid-1980s which was still running on the day of the event. Buckminster demonstrated the machine’s abilities by entering a code and finding a word processor, which opened up with “hello world” on the screen.

“It’s interesting to look at the history,” he said. “What would it be like to look at iPods sitting here? People don’t know the big picture.”

Chris Shores can be reached at [email protected] Herb Scribner can be reached at [email protected] Ardee Napolitano can be reached at [email protected]