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Good Ol' Days at the UH Computing Center
by Linda Maeno

In April 1960, the University of Hawaii Statistical and Computing Center (UHSCC) was established in the basement of Keller Hall on the UH Manoa campus. In 1971, UHSCC was renamed to University of Hawaii Computing Center (UHCC). Technology-related departments were merged together in 1994 to form Information Technology Services (ITS). Although the Computing Center name no longer exists today (the unit is merely referred to as ITS Keller), UHCC will long be alive in the minds and hearts of those who were there from the beginning. We asked three men who had been at the Computing Center since its early days to meet with us.


Walter Yee smiled brightly as he entered the Keller Hall room that had been his office for nearly 20 years. Walter had spent many long hours in that office as Director of the UH Computing Center. Already seated at the big conference table was Al Higashi, who had been Walter's right-hand man. Bill Soong, who was known as the IBM systems guy, stood holding a box of warm malasadas he had brought to share. All three men had been at the Computing Center since the early 60s.

There were handshakes, hugs, and exclamations as we greeted each other. My colleagues and I were the (relatively) "young ones," only at the Computing Center since the 80s. We had asked the three men if they would meet with us since April marks the 40th anniversary of the first IBM computer on campus. Would they have lunch with us and talk about old times?

As we sat down to pizza and salad, I could tell we were all still getting used to the pleasant adjustment of seeing Walter, Al, and Bill together again. Both Walter and Bill had retired and we tried to remember when we had last seen them. After a quick time of "catching-up," we turned to the task at hand.

A timeline of important events in the Computing Center's history spanned the wall-mounted white board. We asked for stories about "how things used to be." Walter began by recounting how the IBM 650 was obtained. An application for a grant had been submitted to the National Science Foundation. Faculty and staff submitted supporting papers, with Walter submitting one from the Meteorology department. UH was awarded a $50,000 grant, which was used to purchase the IBM 650. That was April 1960. The University's 650 was one of only three on the island.

The flood bank of memories had opened. There was laughter as we talked about how "primitive" the 650 was and how it was considered so "modern" at the time. Only a handful of people used the computer. In those days, jobs were made up of stacks and stacks of computer punched cards.

Often, the laughter would only be drowned out as someone interjected yet another memory, usually with sound effects and animated gesturing to represent what was happening mechanically. Walter talked about how the 650 operated. "It had a drum memory, run by an automobile belt (fan belt)." Al was quick to add, "When you turn it off, don't turn it back on until it stops." With a chuckle, Walter replied, "It happened all the time…people forgot…they would press the 'on' switch. The torque of the motor would bonk!, make a loud noise and the fan belt would snap!" More laughter.

The festivities continued for a good hour and a half. There was technical lingo on cathode tubes, transistors, exponential format, and how many characters you could get with only six bits per character. The 650 and subsequent machines were referred to by their model numbers. The threesome mentioned the 1401 and how it had a printer, a card reader, two tapes drives, and a paper punch reader. Interesting sound effects accompanied descriptions of the peripheral equipment. They weren't the "whirl" or "humm" that are associated with high-tech devices of today. Bill imitated the sound of paper tape being read by a paper punch reader, "kaaaaaaa!" The card punch machine went "pah!, pah!, pah!" Sounds of magnetic tape strips from a data cell unit spurted, "brrr!, brrr!"

The 7040 was acquired in 1963, the same year as the 1401. It came with the IBSYS operating system. Many late nights were spent writing programs in IBMAP, which was the assembly language for the 7040. Only one batch job ran at a time. The console for the 7040 resembled an electric typewriter since CRTs weren't developed yet. If the console broke down, nothing would run since the console was the only way for the system to receive input and commands.

Walter went on to talk about running cables, stripping wires, and making connections. He would then cross his fingers and hope everything would work. "Those day you had to kinda do everything yourself," he said with a smile.

In the fall of 1963, the UHSCC had moved to the Hawaii Institute of Geophysics (HIG) building. Between 1967 and 1974, three different models of the IBM 360 had been obtained, each replacing the previous model. The gentlemen recalled how dependent the systems were on air-conditioning. By the mid-70s, the air-conditioning system at HIG was getting really old. Bill shook his head, "If the place heated up, we had to shut down… the users would get so angry." Al laughed as he recalled the time Facilities asked them to get some ice to cool the water in the rooftop tanks. There was no Marriot in those days so Al had to order huge blocks of ice from a store in McCully.

Walter reflected, "As the machines get bigger… then you need more power, you need more air conditioning. Oh there were sooo many physical things that had to be done. Now it's less power, less space." In late 1974, the IBM 370/158 replaced the 360/65. A year later, the UH Computing Center (the Center had a name change in 1971) moved from HIG to the newly renovated Keller Hall first floor where there was a new air conditioning system and raised floors.

The user base of people using UHCC systems grew. From the modest start of 10 users on the IBM 650, the user base had grown to 8000 by 1975. There was a need to make computing more accessible to users. Communications hardware and software was installed to allow ASCII terminals to connect to the mainframe. A pool of 25 dialup lines was established with speeds of up to 300 baud. In 1978, the first Gandalf PACX switching device was obtained so that more people could access the IBM mainframe from terminals.

By 1980, the Computing Center's user base was up to 16,000. It wasn't uncommon for lines to form outside the public terminal room on the second floor of Keller Hall, and downstairs in the lobby where the keypunch machines were located. Resources were getting tight on the IBM 370. Soon, a new machine would need to be acquired with a higher processor speed, more memory, and higher disk capacity. The system to come would be the IBM 3081, however, it wouldn't be obtained until late 1983.

In the meantime, the PC came along which fitted nicely into the scene because of its ability to bring computing to individual desktops, plus provide access to the IBM mainframe computer.

The conversation turned towards the PC and the growth spurt that followed. Bill recalled, "The first PC was brought into the Computing Center in 1981 by Dan Arashiro. I looked at it and said… this thing is a toy!… I didn't even want to go touch it! And then I got involved with the PC… this stuff is pretty good!" At the time, a typical PC had one floppy drive and 8KB of memory.

In 1984, Walter ordered 500 PCs to be sold at the Computing Center's first PC sale. The line to apply for a PC started at the far end of the second floor of Keller, and extended almost to the opposite end of the hall. The PCs were so popular that before the first semester was over, another 400 PCs had to be ordered. Over the next few years, PCs were networked on campus, advances were made in communications technology, e-mail and other Internet services gained popularity, and in 1993, the World Wide Web was declared into existence. Stories about the Web abounded and the group marveled over how people today have information at their fingertips.

The novice computer user of today starts off with so much more than what was available just a few years ago. Hard drives are up to 37 gigabytes and rising. Intel's next generation processor is designed for speeds exceeding 1GHz. It seems that no amount of memory is ever enough. And although modem speeds are incredibly fast, RoadRunner is now the way to go! Bill was amused as he compared the PC to early IBM systems, "The first PC was as fast as the (IBM) 158... the 650 is like a desk calculator." Incredulous as it may seem, what is possible today, although we seem to be pushing technology to its far edge, will not satisfy the user of tomorrow.

Walter mused, "One thing is that in the beginning, very few people were dependent on computers. They didn't think it was important. The world has changed where everybody has become dependent on computers." We all agreed. Then Walter continued, "The world of computing is really very young. When you look at the development of things like what Isaac Newton did… he developed calculus and that has been going now for over 200 some odd years. And they don't really know fully what calculus can do yet. But the growth in that… relatively very, very slow compared to growth in what computers have done in just the past 30 years. And the real growth took place only 20 years ago when PCs started coming out… Another five years from now, it will be far different than right now."

The journey from the IBM 650 to today has been a wonder ride for Walter, Al, and Bill. Where will technology lead us in the future? We can only imagine.

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