A Taste of Things to Come: Computing at Drexel, 1946-1984

A Taste of Things to Come: Computing at Drexel, 1946-1984
Rob Sieczkiewicz
May 11, 2011

To mark the opening of the Archives' newest exhibition, "Access for Everyone: Computing at Drexel, 1946 - 1984," Archives volunteer Martha Cornog explores one dimension of that history.

A Taste of Things to Come: Computing at Drexel, 1946-1984 By Martha Cornog In 1983, Drexel made national headlines by requiring all students and faculty to have personal computers, the first major academic body to do so. Even the fashion-design majors in the Nesbitt College had to go tech, an increasingly accepted thing at the upper levels of that industry. “It’s really incredible how patternmakers have terminals right next to their sewing machines,” commented Bernard Sagik, Drexel’s Vice President of Academic Affairs, after visiting Christian Dior studios in New York.1 The university purchased a number of Apple machines, which were then resold to students and other members of the campus community for $1,000 each. But this was nothing compared with the costs of  integrating state-of-the-art administrative data processing into all corners and cracks of the university; those conversion costs ran into the seven figures for the previous budget year of 1981-1982.2 The student-computer connection became just another component of an all-campus system already populated with administrative data from student records, billing, accounts receivable, and financial aid. Meanwhile, individual university offices pushed for inclusion. A plaintive memo from the Office of University Relations petitioned “to get rid of the current antiquated labor intensive, key punch card, batch-oriented system of data retrieval and analysis. Staff must institute time-consuming manual processes…, severely limiting their more valuable fund raising activities…. In University Relations we are wasting valuable time preparing ourselves to ask for money and not enough time asking for it.”3 Only a few decades earlier, the prospect of computing had been no more than a distant speck on the horizon. A 1946 headline in The Drexel Triangle (on display in the exhibition) proclaimed that “Eniac Is Topic at EE Meet’g.”4 But the ENIAC, considered the first general purpose electronic computer, was developed and initially housed at the University of Pennsylvania, not at Drexel, and was intended for defense use. As technologies developed for the war effort spread commercially postwar, IBM, UNIVAC, and other companies jumped into the game of developing and selling computers to businesses and universities. So in 1952, a Drexel committee met to consider the feasibility of establishing a “computational facility” on campus. IBM had offered to subsidize computing courses by rebating up to 60% of the lease of an IBM 650 machine, including the computing unit, card punch, and other supportive components. Principles of digital computers was already being taught as part of a “Management Mathematics” course, and a course on “Business Electronics” dipped into automation for accountants. No programming was taught yet, however.
photograph of Burroughs Main Frame, undatedBurroughs Main Frame, undated
In 1958, Drexel opened its computing center with an IBM 650. At the dedication in November, all faculty and students were invited to watch a demonstration:  a computer vs. human contest over a game of four-way, three-dimensional tick-tack-toe. In establishing the center, Drexel  joined 75 other colleges and universities with such installations, up from only 30 two years earlier. Drexel’s center, however, was reported as the only one of its kind in the Delaware Valley that was dedicated to an educational institution. The 650 was to be used for student education such as programming courses, faculty enrichment  (“Interesting little studies” relating to faculty areas of interest but prohibitively labor intensive to do manually), and industrial and academic research.5 Soon university administrative minutiae joined the job queue beginning with student registration for the College of Business Administration. But incomplete data led to conversion glitches, and a Drexel Triangle article from 1960 reported, “Registration Marred by IBM Transition.” In the same issue, a student editorial worried about the loss of individual identity now that students could be seen as merely IBM cards.6 As computer use spread through the school, system upgrades resulted in an IBM 7040/1401 arriving in 1964, partially supported by a another grant from IBM.7 The following year, a faculty project applied computation to the study of Milton’s poetry, analyzing imagery, repetitiveness, stylistics, and syntax.8 At that time, literary analysis by sophisticated statistical techniques was a new and beckoning field. (Please see the Triangle article on display in the exhibition) By the late 1960s, the university decided to retain Auerbach Associates, a consulting firm, to assess the growing campus computing requirements.  Following Auerbach’s recommendations, all administrative data processing and most of the academic computing, both instructional and research, was running on a Burroughs B5500 by 1972. Some academic work was outsourced to the vendor UNI-COLL, using its IBM 371/165. In addition, minicomputers had crept into several academic areas in the Engineering and Sciences Colleges and were being used for both instruction and research.9 In 1976, the entire campus transferred most of its computer operations to UNI-COLL to avoid forever upgrading an in-house mainframe.  But such outsourcing did not last, especially since most UNI-COLL-implemented applications required batch processing.  Microcomputers with interactive capabilities were spreading across campus for individual and small projects. By 1980, it was recognized that personal computers were on the horizon, interactivity instead of batch would rule, and all students and faculty would have data processing needs. Obviously another systems assessment was needed, and this time the Arthur Anderson company provided the consulting expertise. The ultimate result was the “every student an Apple” approach that seemed revolutionary at the time but of course was merely good technological nutrition for inquiring minds.
President William S. Gaither examines the new MacIntosh at a black tie galaPresident William S. Gaither examines the new MacIntosh at a black tie gala
References 1.           ”New Computer Policy First in U.S. Colleges,” The Drexel Triangle, October 22, 1982, pp. 1,3. 2.           “Drexel University ADP Incremental Costs to Base Year 1981-1982 in Constant Dollars,” Computer Steering Committee chaired by M. Jerry Kenig, 1982. [UR 1.8/19/1] 3.            John R. McCullough, “ADP Priorities for University Relations,” memo to the Computer Steering Committee, February 9, 1982. [UR 1.8/19/Computer Steering Committee (1)] 4.            “Eniac Is Topic at EE Meet’g,” The Drexel Triangle, March 8, 1946, p. 3. 5.           Remarks delivered by President James Creece at the dedication of the Computer Center, November 20, 1958. UR 1.7/37/2] 6.            “Registration Marred by IBM Transition,” The Drexel Triangle, April 22, 1960: Page 1. Student editorial, p. 7. 7.           “DIT to acquire IBM 7040 Unit for Student Use,” The Drexel  Triangle, May 29, 1964, p. 2. 8.            “Computer Aids Study of Milton’s Poetry,” The Drexel Triangle, January 29, 1965, p. 1. 9.            “Section VII: Computing Facilities,” c.1980-1982. [UR 1.8/19/Computer Study Committee: Minutes]
Martha Cornog obtained her MLS from Drexel in 1971. She is currently the Graphic Novel Columnist for Library Journal. Together with her husband Timothy Perper, she co-edited Graphic Novels Beyond the Basics: Issues and Insights for Libraries (2009) as well as the forthcoming Mangatopia (2011).