A Short History of IT at Hamilton College - Dave Smallen
In the spirit of Hamilton's bicentennial, I offer the first of five installments of the semi centennial history of information technology at Hamilton. This month we cover the period prior to 1980.
1960s – On the Road
The 1960s was a period of experimentation with computing, mostly by the department of mathematics. The Internet didn't exist and access to computing meant travel by car to Syracuse or Colgate Universities. During this period a committee, chaired by Professor of Mathematics Brewster Gere, was formed to do a preliminary study of options. The committee report highlighted the need for a center that served both academic and administrative computing needs and recommended that we consider access to a computing facility at a large university. As the decade came to a close, Hamilton had three teletypes connected to the Rome Air Development Corporation (at Griffiss Air Force Base) which allowed Hamilton faculty and students access to the BASIC programming language. The local press described the teletypes as providing "access to space-age technology." It was also recommended "that immediate installation of tabulating equipment for administrative purposes was a good idea." This equipment was installed in the basement of South dormitory and moved to Dunham dormitory in the early 1970s after a flood in South.
1970s – Collaboration with Cornell
The early 1970s saw a variety of recommendations from consulting firms and individuals. The basic conclusions were that while the teletypes to RADC seemed to satisfy the basic needs in the sciences, the needs of the social sciences for access to statistical packages were not being met.
As Hamilton and Kirkland approached the spring of 1974 the issue had been studied from almost every direction. During the planning for the Burke Library, Professor of Government, Eugene Lewis suggested that the new library should have a room (in the basement) that would eventually serve as an access point for terminals to meet the needs of the social sciences. This room was part of the library when it opened in 1972 although it was never used for that purpose.
At lunch in the Bristol Campus Center in the spring of 1974, acting president Martin Carovano, and acting provost Eugene Lewis asked assistant professor of Mathematics, David Smallen, if he would be interested in directing a new organization to be called the Computer Center. This organization would serve the academic and administrative needs of Hamilton and Kirkland Colleges. The new facility would be located in the basement of the Burke Library, the only building on campus that had air conditioning.
The key insight for resolving the question of what computer to purchase and how to meet the needs of the social sciences came from a Hamilton undergraduate, Michael Kaplan '75. Michael had spent his summers working for Cornell University and had heard that they were considering providing access for other colleges to their mainframe computer. Contact with Cornell was made and an arrangement worked out that would provide Hamilton access to Cornell's computing resources through the method of remote job entry (RJE). Hamilton jobs were transmitted on punched cards over telephone lines and results returned to a printer at Hamilton. The Hamilton community had access to statistical packages that would meet the needs of the social sciences as well as access to a variety of programming languages that would meet the needs of the scientists. Hamilton purchased an NCR 101 computer system for administrative computing and to provide the RJE connection to Cornell. This computer had 32 MB of memory and 20 MB of disk space (current desktop computers have more than 1000 times more of each). The connection to Cornell, provided over a leased 19.2mb telephone connection, fulfilled the prediction made by Professor Gere in the 60s.
The joint announcement by presidents Carovano and Babbitt: "Computer Service to Open" was made in the July 24, 1974 issue of the Clinton Courier. The staff of the Computer Center consisted of 6 people, three of whom did data entry. Louis Ouimette was the operations manager, responsible for all operations of the existing unit record (punched card) equipment as well as the new NCR 101 computer; Lucinda Bingham, wife of the Dean of Students was a part-time systems analyst, and Karin Noggle, Linda Legacy and Lorraine McGovern were the data entry operators. The programming language for the NCR system was called NEAT/3 and the first tasks were to implement the NCR payroll system and write programs to convert unit record operations to NCR operations so we could get rid of the unit record equipment, the major piece of which was the IBM 407 accounting machine. The 407 weighed one ton and had to be oiled on a regular basis.
The arrangement with Cornell not only provided access to the type of resources normally found only at a major research university but enabled Hamilton to avoid investing significant resources in a mini-computer, thus preparing it to take advantage of the personal computer revolution when it started in the early 1980s. In 1977, Hamilton was recognized by the National Science Foundation, as one of 106 institutions in the U.S. selected as outstanding examples of how to use computers for teaching and learning. By 1977 we were submitting over 30,000 jobs per year to the Cornell system.
As the 1970s came to an end the personal computing revolution was beginning. The first personal computer in the Utica area was acquired by Hamilton through a gift of Elihu Root, III. The Radio Shack Model I computer had one floppy disk drive, 48 MB of memory and was used to run simulations in Chemistry as well as other programming tasks. This little computer would transform how we thought about computing.
Coming in October: 1980s – The Personal Computer Revolution Comes to Hamilton.
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