Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Asheville-Biltmore College's first computer

Asheville-Biltmore College (which became UNC Asheville in 1969) entered the computer age in 1967 when the campus was connected to an IBM 360-75 computer located in the Research Triangle Park near Chapel Hill.  As outlined in the Asheville Citizen article below, this "long promised tie-in" was the result of running a telephone line across the state to link a teletype keyboard at A-B College to the IBM computer in the Research Triangle Park.

From the Asheville Citizen, April 17, 1967

The IBM computer was owned by the Triangle Universities Computer Center. A-B College formally applied to have access to the IBM computer in February, 1967, through the State Board of Higher Education's NC Computer Orientation Project. The application noted that "at the beginning of the 1965-66 session, the college had no computer activities. During the fall of in programming and computer utilization were approved by the curriculum committee and the faculty... The first course in elementary programming and flow charting began February 1, 1967, with twenty-eight students enrolled."  The Introduction section to the application is below. 

From the Application to the NC Computer Orientation Project.

Prior to formally applying for a computer terminal, A-B College worked with the NC Computer Orientation Project (NCCOP) to prepare faculty and staff to use the computer. This memo from February 1967 from NCCOP announced a summer workshop to train faculty and staff in using the terminal and in PL/1 programming language. 

Initially, all computer courses were taught in the Mathematics Department. The Teletype terminal was placed in Room 116 of the Science Building (now Rhodes-Robinson) and programming classes were taught in this room.  To give some perspective, the photo below from the 1967-68 Asheville-Biltmore College Catalog shows the campus at the time:
Asheville-Biltmore College in 1967
To access the IBM computer, commands and programming information were entered into the Teletype keyboard and sent via telephone lines to the IBM computer. There were charges associated with both access time on the computer (which was shared with other universities across the state) as well as long distance telephone charges. The installation of the terminal was announced to President Highsmith in this memo on April 11, 1967, and included a lot of information about telephone access:  

In 2015, we've become accustomed to powerful desktops and laptops, as well as small tablets and smartphones. In comparison, the IBM 360-75 was a large mainframe computer that literally filled a room, as shown in the photo from the IBM archives (yes, all that you see in this room is one very large computer). Similar computers to this IBM model were used by NASA in the Apollo program, including the Apollo 11 flight that landed the first humans on the moon in July 1969. 

The top-of-the-line IBM 360-75 computer had a whopping 1,024 kilobytes of memory - or 1 megabyte. In 1967 this was cutting edge, and a new IBM 360-75 cost over 3 million dollars. In contrast, an iPhone can have from 16 to 128 GB (gigabytes) of storage. Considering that 1 gigabyte is equal to 1000 megabytes, then a basic 16 GB iPhone that you can slip in your pocket has 16,000 times more memory than the room-size IBM computer that filled a room. 

In 2015 we take computers for granted, but in 1967 they were new and - in technological terms - revolutionary.  A-B College was offering computer classes 48 years ago, when the idea of a "computer" on campus was a terminal in the Science Building that was connected to a large room filled with machines in the Research Triangle Park.  Desktop personal computers would not be readily available until 1977, the year that the Apple II, the Radio Shack TRS-80, and the Commodore PET came on the market. Until that time, if you wanted to study computer science, odds are you would be using a terminal connected to a mainframe. A-B College was one of the handful of places you could do that.
IBM 360-75, similar to the one A-B College used. (Photo courtesy of the IBM Archives.)
Sources and credits: Thanks to the Asheville Citizen Times for permission to reprint the news article. Information about the IBM computer is from the IBM Archives website.  Information about the history of computers is from the website. Other information is from the UNC Asheville Archives.