Reminiscing on Computing at Oswego State

Dr. Oebele Van Dyk - June, 1985

The first time I came to Oswego State was on a snowy day in late January 1966. As a matter of fact, it snowed so hard that I had no choice but to stay over that night.

We had received a distress call at IBM the day before. An IBM 1130 computer had been installed a few months earlier. Its first major task was calculating the grade point averages using the Fall semester grades. And even though numerous test runs had been successful, during the actual runs that week a serious snag developed.

In those days, the Fall semester started in mid-September and did not end until the end of January. The students, upon their return from Christmas vacation, faced review sessions and the final examinations. They were actually sent home for another week after the exams. During this week, the grades were posted and the cumulative and semester grade point averages computed. There was some urgency in the matter as students who had become disqualified had to be informed.

Imagine - it was already Friday and the students were returning on Sunday, and no averages yet in sight. The level of anxiety among the College officials must certainly have been rising; though, I must say, they did not show it. Numerous administrative and instructional personnel had been alerted for possible "around the clock manual-cranking-out" of grade point averages, but curiously enough optimism prevailed that day and no manual operations were set into motion.

To cut a long story short, the bug was discovered that evening. It was an exasperating bug which became destructive only after many records had been processed. By midnight all grade averaging reports were on the desk of the registrar.

In September of that year (1966), I joined Oswego State as the Director of the Academic Computing Center, which was then located in Piez Hall, a building that had been completed only a few years earlier. Snygg Hall did not exist yet; though the foundations were soon to be laid.

The 1960s were years of extraordinary growth and expansion. Total student enrollments increased from some 2700 in 1960 to 7200 in 1969. Building was going on all over the place. The campus, as we know it today, came to fruition in the early 70s.

Louis the 14th used to say: "L'etat c'est moi." (The state that's me.) In analogy and with considerably less bragging, I could say: "The Computer Center that's me," because I was the only person in it. The first addition was a Secretary. Next followed student assistants, and still later faculty.

I started teaching Computer Science courses in the Spring semester of 1967. The Mathematics Department gave excellent support. About the students of those days - if it is possible, they were even more enthusiastic and dedicated than today's students. They were, as a rule, truly "computniks", bitten by the computer bug.

In 1968, I submitted a proposal for a program leading to a baccalaureate degree in Computer Science. In those days, undergraduate programs in Computer Science were virtually non-existent. Computer Science education was primarily conducted at the graduate level. Within SUNY, only one other college, Potsdam, aspired to introduce an undergraduate program.

When I look back on my career at Oswego State, the fact that the proposal for a Computer Science program was approved relatively swiftly is most astounding. In those days, such questions as: "What constitutes a truly Liberal Arts education?" were hotly debated. They were the days of the "purists."

We had, somehow, to reach a consensus about two relevant matters, that: 1) Computer Science could fittingly be studied at the undergraduate level; 2) A Computer Science curriculum constitutes a Liberal Arts education. Such a consensus was achieved. The proposal was approved in-house in 1969, and we received the official SUNY Central Office mandate in 1970.

The first student in our program graduated in 1971. The number of graduates rose to 13 in 1972. From then on, the number of graduates increased rapidly each year reaching a plateau of around 80 to 100 annually.

The 1130 computer was destined to play a rather important role for some time, and to reach a very ripe old age. We had received a grant from the National Science Foundation to pay for the computer, so instead of renters, we were owners. This may explain why the 1130 was not put to rest until 1982 at the age of 17 years; the normal life span of a computer being less than half that. The 1130 remained a versatile computer and served as an excellent teaching tool for Assembler in its later years.

At one time, the basic 1130 was expanded to its full capacity. All the bells and whistles were added on a rental basis: additional core memory, four disk drives, and a fast line printer. For a time it served all the computing needs on this campus, academic as well as administrative.

Around 1970, the general wisdom was, that savings of scale could be had by centralization. This, first of all, meant centralization of computing facilities on each campus-one center to serve the whole campus. Indeed this became the stated policy of SUNY Central Administration. As a consequence, the academic Computing Center with the Computer Science program and the administrative Data Processing Center were combined and located in Culkin Hall (when this building was completed). The first floor of Culkin Hall had been designed and equipped to house a computing center.

The concept of centralization of computing facilities stretched far beyond the individual campus, however. Regional centers were going to be the next step. A bold vision that was, that one day one mammoth center would serve all of SUNY-a university distributed across many campuses, but unified electronically. A very inspirational idea. A miniature modern version of a Tower of Babel.

It was realized in 1970 that we were not ready yet for the first phase- the regional center. As a step in that direction, it was decided that eleven campuses would have the same computer system. Such a move would simplify the transition to regional centers. Some nine computer manufacturers were given bid specifications.

At that time, I was Chairperson of the SUNY Academic Computing Task Force, and a member of the SUNY Computer Selection Committee. In addition to the bid specifications, we had to prepare benchmarks to test and compare the performance of the systems being offered. There were separate benchmarks for academic and administrative applications. With the selection team, I travelled to the sites of the bidders for their presentations and to verify the benchmark runs. I got a taste of what it means to be wooed by vendors-after all, the sale was worth several million dollars.

The Burroughs Corporation with their B3500 entry gained the upper hand, even though the Academic Computing Task Force had serious objections-the time to run a batch of student programs in the FORTRAN language (which was prevalent at the time) was too slow. To overcome these objections, Burroughs offered a grant of $75,000 for the development of an in-core FORTRAN compiler which would be sufficiently faster than the Burroughs compiler.

I felt quite comfortable that, at Oswego State, we had the personnel and the talents to tackle the in-core compiler project, and we accepted the Burroughs grant. We held a contest to find a suitable name for the project. The winning entry was COFFEE-Compiler of FORTRAN For an Educational Environment.

Many senior level Computer Science majors worked with the staff on the COFFEE project over a three year period. The result was very gratifying. We had anticipated and agreed on a minimum improvement factor of five. Actually, our compiler turned out to be about nine to ten times faster than the Burroughs compiler. The COFFEE compiler was used generally at the sites where the B3500 computers were installed.

In the meantime, the combination of the Computer Center and the Computer Science Department gave rise to a large and growing organization. In September 1972, 37 full-time and part-time people were employed in the Computer Center and the Computer Science Department. At that time, nine people were teaching Computer Science. Some of them had joint appointments, working as academic analysts as well as instructors. This cross fertilization of talent was actually very beneficial.

There were, however, severe logistics problems. Computer Science faculty were scattered about. Some had offices on different floors of Culkin; others were located in Tyler and the Library. Computer Science was attracting a large number of majors. It stood to reason that our curriculum ought to be taught by an autonomous department. So in 1973 the decision was made to separate the department and the center, and to locate the Computer Science Department in Snygg Hall-in its present quarters.

The vision of centralized computing centers, predominant in the early seventies, shattered in the early eighties. Owing to new technological breakthroughs, hardware costs came down precipitously, whereas software costs were ever increasing. Decentralization became the prudent way to go.

So the emphasis shifted again to the individual campus, with full recognition of the distinction between academic and administrative functions. In a span of less than 20 years, we had come full cycle. We began in 1966 as an Academic Computing center separate from the Administrative Data Processing center, and now we have returned. Of course we have not returned the same: our program has been adapted in line with the technological challenge of a new day, and our equipment base has been vastly expanded. We are ready now as before to do what we do best: educate computer scientists.

More often than not, when I attend a computer conference, someone will come up to me and say: "Do you remember me? I was a student of yours.' These are true professionals: competent, well adjusted, and ostensibly on the way up. Believe me, anytime this happens, it makes my day. To have been able to contribute to the development of so many young people is a source of great satisfaction.