May 5, 2005

Lecture Explores C.U. Computing History

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From punch cards to PDAs, a lecture at Mann Library yesterday explored the development of computer technology at Cornell and discussed possibilities for the future.

“1900 was the beginning of the punch card here,” said John Rudan, director emeritus of the Office of Information Technologies, and one of the speakers in a lecture held yesterday in Mann Library, entitled “Tools and Toys: A History of Computing at Cornell and Preview of Things to Come.”

He displayed an example of an old punch card and explained that programming board wiring was used to “sort, … reproduce … and collate.”

There were also “tabulators so you could do elementary addition,” Rudan said.

The “first digital computer at Cornell, in 1965, was an IBM 650,” that was “fairly bulky but had a console,” and was kept in Phillips Hall, Rudan said. It had only “two kilobytes of memory,” he estimated. And you “had to learn the actual machine codes.”

The “second machine was a Burroughs 220,” Rudan said, and “you had to write your own programs” to run it. The part used just to read and print cards was 6 feet by 12 feet by 3 feet. And the computer had five kilobytes of memory.

Rudan explained that Cornell was able to keep upgrading machines because “there was only hundreds of users on campus,” so writing new programs for the computers was feasible.

“The first binary machine” at Cornell came in 1964 and was a CDC1604, Rudan said.

“It was the beginning of the current magnetic tapes,” he said.

Rudan stressed that “the real growth is in the personal computers.”

“In 1974 you’ve got maybe 100 personal computers on campus … in 1999 you’ve got 25,000,” he said.

The focus of computers has also changed, Rudan said, from a focus on counting in the 1940s to information processing starting in the early 1980s, when e-mail and CUinfo appeared on campus.

The growth of networks on campus has also been dramatic.

“In 1965 we had these acoustic couplers”, Rudan said. “You could type faster than the machine could transmit it or accept it.”

Prof. Geraldine Gay, communication, the other speaker at the lecture, focused on the recent history of computing at Cornell and projects for the future, especially pertaining to education.

She held up a large video disc from the early 1990s, and said that “it was random access, and a different way of learning, a very rich media.”

With the advent of wide-scale internet technology, “libraries had to start thinking about what makes a library unique,” Gay said. But “we were narrowly constrained due to bandwidth issues.”

CUSeeMe was an early collaboration tool developed at Cornell, allowing people to connect over the internet. Gay said she remembers “bringing down the whole network at Cornell,” while working on it.

As for the present, she spoke on the Campus Aware project, which some of her students developed, that allowed those participating to walk up to a building and get a description of it on a PDA. It also allowed users to leave comments about certain locations. However, “Cornell did not want to use this because they were concerned about negative comments being left,” Gay said.

Another recent project at Cornell got “6,000 third graders involved with using [PDAs],” at the Johnson Museum to learn more about ancient Chinese art. The devices served as handheld guides to the exhibits, and were very interactive.

“We had trouble getting the computers back from the kids,” Gay said.

And retention tests done after the program revealed “very significant differences with the handhelds versus paper,” according to Gay.

Discussion after the event focused on the questionable future of printed books. Gay said of young people today, “it’s not cool to read books, so they sneak read. They read on their personal devices.”

Several people discussed the possibility of electronic sources replacing printed materials.

“One of the hurdles we have right now is that we don’t have a comfortable reader,” said Janet McCue, director of Mann Library. “Getting a tiff image is probably not going to be as comfortable an experience as a book.”

With switches to electronic sources, the possibility of “librarians having a role as intellectual travel agents,” was expressed by Kathy Chiang, Mann Library.

“We’re going to help choose and organize and pick the best ones,” of the possible sources, Chiang said, “I see that role continuing.”

As for the future of PDAs and other handheld developments, “I think these mobile technologies have a huge potential for learning,” Gay said. She commented on noticing students on campus utilizing these technologies, and said “I think as educators at a university we really need to attend to these trends.”

There are new issues to think about, however, and “profound social effects that we need to be analyzing,” Gay said. Referring to cell phones especially, she asked, “what is the new definition of rude?”

“I think it’s a very exciting time,” Gay said.

Archived article by Megan Blanchard
Sun Staff Writer