Sunday, May 14, 2006


In 1959 there cannot have been very many places in the world where a 16-year-old entering freshman was given free access to an electronic digital computer. Among small liberal arts colleges, Pacific Union College may have been unique in providing such access. I had the great good fortune to be there, for no better reason than that it was the alma mater of my parents.

The Data Processing Laboratory (DPL) was established by the Alumni Research Foundation (ARF) under an arrangement where the ARF provided the equipment and PUC provided the space (in the basement of the library) and the operating budget. [1][2] The initial equipment was a Bendix G-15D General Purpose Digital Computer, acquired under favorable terms from the Bendix Computer Division. During my student years, various additional pieces of equipment were added, including a Bendix CA-2 accessory to interface the G-15 with an IBM card reader/punch (545) and tabulator (402) [4], Ampex magnetic tape drives, a Bendix PA-3 pen plotter, and eventually a second G-15.

As so often happens, the younger generation absorbed the new technology much more avidly than the older. Hence, most of what I learned about programming was not from the faculty, but from fellow students, especially Milton Barber, Curtis Lacy, and J. Mailen Kootsey. [3] And hardware was the province of Takashi Yogi, who not only kept everything running (a non-trivial task in the days of vacuum-tube computers), but designed and built new hardware, such as the interface from the G-15 to the mag tapes.

DPL had an informal arrangement with BCD to send a couple of students down to El Segundo each summer to work as Junior Mathematicians, which I did in 1961 and 1962. Naturally, we were convinced that we knew as much as the professional programmers, were smarter, harder-working, and produced better code. But we learned a lot, despite our lofty attitudes.

The last time I was on the PUC campus, in 2003, Takashi and I sought out the site of the DPL. The original sign was still on the door, and it did not look like anything had taken the places of the DPL and RRL [5]. Nor did the college seem to have recognized in any way that anything important had happened there.

[1] Strong encouragement and leadership came from a small group of faculty members who were themselves alumni, most notably Profs. Ivan Neilsen and Ted Benedict.
[2] As best as I can tell, neither the ARF nor the DPL have survived as recognizable entities.
[3] By my senior year I was teaching the computer programming courses.
[4] The DPL was also where I first learned to wire plugboards for IBM tabulating equipment--a skill I have not needed for decades.
[5] During this same period, Prof. Neilsen also directed the construction, installation, and operation of a 6 MeV linear accelerator, a "little brother" to the Stanford Linear Accelerator (SLAC). Same technology, but just a yard long, rather than two miles. The accelerator itself was in a "cave" under the library parking lot. The entrance to Radiation Research Laboratory was off the same basement corridor as the DPL.