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Beginnings of the Age of Computers at the U of A

At the convocation on 4 June 1968, Diane Reader Jones, who now owns two national businesses based on laser video disk technology, strode across the stage of the Jubilee Auditorium and received the first BSc degree in honors computing science ever awarded by the U of A. Although that degree was a landmark for the department formed four years earlier, the history of computing at the University goes back much further. Computers were ushered in and the era of mathematical tables and hand-cranked calculators ended in 1957. That May the Department of Physics established a link with the electronic computer run by their colleagues at the University of Toronto. Built out of World War II vacuum tubes, the FERUT (Ferranti Computer at the University of Toronto) required a large room, a crew of eight engineers and six hours of maintenance daily to run — and sometimes it ran for as long as half an hour before breaking down. Using five-hole punched teletype tape, it had the capacity of a modern pocket calculator — without the convenience or reliability.

Later in 1957 the U of A became the third campus in Canada (after the Universities of Toronto and B.C.) to enter the computer age when the Committee on Electronic Equipment invested the hefty sum of $40,000 on an LGP-30 made by the Royal McBee Corporation of Port Chester, New York. (Equipment was upgraded to an IBM 1620 computer in 1961.)

The Computing Centre established in the Arts Building quickly became a popular facility for researchers in mathematics; chemistry; psychology; soil, plant and animal sciences; and chemical and electrical engineering. Students staffed the Computing Centre during the academic year and the summer break, providing technical support for users.

Computer programming courses were first taught in 1960 by Bill Adams, an employee of the Computing Centre who later became one of the first Computing Science faculty members. The 12 sessions of the course were offered in the evenings through what was then the Department of Extension.

The Department of Mathematics was the early proxy for computing science students, offering numerical analysis courses related to computing beginning in the late ’50s. The first course devoted to computers rather than numerical analysis was taught in 1961 and required practical work in the Computing Centre. During 1963-64, the Computing Centre offered courses which quickly became popular with mathematics, commerce and engineering students and those in the Faculty of Extension. By 1964, eight mathematics students who had been studying in the Computing Centre received master’s degrees in numerical analysis.

As demand for computing services on campus grew, the need for a separate, degree-granting department which could offer teaching and research in the computing field as well as provide support to Computing Centre users on campus became apparent. On 1 April 1964, the Department of Computing Science was created— that name chosen instead of the more common "computer science" to emphasize that computing, rather than the devices themselves, would be the focus of the new department.

Meanwhile, those devices continued to become more sophisticated. The original IBM computers had been rented at a cost of just over $3,000 per month when the prohibitive cost of purchasing even a used device — some $240,000 — prevented the University from buying one. The rented IBM 1620 was replaced in 1964 and in 1967 a more modern IBM 360/67 was acquired and used until the mid-’70s.

Published Summer 1993.

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