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Fall 2002
Volume 39, No. 1
Issue Home

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PCMOnline Editor: Sarah Dolinar


Pomona's Digital Dawn

In the beginning there were two computers and a college in a garden...

When the age of computing dawned at Pomona College in 1958, computers still carried an aura of mystery left over from their early connections with military intelligence and weapons research. Bulky first-generation computers based on vacuum tubes and punch cards were the marvels of the day, though their displacement by second-generation machines based on transistors and printed circuits was just over the horizon. In September of 1958—the same month in which Jack St. Claire Kilby of Texas Instruments developed the world’s first integrated circuit—Pomona was preparing to open its new Robert A. Millikan Laboratory, so it wanted its own computer—or rather, computers. Since digital computing in those days still had a serious competitor—analog computing—Pomona was determined to obtain state-of-the-art computers of both types.

So that fall, not one, but two computers arrived at Pomona.

The analog computer—a type no longer in use today—was assembled from Heathkit components by Physics Department faculty and students at a cost of about $4,000 and 130 hours of labor. (The two students who did most of the work—Richard Vernon ’59 and Donald Lamb ’59—were 28-year-old Air Force veterans with computer and avionics experience.) Using programmed equations, the Heathkit could carry out rapid calculations, the results of which could be viewed on an oscilloscope or graphed on paper.

The digital computer, the first of many in Pomona’s future, was a Bendix G-15—a machine the size of a refrigerator containing 450 vacuum tubes. Information was fed into it using punched paper tape or 80-column cards, and internal memory was stored on a magnetic drum. RAM (Random Access Memory) consisted of four channels with a capacity of four words each—a total of 16. (Not 16K—just 16.) Total memory was 4,000 characters. Promotional material for the Bendix boasted of its programming power, noting that “an operation for as many as 108 words may be initiated by a single command.” The output could then be recorded and stored on large reels of magnetic tape using a separate unit the size of a four-drawer filing cabinet.

In 1961 a third computer arrived at Pomona, thanks to the efforts of Geology Professor Donald B. McIntyre. With the Bendix G-15 reserved for Physics Department use, McIntyre wanted a computer for use in the areas of crystallography and geochronometry. The Clary DE-60, built by the office machine manufacturer Clary Corporation of Pasadena, attracted McIntyre’s interest. He knew Pomona alumnus and trustee William W. Clary ’11 and soon had an appointment to meet his brother, Hugh L. Clary ’15, founder of the Clary Corporation.

At the same time McIntyre, with the blessings of President E. W. Lyon and the Board of Trustees, approached Frank R. Seaver ’05, the Los Angeles industrialist whose vision and financial backing created the Seaver Science Center. Seaver agreed to pay the sum of $20,000 for a DE-60.

“Programs consisted of wired boards,” writes McIntyre from his current home in Scotland, “and there was a slot for plugging in a single cartridge that was pre-wired to compute a square root.”

McIntyre also promoted the computer to his colleagues in the Chemistry Department, Corwin Hansch and R. Nelson Smith, for the tasks of curve-fitting and general statistics. After a visit to campus one Alumni Day, witnessing first-hand the usefulness of his computer to scientific research, Hugh Clary donated a second DE-60 to the Chemistry Department.
“The Clary computer changed my life,” says Hansch today. In the years that followed, Hansch and his colleagues—including current Chemistry Department chair Cynthia Selassie—went on to earn international awards for their use of computers in advancing knowledge in the fields of pharmaceuticals, cancer treatment, and toxicology. Today, based largely on Hansch’s pioneering work, computer modeling can help to predict the biological activity of compounds that have not yet been made, thereby guiding pharmaceutical research in the most promising directions.

The IBM Connection
The third generation of computing, based on integrated circuits, arrived at Pomona in 1964, when the Seaver Institute purchased an early IBM 360—now recognized as one of the world’s first general-purpose mainframes—for Pomona’s newly constructed Seaver Laboratory for Chemistry. With a price tag of $268,465, the IBM 360 boasted “solid logic” technology as well as a larger memory core that allowed it to program itself for start-up and other repetitive operations. Thanks to McIntyre’s promptness (he actually drove to IBM offices in Riverside to place the order the day the new computer was publicly announced) Pomona’s 360 was the second in the nation.

Unlike earlier computers, the IBM 360 could be used for a wide range of purposes—not all of them in the sciences. McIntyre, the first director of the Pomona Computer Center, as it was called then, became adept at using the computer to plot contour maps showing not only elevation, but such things as population density and mineral content. Professor Catalin Mitescu used the computer to solve complex equations in low-temperature physics. Even the humanities faculty got into the act, using the IBM 360’s sorting capabilities to produce a concordance of the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins and to establish through textual analysis the authorship of early journals.

Soon, administrative uses for the computer also began to emerge. Honnold Library was awarded a grant from the Ford Foundation to expand the computer’s memory so that it could handle data on book acquisitions and other library operations. In college finance, budgets were projected with alternative scenarios created by manipulating variables. Over time, the admissions, alumni, business, development, financial aid, and registrar’s offices all discovered benefits to computerizing their systems.

By the early 1970s, a large portion of the student body had also embraced computing. Indeed, student interest was driving demand for time-sharing terminals and computer education. A student computer study group was awarded $10,000 from the Sloan Foundation in 1971 to fund a time-sharing terminal and computer library. For several years thereafter, students ran most of the non-credit courses on programming languages.

The fourth and latest generation of computing arrived at Pomona in 1975 with the first “portable computer”—the IBM 5100 minicomputer, again funded by the Seaver Institute, which bought the computer and accessories for the Chemistry Department for the sum of $17,000. Thanks to Pomona’s special relationship to IBM, it again received the second machine to be delivered in the nation. Three years later a similar computer was acquired for the Biology and Mathematics departments.

One notable use of this typewriter-sized machine—which came with a black-and-white monitor and keyboard similar to ones still in use today—was the chemical analysis of data radioed from Mars after the historic landing there on July 4, 1975, of the American Viking spacecraft.

The Modern Era
Today, the entire Pomona campus is networked with fiber-optic cable, and there’s a personal computer on practically every working desk. Even in Pomona’s residence halls, there’s a one-to-one correspondence between network connections and pillows, and few students arrive without their trusty laptop or desktop computer, complete with all its peripherals. The computers the College owns now number around 700, and there’s an entire administrative department—Information Technology Services—devoted to keeping them running, connected and productive.

No one recalls exactly what became of the old Bendix G-15 with which Pomona’s digital revolution began, but it was probably discarded or sold for scrap in the mid-1960s. The original Heathkit analog computer, however, can still be found closeted away in the physics laboratories of Millikan, like a fossil from another age.

—Holly Byers Ochoa