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Fall 2002
Volume 39, No. 1
Issue Home

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PCMOnline Editor: Sarah Dolinar


Reprinted from the April 1969 issue of Pomona Today.

Meet the Class of 360

By Gordon Hazlitt '54

In writing an article on computers, there is a great temptation to dwell in the land of wonder and inflame the unease we all feel toward these ubiquitous machines which address the junk mail, predict the vote, and cal-culate taxes. One visit to the Pomona Computer Center is enough to fill a mortal full of awe and full of wonder.

Pomona's computer is an IBM 360 System, and it can do about one million operations per second. Can anyone comprehend that fact? No! The printer, a super descendant of the typewriter, which prints out the results of the computer's work, can print out over 1000 lines of material per minute. To watch the thing in action reduces a poor, fumbling writer near to tears. It could type this whole article in approximately 10 sec-onds. The paper doesn't roll, it explodes from the machine. I could go on and on with such wonder material, but let us, instead, temper that awe with perspective and understanding.

One Pomona scientist, whose research would be well-nigh impossible without the computer, described it as "a dumb machine whose only virtue is speed." His remark is both astute and misleading. What a computer does is simple, but the way it does it and the multiple uses of what it does are far from simple. However, the official IBM promotional literature does admit that its computers are direct descendants of the humble abacus.

An abacus employs beads; an adding machine, gear wheels; and a computer, electronic impulses to make calculations. The basic process in each instance is the same. You take data which you represent with something — i.e., beads, cogs on a gear, or electronic impulses — and manipulate these representations according to a pretested pattern, storing partial results during the process as necessary; then you translate back from beads, cogs or impulses into numbers or whatever you started with. As the computer manipulates nothing tangible, it has the advantage of working at the speed of electricity, 186,300 miles per second.

Computer people (more on them later) speak of the development of computers in terms of generations. In first generation computers, wires were used for the circuitry, and electron (radio) tubes were used as the switching or logic devices. What resulted looked like a telephone switchboard that suffered from elephantiasis. Transistors and miniaturized circuitry issued a second generation of computers. Transistors don't blow out and they are much smaller than tubes, their use increased the reliability and the capacity of the computer.

The development of the IBM 360 System marked the birth of the third generation, and it is with this grandchild that the term is most accurately employed.

The word "generation" is appropriate for the 360, because it is so complex that it could not have been designed without the aid of second generation computers. Note it is called the 360 System, not machine. Really it is a number of related machines hooked up together so that it can do much of its work without human intervention. It is pre-programmed in large part to program itself. Such a statement boggles the mind, but is not impossible to comprehend. Over the years, experience taught the designers of computers that there were many, many operations which were used repeatedly in various computer jobs. Rather than program them anew each time, these machine instructions were coded in machine language and stored in part of the System's memory, where they could be called into operation at any time.

A computer for all seasons

How does Pomona come to have such a computer system? In 1963-64, when the chemistry laboratory was being planned by Mr. Frank R. Seaver and the chemistry department, it became apparent that for the science center to be complete, a computer was needed. Donald B. McIntyre, professor of geology, had been exploring computer applications in geology and he, Nelson Smith and Mr. Seaver investigated the computer industry and learned a fascinating fact—that IBM was then in the latter stages of revolutionizing the whole field with the development of the 360 System. McIntyre now calls this one of the greatest gambles ever taken by a private company. Prior to the 360, IBM had a number of specialized machines—some did bookkeeping; others, statistical analyses; and others were adapted for purely scientific work. The 360 was designed as a system which could be adapted to do any or all of these operations. It was, as it were, the computer for all seasons, and as such, would make obsolete all IBM's former hardware. The "360" designation refers to the 360-degree sweep of its operation. McIntyre says that they decided that if IBM was willing to stake that much on this new system, then Pomona would go along. He went to IBM's Riverside office on April 4, 1964, the date the system was to be announced, and immediately placed an order. Pomona's system was the third in the world to be delivered, which, for several years, put us far ahead of other colleges and universities. Now, with the wide use of the 360 System, many, very much larger-capacity systems exist in university centers around the country. However, our system is still judged to be a very good one for a college of Pomona's size. It is also significant that there appears to be no major "fourth generation' computer lurking in the wings ready to make the 360 System obsolete.

Suspecting that some readers are already skeptical about why Pomona College, which stresses its personal practice of education, should take pride in harboring such a system, I hasten to outline some of the functions it serves. The variety of uses is remarkable, and for convenience they may be grouped into three categories: practical or so-called business applications, academic uses, and educational or instructional uses.

Many of the accounting procedures of the central business office are computerized today. All checks and budget reports are printed by machine. Anyone within the six colleges who has responsibility for expenditure of funds, gets a regular monthly report. Since this function has been computerized, the report has an added parental aspect. In addition to the accounting material, the computer prints a note which compares the percentage of budget expended with that of the year lapsed. The tone of the note becomes quite stern if a disparity develops, thus demonstrating that a computer can be moral and uphold the puritan ethic.

Though the computer was originally purchased for scientific research, its capacity proved so enormous, that new uses were sought for it. An early breakthrough in administrative application was made by Honnold Library. Some of the Ford Foundation matching funds were used to increase the memory capacity of the System, so that it could handle the complex business of coordinating book acquisitions for the library. This function has now largely been automated, making Honnold a leader in this aspect of library science.

Computing future needs of the college

Recently, the computer has proved most helpful in both alumni and development operations. This year a new alumni directory will be published, and considerable time and money will be saved by having the computer sort the data that comes back from alumni questionnaires. Much of the accounting involved in development work is now handled by the computer, which frees staff for other, more persuasive and productive efforts.

A somewhat more sophisticated administrative use is currently being considered. Financial projections for a college, or even worse, for a cluster of colleges, are notoriously difficult to determine, because there are so many factors which can change. Staff, faculty and student needs change. Donor generosity varies. Equipment wears out or becomes obsolete, etc., etc. If funds can be found, hopefully a computer program model will be developed which simulates the financial situation of the College, and which will greatly help the administrators to plan accurately for the future.

The second category of computer activities is the academic research applications. I say "academic" rather than "scientific" for while it is true that scientific uses predominate, there have been some fascinating applications of computer technology in the humanities. The 360 System's great capacity for sorting has led to several attempts to provide the raw materials for a textual analysis of literature. It produced a concordance of the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Another scholar used the computer to try to establish authorship of unsigned materials in early journals by a statistical means of textual analysis. An unusual non-scientific application is the current effort of the Institute of Antiquity and Christianity to compile a concordance of the Coptic language. To the layman, this sounds far more exotic than it really is. Because a computer always computes in its own, neutral language, called binary mathematics, all human languages must be translated into machine language anyway. The computer could care less whether it sorts Coptic, Pig latin or Middle English. The problem is rather one for the programmers and scholars to code Coptic letters into machine numbers.

Scientists, of course, are the main users of the computer. Catalin D. Mitescu, assistant professor of physics, uses the computer a great deal in his investigations in the field of low-temperature physics. He explained in a general way, why computers have become so important in scientific work. A scientist investigating a physical phenomenon not fully explained by existing laws, will make an educated guess as to the forces at work. Usually this guess takes the form of one or a series of complex equations which act as a mathematical model for the actual physical situation. The difficulty has been that scientists can form far more equations than are solvable. Some equations which cannot be solved completely may have an approximate solution only gained by the laborious process of selectively changing the values of the variables in the equations. A computer is supremely suited to this, and can arrive at results in a few minutes that would have required several years of human effort. Mitescu then added that, of course, the approximated answer may be entirely incorrect if the scientist's mathematical model is wrong. The computer, being fast but dumb, can only work on the assumption fed into it by the scientist.

Donald B. McIntyre, who was the first director of the Pomona Computer Center, is one of its most constant and expert users. McIntyre, as the name suggests, is of Scottish descent and a man who favors economy of words, yet, when he talks of the computer, his eyes glitter and one thought triggers another in lively conversation. Largely from his work in developing a program for plotting contours, the Center secured a National Science Foundation grant to expand the capacity of the computer. A contour map that a layman is familiar with is a topographic map in which the contour lines reflect changes in elevation. Using McIntyre's program, the System can be fed data of chemical or mineral content of soil, or population density, or whatever, and the machine will draw a contour which expresses, spacially, the changes in this condition in a given area. This type of map is one of the most basic tools of geology.

Beyond administrative and research uses, the Pomona Computer Center serves an educational function. By this I do not mean that computers are replacing professors in teaching. Some experts say that one day, computer-directed teaching machines may be an answer to some of our educational dilemmas, but that day is yet far in the future for Pomona.

The cardinal educational fact of the Center is that the computer is open to student use. Many may argue that learning how to use a computer is training and not education, and for the most part, the powers that control curriculum agree. There is only one course on computer technology open for credit, but there are a number of non-credit courses given in programming taught by the staff of the Center, and in some cases by students themselves. These courses are very popular. McIntyre feels strongly that every educated man should know something about a computer, as computers may be made to confound and confuse and we must guard ourselves against this. Pomona students are fortunate to be able to practice on a very sophisticated system. It is indicative of the level of their involvement that one senior math major, James Rosenberg, has been teaching a class in assembler language, and has written a text on how to teach the subject, which will be published this year.

"We - they" psychology

Finally, we come to the question: what are computer people like? Are they different? Why shouldn’t they be — they are the contemporary equivalents of the sorcerers of old — they hold the secrets for unleashing the power of the unknown. They tend the computer as the ancients tended the sacred flame. There are four programmers in the Center, and it is reported that there is scarcely an hour out of 24 when one or more of them is not present, waiting for the System to disgorge another miracle. The technology they tend is held in such awe by the rest of us (and secretly by them also) that a great "we-they" psychology develops. One staffer spoke of the close-knit quality of their society, how they have infinite respect for each other and how "we take care of our own."

Computer humor is everywhere. On the outside it is a defensive humor — cartoons make the machine look silly and express the public's fear — longing for a superhuman omniscience. On the inside it is a mixture of the latest technical nomenclature with old saws. There was the sampler-like sign on the Center wall: "There is no place like SYSRES." SYSRES being computerese for the residence within the computer memory for stored systems programs.

Computer people demonstrate a most human ambivalence toward the power of this latest of man's inventions. One staffer stated that nothing motivates them more than having it said that "it can't be done." He also admitted to feeling that "the machine is so phenomenal that you want to beat it." Another said she automatically thinks in terms of algorithms (a special form of logic used in programming) when she wants to get something done. I asked her if she was able to operate in such an orderly way in her personal life as well. She laughed and shook her head, then added, "but if I could, I would be a better person for it."