“The Way We Are”

One day last week as I was hunting for an image I came upon an entire slide carousel with each picture numbered and all in precise order. To me this was an immediately interesting exception to the haphazard arrangement that is usual with thing humans touch. On further investigation I discovered that it was a presentation called “The Way We Are: Rice University, 1981-82.” It looks like the kind of dog-and-pony show that administrators take on the road for alumni gatherings and such. I’m not sure exactly who put it together, but it really does give us a snapshot of the way we were (or at least the way we thought we were, or possibly just the way we wanted to present ourselves even though we knew better) thirty-one years ago.

A lot of the slides are frankly boring–at least I find them so–but I suppose they’re what people expect to see: Lovett Hall, azaleas blooming along the main entrance road, students cavorting and so on. It’s been my experience that people don’t like too many surprises and it’s certainly the case that alumni enjoy being reminded of their happy times on campus.

There’s much in this presentation, though, that has become with time genuinely touching or arresting or puzzling, all things that I’m in favor of. There’s a lot to see, but I’m going to start with something that I simply don’t understand. Can someone tell me what we’re looking at here? It was both important enough to include in the presentation and ephemeral enough that I have no idea what it is. In particular, what is behind him?

Bonus: There’s an audio tape that goes with the slides. I haven’t tried it yet. (It occurs to me just now that this post could have been included in my “Obsolete Technologies” series.)

Extra bonus: The dunce caps are still up on the light poles by the Shepherd School. The scene got even more interesting today with the addition of some logs on a golf cart.

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36 Responses to “The Way We Are”

  1. C Kelly says:

    That picture shows a student preparing a deck of punch cards which will be read as a batch into the Univerisity’s computer system, which will run the computer code and, possibly, data contained in the deck. This is what we did before online systems with monitors, keyboards, mice, etc. were invented. All those boxes behind him are filled with punch cards.

    Think of this as the scene in 2001 where the ape pounds the ground with a bone. That’s what this guy is doing in a manner of speaking.

  2. almadenmike says:

    The fellow is sitting at a computer punch-card entry/typing machine … and the wall behind him has stacks of boxes containing “decks” of punch cards (programs/data), which would have been read (one at a time) by a punch-card reader and then sent to a computer for executions.

    (Punch card = industry-standard 80-column card; one column per byte of information)

  3. Bill Peebles says:

    Could the dunce caps on the lights be there to keep birds (specifically, their droppings) off?

    • Melissa Kean says:

      I kind of doubt it. I think Leonard Lane’s idea that it has something to do with getting the lighting right for the Turrell installation is probably correct. They seem to be getting pretty close to finished on that.

  4. effegee says:

    The wall of punched card storage was eliminated during the summer of 1982 when that room in the basement of Hermann Brown Hall was split in two to expand the computer room. The keypunch room had been built on a raised concrete floor so that it could be removed to expand the computer room behind the wall of card boxes.

    The half from which the photo was taken continued to provide mainframe card punching services to the rapidly shrinking number of those who could not, or would not, use timesharing terminals connected to the mainframe. Entry was effected through an existing door in an adjacent room.

    Much of the half of the room shown in the picture housed two Digital Equipment Corporation VAX 11/750 computers running the Berkeley System Distribution of Unix which were dedicated to undergraduate education in the (then) Computer Science Program (now Department). These “mini-computers” had capacity of 1/500th-1/1000th of a current low-end desktop personal computer but were the first computers without cards operated by ICSA (at “IT” was then known).
    ICSA primarily managed the hardware while graduate students in CS did most of the operating system maintenance. Service to students began in September 1982. The facility provided a vastly improved environment for the education of computer scientists.

    It is interesting to note that the concrete floor was not removed to install a conventional computer room raised floor system because Mudd Laboratory was in the initial phases of construction. Instead, holes were cored through the 6-inch concrete to access the cavity below to gain access to power connectors from the computer room power system.

    The space was abandoned when computing moved to Mudd Lab in August 1983.

    • Keith Cooper says:

      The student is most likely Paul Havlak (now Dr. Paul Havlak).

      • phyllogynist says:

        Keith, judging from the cap, the overalls, and that I never used punch cards at ICSA except when submitting a SAVECARD for a sociology paper or analyzing a Thresher survey, I think it’s not me!

    • Richard Miller (Hanszen '75 & '76) says:

      Originally the keypunch room only contained keypunch machines and some old unit record devices (I know there was a card sorter and I believe there may have been a gang punch). The card sorter was useful for the times when someone accidentally dropped their box. Most people learned pretty quickly to punch sequence numbers in the last columns of the deck for just such an event. This was around 1972-1973 when the IBM 155 first came. Oroginally you would take your card deck to the dispatch counter to have the operator read it in and some time later the output and your deck your be placed in the bins in the dispatch room.

      The next step was the installation of an IBM 2501 card reader which allowed users to directly enter their card decks without having to go to the dispatch window. Eventually a line printer was also installed. In that era, everything was done through cards. The staff had terminals to use TSO and there were both TSO terminals and APL terminals down the hall in the terminal room. These were a combination of teletype ASRs with a speed of 100 BAUD and IBM selectric terminals with a speed of 134.5 BAUD

      This approach also resulted in crowds of users camped out in the basement waiting for their printout (turn-around could approach several hours)

      The relationship between ICSA and EE/MathSci (which is where computer science lived at that time) was an interesting one. I worked for ICSA but was a computer science major so I saw both sides. The faculty did a good job in using the resources Rice provided but you need to remember that ICSA also served non-CS students and also provide service to paying customers so there was always a trade-off (and significiant friction) between what the CS profs felt was the way things should happen and the way the ICSA management felt.

  5. Kathy says:

    I really think the azalea picture was someone attempting an artistic look at our historical architecture with a lovely flower superimposed…however…what it ended up being was a blurry flower with a very blurry Lovett Hall on the end of the roll of film. Interesting that it made it into the slide carousel!

    I rather like your pic of the slide carousel. For some reason, it makes me envision installation art with a huge slide projector (hanging from the ceiling :-) with really huge slides that move up and down. Can ya tell I’m no artist! (It’s been a long day.)

  6. Grungy says:

    The red-with-white-stick-on-lettering sign that used to be in that room, with instructions about the punch cards was rescued when the room was abandoned and donated to either the dean or chair of the department a few years ago. Dr. Cooper was along for that donation and should remember who has it.

  7. John Polking says:

    The guy in the white cap is a computer geek working with punch cards, a now obsolete technology. The cabinet behind him contains cartons of such cards, literally computer programs.

    • Richard Miller (Hanszen '75 & '76) says:

      Actually I would suspect that many of the decks were data decks especially for the social scientists. At that time, many of the surveys they collected would undergo data entry and be transformed to card decks. They would store those decks in the racks and then would run different statistical tests on the data.

  8. Gloria Tarpley '81 says:

    The picture you find puzzling is a photo, probably taken in ICSA, the computer center in the basement of Herman Brown, of an individual holding the hole-punch cards we used to use to run programs. The boxes behind him are long rectangular boxes that contained tons and tons of cards. The cards each contained one line of programming text, and you had to run huge batches of them for a single program. The machine you see to the lower right of the photo is the hole-punch machine — you’d feed the card in and you’d type on a normal keyboard, but the machine would punch a hole in the appropriate space on the card. The computer then read, or decyphered, the holes on each card. Very time-consuming, very rudimentary compared to computers today — and also the source of potentially great frustration! One mistake could lead you into an “infinite loop” on the computer, and eat up your computer time which would in turn charge your “account”. We had some terminals for online usage, but that was so “expensive” on our student accounts that you typically used the punch cards for all your programs. Hope this helps!

  9. Lynda says:

    Early yesterday and today various colors appeared on Turrell Skyspace. “Dunce caps” cut ambient light.

  10. Leoguy says:

    Melissa, does the Woodson have a working Kodak carousel projector? I have one if you need it for an old fashioned slide show!

    • Melissa Kean says:

      I’m not sure. I’ll let you know–it could be pretty fun, especially if the audio tape works.

      • Grungy says:

        We have several – one of them ought to work.
        My brother rightly points out that it is close to criminal for an archivist to use a slide projector, as the intense light does fade the dyes in the slide. WMSanders used to run the projector stacks in the Media Center, and he had to replace the slides in the shows from time to time as the faded away.

  11. Deborah Gronke Bennett says:

    I thought I would expand the acronyms used in the previous posts. I used ICSA for courses between 1977 and 1979, then again in 1981-82. I worked there in the summer of 1979.

    ICSA: Institute for Computer Services and Applications
    The entity which ran the computer center located in the basement of Hermann Brown. It provided computer resources for the University and outside users. When I worked there in 1979, one of the larger outside users was Pemex (the mexican national oil company).

    TSO: Time Sharing Option. An IBM term.
    TSO allowed a primitive type of interaction with the mainframe on the ASR and APL terminals. These were line-oriented terminals with a keyboard and a printer-like mechanism which printed on continuous fan-fold paper (we called that “ICSA Bond”). You would type in a whole line, then press “enter” which sent the whole line to the computer at once. (Not like later true interactive terminals where each character was sent as it was typed and echoed back to the screen). When I took my EE/Math Science classes which used the mainframe, most students used keypunch/ card entry because there were more available keypunches, you could reorder your program without using any equipment, and the TSO system didn’t have any decent sort of file editor. Many users (like undergrads) were not allocated any online storage. So you had to punch your program out anyway so you could save it.

    The big changeover from card-deck users to interactive terminal users happened between 1979 and 1981.

    I am amused no one used the term JCL (job control language) yet. When I took the first math science course as an undergrad, I got a computer budget of $250 for the entire semester course. JCL errors (often due to typos) were cheap (a few cents). But the infinite loop errors mentioned above were expensive. If I remember correctly, the system would eventually time out and decide your job was stuck. But it would cost you $5.00. A few of those would eat up your budget fast!

    The tension between ICSA and the academic side of the university that Richard mentions was real. The outside users paid in real cash money and expected semi-customized service, which was typical at the time. The university alone didn’t allocate enough budget for ICSA to support the size facility they had alone. The outside users’ fees helped fill that gap.

    The room in the picture was/is in the southwest corner of the basement. When the music department took over Hermann Brown after Mudd was built, that corner room was the orchestra rehearsal hall.

    • marmer01 says:

      Hi, Deborah!

      You are almost correct about the Shepherd School’s use of Herman Brown. The large room was turned into an opera rehearsal studio when the first opera faculty member, Anthony Addison, was hired. The rest of the space was subdivided into small faculty offices and Wenger pre-fab practice modules. The orchestra never rehearsed there. The orchestra rehearsed in Hamman Hall; if they couldn’t get on stage they sometimes used the upper or lower lobby, the downstairs large room, or the RMC Grand Hall. After Bonner Lab gave up the cyclotron room, that turned into an orchestra rehearsal/recital space about 1985 and the orchestra alternated between Hamman and Bonner, depending on the Rice Players’ need for the space.

    • Richard Miller (Hanszen '75 & '76) says:

      I also recall that part of this was the decision that the first director of ICSA made to acquire an IBM 370/155 instead of the rumoured replacement for the Burroughs machine that it replaced.

    • Joseph Lockett ('91) says:

      Rice Players of my vintage still remember hearing, during rehearsal, the sounds of repetitive xylophone practice drifting up the stairs from the basement, back when the percussion practice rooms were in Hamman’s basement (where offices now exist for the Visual and Dramatic Arts Department faculty). Several comments used to be made about how the Players set-building shop was right next door, and quite well set up for sawing wood into much smaller pieces….

      I believe several first-floor rooms in Herman Brown were music rehearsal spaces, fitted with pianos. (It was amusing to watch a fleet of keyboard instruments heading across campus when they were moved to the new music school.) The floors above, by the late 80s and early 90s, were, I believe, mainly faculty offices for Math, Math Sciences, and the like, but I could be wrong.

      • marmer01 says:

        Chepe, what you describe was in the basement. The Shepherd School never had any first floor space in Herman Brown. If I recall correctly, the first floor was Math and Math Science and Navy ROTC had a suite on the first floor also. If you would like to have a xylophone flashback, listen to the first thirty seconds or so of Gershwin’s _Porgy and Bess._ That’s pretty much the most commonly practiced xylophone excerpt.

  12. Deborah Gronke Bennett says:

    Second extra bonus question: why are some of the labels on the card boxes curved?

    Answer: they are labels used on reels of magnetic tapes (another form of offline computer storage) and were available in ICSA.

    I wish the picture was clearer so I could zoom in and read some of the labels on those boxes.

    • Richard Miller (Hanszen '75 & '76) says:

      Also the labels were used on the removable disk drives. This was another of the friction points. The paying customers usually had an entire spindle or two for their use and the Rice people were limited to the space on one or two public spindles

  13. wunderwood says:

    Can’t show pictures of the south without azaleas. It just isn’t done.

    To be precise, he is working at an IBM 029 Keypunch. Nasty keyboard with no typeahead and very loud. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Keypunch#IBM_029_Card_Punch

    He’s wearing some totally 80′s fashion: the cap, the banded T-shirt, the overalls. If you need to go to an 80′s party, wear that.

    I never knew who got to keep their card boxes in the room. Us freshmen had to carry our cards with us.

    A quick search for ICSA and Rice turned up Priscilla Jane Huston, who should be able to answer some questions about the early days: http://www.ruf.rice.edu/~pjh/resume10PJH.html

    I’m surprised that we’ve gotten this far into the punched card era without someone retelling the story about Mark Linimon collecting discarded punched cards wrapping them in the correct JCL and sending them to the PL/C compiler, just to find out how much it could correct. A few years later, a student related this story from the past to Mark, not knowing he was the one who’d done it.

    • Richard Miller (Hanszen '75 & '76) says:

      I also recall Melissa mentioned in an earlier post she had a history of ICSA written by Joni Sue Lane.

      I think you got to use the storage rack once you made it to EE321 when the size of your deck mandated using a box. I know by the time you did compiler contrsuction you had to use the racks since most parsers required at least one entire box and most of a second and you had to use the dispatcher/operator to read it in. The 2540 card reader was too slow to read in that many cards

      • effegee says:

        IT is working a new history after interviewing a number of the staff from the beginning through the early 2000′s in addition to its current staff.

  14. Rachel '01 says:

    Love. This.

  15. Grungy says:

    Somewhere, in one of the innumerable boxes, I still have the card-stack for the member list of S.L.O.B. that I used as data for a bubble-sort program for my PL-1 class.

    • Deborah Gronke Bennett says:

      You should enlighten Melissa as to what S. L. O. B. was. (I can’t even remember the acronym, but I think I still have my shirt somewhere). My favorite personal SLOB title was for S. O. Barber. His nickname was “No L”.

      On the ICSA thread, I’ll also mention one of the larger outside user jobs I dealt with when I worked at ICSA that summer. It was a job computing bond yields for some kind of financial institution, written by T. Borland. He dubbed it “Bondo”. It created a monster printout on 3-part paper (with carbons) that had to be burst and decollated. One month I had to do most of it by hand since the decollator kept jamming. I had blisters for days from hand-cranking that thing.

    • Deborah Gronke Bennett says:

      Oh, did SLOB actually stand for “Society of Loyal and Obstreperous Bastards”?

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