Oversized Unidentified Computer Staff

Rambling idly through one of the “Oversized” boxes, the Final Home of All Things Awkwardly Shaped, I came upon this undated, unidentified photo. (It’s really big, by the way.)


I may not accomplish much today but I do feel pretty sure that I have readers who can fill this gap in our institutional knowledge. I’d like to know who everyone is, of course, but I’m also interested in where it was taken as well as the purpose of the little thing that looks like a bell over the head of the seated (and handsome!) fellow with the beard. I’m almost afraid to ask about the thermometer. Any help is greatly appreciated.



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21 Responses to Oversized Unidentified Computer Staff

  1. Don Johnson says:

    All you need is to have Richard Schaefer look at it. He is the handsome bearded person in the center. You have a picture of the ICSA mainframe. And you can’t let it get hot; thermometer was necessary equipment in the old days (I have horror stories of the minicomputer system I ran after Alicia hit and when the UNiversity decided not to power the air conditioning).

    • Richard Schafer says:

      Thanks, Don. Left to right: Ron Cytron, Lorene Williams, Alan Beale, me, Stuart Lynn, Ginger Sall (I forget her last name at the time), Farrell Gerbode, Mark Williamson. Lee Miller is the operator at the console. I think the bell was a doorbell wired to a button outside to request attention at the counter. Don’s right about the thermometer.

      • Richard A. Schafer says:

        Ginger was Ginger Kelly at the time. I’m pretty sure that picture is from the Rice University Report of the President 1975-1976. It was taken sometime after April 19, 1976 (when Alan started at ICSA) and before December 17, 1976, when Stuart resigned. Probably before August, since Joni Sue Lane wasn’t in the picture. I can’t find anything in the Report saying why the picture was included, and I don’t remember why it was taken, unfortunately. The ICSA Chronology doesn’t mention anything that immediately stands out in 1976 as calling for such a group photo. Maybe Farrell will remember.

      • Melissa Kean says:

        That report got a pretty wide distribution and I guess I wouldn’t be surprised if this photo was included just because it looks pretty cool and would impress non-tech people. It’s quite an appealing image.

      • effegee says:

        I think fiscal year 1976 was a year of mid-life upgrade to the IBM 370/155. Lots of interaction between the administration, Board, and ICSA. There had been hardware upgrades the previous FY to allow the 16 megabyte “single virtual storage” OS upgrade rolled out in August 1975. And, if I recall correctly, the “real memory” was upgraded to 4MB before Stuart left, so was likely scheduled if not in progress. –Yes, that’s megabytes too.– I think the PSE was part of that installation. (PSE allowed the IBM CPU to access the faster non-IBM memory at faster speeds.) Big improvements at the time allowing more users to be served with relatively small incremental investment.

        Of course, these improvements are hard to comprehend today when my phone serves a user community of one, has a faster processor with 16,000 times as much “real memory”, and fits in my pocket without a room full of air conditioning and peripherals.

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

        I thought that upgrade happened in the summer of 1975-76. I remember working on it when I was there so it would have been prior to Alan arriving.

  2. Gloria Tarpley '81 says:

    This was ICSA in the late 70’s/early 80/s. I took one semester course on computers and I recognize several faces from the time I had to spend down there running programs. No idea about names, though. Several of these folks seemed to spend virtually all their time down there (basement of Hermann Brown, by the way) because I remember noticing that you never seemed to see them above ground, but they were always in ICSA. Computer programming back then entailed punching decks of cards and waiting seemingly endless hours for your program to run…..

  3. marmer01 says:

    The girl in the center is very cute in a late 70’s way. The rest of that lot are straight from Central Casting: Geek Division! Notice the houndstooth check pants the bearded gentleman on the far right is wearing (along with a lot of pens in his pocket.)

    • Melissa Kean says:

      I swear someday I’m going to do a post about the ties worn by engineering professors in the 1970s.

      • Not sure why this article popped up after four years, but Arne Troelstra had the neatest tie knots I have ever seen. And everyone finished his tests in the same amount of time, regardless of how much they knew. Nobody left early or stayed late. It was kind of weird.

    • effegee says:

      The woman in the center is now the wife of the Exec. VP of SAS Institute Inc. At that time she was the wife of a Rice Economics professor.

    • Mark Williamson says:

      Back then, various colored pens were great for flagging areas of core dumps for debugging. I usually had three to six. I still carry several pens in my shirt pocket, but I’m down to two to three.

      I’d just as soon not say anything about the checked pants.

  4. mjthannisch says:

    I spent a lot of time there myself my freshman year. I was a fairly decent typist and John Grolsch(SP?) had broken his wrist so I typed punch cards for him. Later had to type some for myself when doing statistical POLI courses. In regard to the thermometer, we had an Aussie prof who would tell us about the University of Sidney being heated by the computers. Vacuum valves or tubes put out a lot of heat..

  5. Deborah Gronke Bennett (BSEE Hanszen '82) says:

    I think FEG or Richard should explain the purpose of all the switches on that panel to the right of the bell and half out of the picture. One thing I remember – there were panels of 4 red light bulbs in several locations around ICSA. When one or more of the red lights came on, something was down or broken. In my freshman naivete, I thought they were connected to some nifty automatic monitor which was part of the mainframe. When I later worked at ICSA in the summer of 1979, I was truly disappointed to see they were manually controlled by 4 toggle switches on that panel, and the operator just turned them on by hand.

    • Richard A. Schafer says:

      Deborah, while I can’t speak to the specific switches in the picture, generally they were there for various kinds of debugging and hardware maintenance activities. This really was the era of flashing lights on the front of the computer. One could read various registers, memory locations, etc. by toggling the switches. There were several rows of rotatable controls that would change the meaning of the lows of lights. The lights were little individual neon lights that could be pulled out and replaced. (And pranks could be played based on that feature, not that I would know anything about that,) With enough work, one could run this mainframe computer in single step mode, executing a single instruction and reading the front panel lights to see what was happening on each instruction. Plus there was the Big Red Button (actually a pull switch) for an emergency shutdown. Pull that switch, and power was immediately cut. And I do mean “cut”—as I remember, pulling the switch literally cut a wire and power could not be restored until a service engineer came out and replaced it.

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

        My memory was that it pulled wires (multiple) from the power supplies such that a rather extensive PM was required to return the unit to service. A somewhat macabre joke/statement was that one should weigh the importance of the employee being electricuted before pulling the switch. Need for this has pretty much been taken care of by the EPO switchs on the power distribution units supply power to the devices

  6. effegee says:

    The Emergency Off pull switch had a notch in the stem of the switch. When you pulled it out, a metal plate under tension dropped into the notch. Resetting the switch entailed swinging open the black front panel, removing a guard behind the switch, disengaging the plate while pushing in on the button.

  7. Over in the left background are several disk packs and covers, and some of the labels for them, such as “ADMIN2”. I remember there were study carrels right out side the window into the machine room, and when we saw certain disk packs mounted, we knew that those jobs would tie up most of the resources and therefore it was time to head to Kay’s lounge…

  8. effegee says:

    Most of the ADMIN disk packs held student records data for registrar, financial aid, and such. These systems were moved to a PR1ME minicomputer in the second half of 1982. The PR1ME was located near northern of the two windows mentioned in Philip’s post.

    In addition to the impact the Admin programs had on the processor, the system only had 2-4 drives available for mounting disk pack for running jobs. The rest were permanently mounted disks (system, user storage) or rented to external customers.

    The mountable IBM 3336-1 disk pack (or third party equivalent) could hold up to a whopping 100 megabytes, or 1/640th of the storage of my current mobile phone.

  9. Angela Wren Wall says:

    Has anyone identified the location of the bonus photo yet? (As promised, Melissa, I’ve been going back through your archives, and I found I recognized the spot pretty readily.) Facing Sewall Hall, you must have been perched at the top of the metal staircase, which is accessed via the Cohen House kitchen. I hadn’t been to the top of that staircase myself until after I saw your posted photo (had to verify my theory, naturally), but I did recognize the architecture of Cohen House and Sewall Hall – plus noting the orientation of the Ozarka delivery truck hidden behind the trees helped me identify the Inner Loop.

    I have a question! Was that doorway at the foot of the staircase ever used as an entrance to Cohen House? I think the inscription indicated the date MCMXXIX (1929), and that it was part of an addition to Cohen House. Maybe the answer is in your archives and I haven’t gotten there yet?

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