Homecoming 2019: The R1 Computer

I don’t know why I never thought of telling everyone they were welcome to visit the Woodson during Homecoming before but I’m glad I did it this year. We saw a significant amount of action, all of it hugely enjoyable, and took in some great stuff as well. Interestingly, things took a decided R1 turn. First Gene Mutschler ’69 ’70 ’73, who worked on the R1 as a graduate student and wrote the program that powered it down for the last time, came in on Thursday bearing gifts. Here he is with one of the R1 panels we have in the Woodson:

He brought in some wonderful artifacts including the master oscillator card, a smaller circuit board, and this glorious and well used set of instructions that sat on the console:

Here’s what one of the pages looks like:

My favorite piece, though, was something I hadn’t realized existed–a “key” to the computer. This is identified on the back as key 59, by the way, which makes me wonder if this were a way to record who was using the machine:

The keys fit into a slot on the middle panel of the console, near the top left corner:

We’re extremely grateful to Gene for these important donations to our R1 collection.

Bonus: The next day up turned Adam Thornton ’94, the author of a fine piece on the history of the R1 which I have turned to many time for its clear, understandable explanation of the workings of that machine. If you’d like to know more his paper is where you should start.

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7 Responses to Homecoming 2019: The R1 Computer

  1. Wiliam A. Wheatley says:

    I worked – briefly – on weekends inside the computer, changing blown tubes. I suggested to my boss that they use transistors instead, and he replied, “What would we do then with all the extra space?”

  2. williamwatson says:

    I’m sorry that I missed the R1 interactions, as my late father worked on R1 in 1958 and 1959, and 1963-66. I’m particularly sorry that I missed meeting Adam Thornton, as I passed along to him more than 20 years ago most of the small stack of R1 materials I inherited from my father. I believe that he still has them, and will some day pass them along to the Woodson. It didn’t amount to all that much, mostly perfect bound documents. I think I recall one on SPIREL, and one on OSAGE, the clone of R1 built at OU in 1960-1963. I kept a copy of the 1962 “Principals of machine operations” manual, as other copies seemed relatively widely available.

    If I recall correctly, Adam said that his interest in computer history was inspired to some extent by an item I submittd to The Jargon File, expanding the entry on the Grind Carnk:
    http://catb.org/jargon/html/G/grind-crank.html

    And yes, I do believe that the console key was part of a tracking system for time on R1.

    Here’s an article on OSAGE from Sooner Magazine. The image it starts with has a rather familiar-looking subject.
    https://digital.libraries.ou.edu/sooner/articles/p4-8_1960v33n4_OCR.pdf
    The story was obviously intended for a general audience, and is not technical in nature.

    The OSAGE effort played a part in the timing of my parent’s wedding, perhaps even in my father’s proposal. I hope readers will excuse the digression.

    As the Sooner article notes, my father graduated from OU in 1951. He received a EE bachelor’s that year, and landed a job working as a “doodlebugger” in west Texas and eastern New Mexico, setting out geophones and setting off explosives, all for oil exploration. An uncle told him that he was too bright to waste his time out there, and ought to consider graduate school. My father applied for the program at MIT. Immediately on arriving at that insititution, he felt terribly unprepared, and let the folks at OU know just how inadequate he thought their program was. After receivign his MSEE in 1954, he went to work in the SF Bay Area. A couple of years later, after he’d met a young Stanford grad while skiing near Tahoe, my dad got word from OU that it was time to “put up or shut up,” that they had a plan to improve their program, and a role for him to play in that scheme. He was to leave California, “stop at Los Alamos to pick up the plans,” then go to work at Rice on R1, helping ensure that the computer was thoroughly documented. At the appropriate time, he was to head up to Norman, and work on their computer project, leveraging the experiece at Rice.

    My father decided that he didn’t want to leave his acquaintance behind. They married January 4, 1958. Word was that they skied every place they could on their way to Houston. After working at Rice, they moved to Norman in 1959. My brother was born there in 1960, then I was, then my sister. My father evidently enjoyed the academic life. They returned to Houston in the fall of 1963, so that my he could work at Rice on a PhD in EE. He completed that in 1966, got a faculty position at the University of Florida, and moved us there. At UF, he worked with other Rice grads, including Tom Bullock, BSEE 1961.

  3. Bill Harris says:

    I seem to recall that inserting and removing the key caused a code to be printed on a paper tap. Was that unit in the back, near the main power switch? I think maybe. I thought someone told me time was charged to various departmental accounts.

    It looks like your picture shows a piece of G-10 (green fiberglass) with slots milled out. I recall the key as a piece of G-10 with tinned copper etched in a unique pattern for each key. Is my memory or my interpretation of your picture wrong, or were there multiple key designs?

    • Bill Harris says:

      To my earlier comment: hopefully it’s obvious: “…to be printed on a paper tap” => “…to be punched in a paper tape”.

  4. hanszenite12 says:

    Any other new donations, particularly from the 80s-00’s? I feel like we never get to see much from those decades on the blog and would love to see more.

  5. rusk49 says:

    To William Watson: I have fond memories of your father, who spent a lot of time around the R1 while he was working on his Phd..
    and to Bill Harris: Yes, the “key” shown above was made of copper clad fiberglass and was etched like a printed circuit. It was Marty Grahams’ idea, and the information about which user key was plugged in was used to track what the R1 was being used for.

  6. Bill Harris says:

    To Dr. Rusk: as I recall, when I was a computer operator for some of Dr. Salsburg’s or his students’ research, I was told operators could also use the machine. In the days before the B-5500, it was nice to avoid the lines for the 1620 and get some homework or lab analyses done late at night on the R1. It seems to me there was a grad student named Walt who managed us operators: does anyone recall his last name?

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