Computation, circa late 1970s

There is very little in this picture that I understand. I’d recognize Priscilla Huston’s smile anywhere and I think I also understand the telephone next to her:

Otherwise I’m going to need someone to explain all this to me. Mainly I’m interested in where this is and also in that thing that looks like a school bell above the phone.

Bonus: One of the old squash courts is now a very nice volleyball lounge. Walking in there produced quite a strange sensation.

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27 Responses to Computation, circa late 1970s

  1. Just below the bell is a red light. That is a ceramic light socket with a red-colored bulb in it. I would expect the bell and light to be an alarm for some issue in the computer room, maybe temperature too high, air conditioning failed, etc. Note the big thermometer on the wall above the bell.

    She is sitting at the operator’s console for an IBM mainframe. In the background on the left, we see tape drives for 9-track tapes. A 2400 foot reel recorded at 6250 bits/inch (the max) would hold 170 megabytes.

    Not sure exactly what is in the background on the right, but cabinets with that many lights were often IO controllers talking to terminals.

    • Richard Miller, Hanszen 1975 & 76 says:

      That is the 370 CPU display. In that era most of the mainframe computers had extensive blinking lights to display what was happening to them. The 370 lights were actually a rotary display so whoever was interested could spin the dial to obtain different diagnostics. The 3705 communications controller which did handle the (limited) communcations interfaces was behind Priscilla in that picture.

  2. grungy1973 says:

    Fascinating. That study room was Hackerman’s Hideaway at close of the basketball season.

  3. I believe she is sitting in front of the IBM360 that we got to replace the Burroughs B5500. I believe it was the 360/70 or a 370/70 with 2 megabytes of memory and a couple of 40 or 60 mb disks.

  4. David Scott says:

    ICSA was located in the basement of Herman Brown Hall. The IBM mainframe was originally purchased without virtual memory. It required a $250K box shortly thereafter. Don’t know if Stuart Lynn was director then or not, but eventually Priscilla took over.

  5. Gene Mutschler says:

    I spent much of the years 1973-78 in mainframe computer rooms even larger than this. We typically didn’t have big red lights and alarms such as this for things like temperature, etc.. However, since the ICSA was in a basement on a raised floor, there might have been a need for an underfloor water alarm.

    • Gene, I think Mark W would know precisely what that room is. AFAIK he was still working on the mainframes at Rice after you and I left town.

      • Bob Roosth says:

        Sorry, that last is not from Phil Cantor. Phil is a friend whose website I have been editing. Somehow Chrome thinks I am still logged into that site.

    • Bob Roosth says:

      Sorry, the reply from Phil Cantor is actually from me. I was logged into his website for editing and Chrome used his name for my reply.

  6. Gene Mutschler says:

    I believe the model of the IBM that replaced the Burroughs was a 370/155. I expect it would have been upgraded at various times after that. I believe the the model number in the picture would have been at the top left of the box to her right, which was the “front panel”. It is probably covered by the binder is that is up there, though I can’t think why anybody would put one up there, except for hardware troubleshooting.

    • Mark Linimon says:

      I remember it being a 370 as well. (Note the black front panel vs. the 360s which were more colorful). I am sure it was brought in by M. Stuart Lynn because he was an IBM devotée. Perphaps we can track down the Thresher interview I did with him (complete with the only picture I took which was published in the paper).

      He mostly talked about how the accounting charges to the other departments were “real money” and not funny-money. He was so convincing that I believed him … until I got to the end of the hallway on the way out.

  7. It is Priscilla Houston, director of ICSA. She is in the main computer room. Ahead of her is the bank of pneumatic tape drives, as Walter said. To the left of the tape drives (out of the picture) is the bank of disk drives with removable disk packs. They have upper and lower drawers. I was too short to heft the heavy disk pack over my head to install it in the upper drawer.

    To her left is the main printer, which used the fan-fold green paper with the holes along the edges. (We fondly called it ICSA bond, and I still have some of it in my house). Also to her left is the hallway leading to the big plotter, then the bins where your printed output would be placed.

    Behind her is the big window into the hall, with the keypunch room next door. To her right are the double doors which lead to the room where the removable disk packs and banks of tapes were stored. Every tape rack had a write ring hung on the end.

    When I worked at ICSA in the summer of 1979, everything was the same, except that main console (where she is sitting) had been turned 90 degrees to the left. That way the main operator was facing the printer, and did not have their back to the window. This saved wear and tear in the window as people were less likely to pound on it to get the operator’s attention when the machine went down.

  8. I hope Farrell Gerbode comes here to describe the history of the ICSA mainframes. I remember him doing that once here, a few years ago. As far as I know, he worked at ICSA from its founding until he retired.

  9. effegee says:

    OK, Deborah, I’ll give it a shot. Apologies in advance for gaps and errors — this is almost 50 years later!

    Computer: IBM 370/155 computer. As noted above, this was not (yet) a virtual memory computer, although IBM announced virtual memory after Rice purchased the 155 but not deliverable until the late fall following the planned August 1972 installation. As David pointed out, the add-on feature for this computer would cost upwards of $200K but that was less than the nearly additional $1M for the model 158 which would replace the 155 in the line up. Once modified the 370/155 would be known as a 370/155-II (that’s a roman number 2). Around the time of the 370/155-II upgrade, 1.5MB of the 2.0MB IBM *core* memory was replaced by 4MB of EM&M semiconductor memory, accompanied by a gateway device that allowed the CPU to access the semiconductor memory at a higher speed than the core memory supported. The 370 would be replaced by an Itel Advanced Systems 6 computer in 1979.

    Tape drives: The leftmost drive is a 7-track tape drive in the IBM 2400 series of drives. The last two digits. We had to have at least one 7-track drive to be able to exchange data with many other computers, particularly the CDC at UT-Austin, which did not support the 9-track format now preferred by IBM. The remaining three drives are IBM 3420 9-track drives. The 3420s would eventually be replaced by 3rd-party Storage Technology Corporation drives which were faster than the IBM drives. So the 3420s date the picture to be before that happened. (Date is probably in Joni Sue Lane’s history.)

    Disk drives: Not visible in the photo, perpendicular to the wall behind the tape drives, and to the left of the tape drives, were IBM 3330 disk drives. The media in the drives were removable, consisted of a stack of magnetic platters 16-18 inches in diameter. You can see a couple drive storage canisters to the right of the door in the wall to the right of the tape drives and behind the CPU.

    The mysterious bell and light: There was a button in the input submission/output return area that a user pushed if he/she needed to speak with the operator. It lit the light and rang the bell, both of which were silenced by a button on the operator’s side of the input submission counter. BTW, the only “environmental monitoring” I recall at his time was one of the temperature recorders that drew a line on a round paper chart.

    Priscilla Huston: Priscilla held three titles during the time of the 370/155 — Manager of Systems Support, Manager of Computer Services, and Director. Director was after the upgrade to the 370/155-II (which doesn’t appear to have happened) and M. Stuart Lynn’s departure for Berkeley. I cannot remember the exact timing of her promotion to Manager of Computer Services but it occurred prior to the upgrade. Manager of Systems Support was vacant for some time before the 370/155-II upgrade and remained so until I was appointed to that position. So is in one of those two positions.

    • Richard Miller, Hanszen 1975 & 76 says:

      Didn’t the DAT get installed in late 73? I remember that I had started working at ICSA when the DAT was finally installed which would be that fall or spring. I remember seeing the crated DAT and I think I was working by then.

      • effegee says:

        Rick — you may be right. But I remain certain that the first production use of the DAT box was when SVS went into production in August 1975. And it is hard to imagine Stuart allowing us to let the DAT box sit there for nearly two years before making production use of it.

        So I believe the DAT was installed in second half of 1974, probably in August. But if not then, a series of outages spread across the fall semester possibly into Christmas break. That timing allows me to be a full-time employee instead of a full-time grad student which I’m also fairly certain was the case.

        I bet “AN ICSA CHRONOLOGY” mentions the DAT upgrade and maybe even the various phases of installation of EM&M memory and other gear. Unfortunately, when my lateral file cabinet filled up 5 years ago, it appears my paper copy went to recycle. I don’t seem to have an electronic one. Melissa mentions having been offered a copy (given a copy?) by Bart Sinclair in the 1/31/2012 post.

        • Richard Miller, Hanszen 1975 & 76 says:

          you may be right. I do remember the upgrade to SVS and the weird error in HASP which would crash the system if a bad JCL card was read. One of my tasks was to review each card deck to make sure the JCL was good. I also remember Mark’s primal scream when he found the bug. (With mainframes we got access to the source so we could actually read the code)

  10. effegee says:

    Raised floor: The entire main computer room had a raised floor with 24-inch removable tiles. The area below the floor acted as the supply plenum for refrigerated air and for routing of electrical power and signal cables to connect the various devices to the computer. Holes were cut in the tiles to allow passage of cables to allow for forced air flow up into the computer equipment. Air conditioners sat on the raised floor, forcing their output through the openings in the floor that they sat over.

    The surface of the raised floor was about 18 inches above the recessed concrete floor. This was a particularly awkward height — too shallow to crawl under and too deep for most people to be able to move things laying on the concrete floor. There were a few drains in the concrete floor connected to the building sewer. I only recall them being used only once — but that’s a gross story for another time.

    The tape vault / library (through the doors at the end of the tape drives) and the keypunch room (on the other side of the wall behind the CPU) were on solid concrete raised floor 5-6 inches thick that was flush with the removable raised floor in the main computer room. In later years, new services and congestion in the computer room forced expansion into these adjacent areas. The hands-on card reader for the mainframe and the twin DEC Vax-11/750 computers installed to serve Computer Science education are examples of equipment that required coring the concrete raised floor. By the time ICSA moved to the newly constructed Mudd Lab in summer of 1983, parts of the concrete floor had begun to resemble “swiss cheese”.

  11. effegee says:

    B-5500 computer. There is a photo of the computer room when it held the Burroughs B-5500 that Ed Feustel mentioned above at Shown are its console and tape drives, both not far from the locations of the IBM components in this article. Part of the B-5500 CPU or memory cabinets peek in on the lower right side. The B-5500 was used for the introductory computer course (ENGI 240) starting in 1970. Students typed in their programs on teletypes (ASR-33s) similar to the console in the B-5500 picture, debugged them, and ran them, all from the terminal. If you didn’t finish or wanted to “store” your work, you punched paper tape before signing off — no online storage! Because of heavy demand for the now-required course for engineering and science degrees, students were limited to one one-hour session for each project. There were two sections of the course in fall of 1970 — one taught by E. C. Holt (Civil Engineering), the other by Ed Feustel (Electrical Engineering). Thanks to Ed, the course in fall 1970 included some assignments that had to be written in Algol, the first time that a programming language other than FORTRAN was taught in the intro course. IIRC, Gene Mutschler was head lab assistant in the fall of 1970. This system was replaced in August 1972 by the IBM 370/155.

    • I never saw the room with the B-5500 itself, but the teletype and punched tape, etc. bring back a flood of personal memories. This must have been the era of “P L O P RESTARTING PLEASE WAIT”. Ed Holt was my neighbor when I bought my first house. And I got the lowest grade of my academic career in Ed Feustel’s intro course. But I took a great liking to ALGOL and, to this day, most of my serious programming is in its progeny PASCAL. I spent a lot of frustrating time in that basement.

  12. Gene Mutschler says:

    I’m somewhat surprised by the fact that, since the ICSA was in the Hermann Brown basement of the rather flood-prone campus, the computer was evidently never flooded out.

    On the plus side, the fact that the computer was in the basement meant that there was plenty of room for students to camp out in the halls at the end of the semester as they tried to get their programs to work.

    • effegee says:

      In the 1976 flood, we stood nervously watching the water begin to lap over the edge of the base of Herman Brown, leaving it mere inches below the height needed to enter the lobby and run down stairs and elevator shafts. While a KTRK (ABC 13) news crew canoed down Rice Blvd., we were surprised by 6-10 “drowned rats” suddenly running from that direction. They turned out to be ROTC students that had been trapped in the basement of Central Kitchen by water flooding the basement stairwells. This prevented opening the doors to escape until the basement flooded enough to equalize pressure. Then they swam up the stairwell on Rice Blvd. Fortunately, the waters began to recede at that point. The 1977 and 1979 floods didn’t come that close.

      The only time I recall unwelcome liquid entering the computer room in sufficient quantity to do harm was a sewage flood that resulted from a botched installation of a private bathroom for a new dean’s suite on the third floor. The piece of cast iron pipe cut out to tap in the new line fell into the line and wasn’t retrieved. Months later, it had migrated under the driveway at the east end of the building where it eventually blocked all drainage from the building. The low points in the sewer system were the toilets in the two restrooms in the breezeway which overflowed into the breezeway and into the mechanical room between the bathrooms. There, pipe collars around penetrations into the basement were either non-existent or too short. Doomed like the Titanic, once the puddle got deep enough, a nasty rain commenced over the tape drives. Fortunately, the computer operators noticed the stain growing on the ceiling in time to power down abruptly and cover the drives before damage was done to the equipment. However, cleaning up the mess that got under the raised floor was not at all fun!

      • Keith Cooper says:

        Quick note: Farrell is referring to the Dean of the Jones School, which was housed in Herman Brown for a while. The executive offices of the Jones School included a small kitchen and bath off the Dean’s office.

        That office later became the Chair’s office for the Computer Science Department; the CS office was there until it moved into Duncan Hall.

  13. effegee says:

    Melissa want to know when was the photo taken. The computer room in the top photo in this article is in a very pristine and uncrowded state which suggests to me that the photo was taken not terribly long after installation in August 1972. The photo definitely was taken before 1976 when the room was was much more “used” and very crowded (see which was taken either in May or November 1976). I think the board on which the light and bell are mounted went away when the virtual feature (“DAT box”) was installed making the computer a 370/155-II. This happened before the end of 1974. So I am certain that a more appropriate title for the article would be “Computation, circa early 1970s”. I think this picture was taken before additional disk drives were added and before we have acquired very many disk packs to store. My best guess is second half of 1972 to end of 1973.

  14. Bob Shepherd says:

    Gee, I love this computer discussion. So quintessential Rice

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