Like many seniors in high school I thought about going to college and which college that would be. By now I was very sure I wanted to work with computers and write software. So the college I would go to would have to offer a degree in computer science. Back in 1976 this was not common. Even Princeton University, so close to home, did not offer a degree in computer science and in fact, offered very few computer software courses. As fate would have it, the very first college brochure I received was from Syracuse University.
Syracuse University, I would find out, was very unique for its time. It not only offered a B.S. in Computer Science, it also had the School of Computer and Information Science. Not only that, S.U. had SULIRS – Syracuse University Library Information Retrieval System. The entire card catalog was computerized. I knew these people had their act together and it was the place for me. In September 1976 my mother, sister, and I packed me up and went off to S.U. where the Goon Squad moved me into my dorm with my soon-to-be horrible roommate (but that’s a whole other series of articles).
Keywords: Network, DEC, IBM, LISP, Computer Science
Going to S.U. was more fortuidous than I could have imagined. Now remember this was 1976. Computers were mainframes. Keypunches were the norm and very few people used computers. There was no Internet.
In 1976 Syracuse University was a wired campus. There were DECwriter IIs everywhere (white and black machines that used paper and a dot-matrix printer; made a racket but were reliable). In dorms and in academic buildings. Not only that, every student, regardless of degree program, was given several hours of computer time each semester. They could use the time for whatever they wanted: write papers, write programs, learn. The entire operation was run by the Academic Computing Center located in, appropriately enough, Machinery Hall, tucked away just off the north east corner of the Quad.
S.U. had two mainframes: An IBM 360 with a modified operating system: SUOS (Syracuse University Operating System) which was the envy of IBM since SUOS did things IBM said were not possible on a 360. The ACC also had a Digital Equipment DEC-10. Both machines had a couple of megs of memory.
The IBM system supported SULIRS as well as APL. If you are unfamiliar with APL, it was (and may be still is) a marvelously quirky lanaguage of strange symbols, and read right to left. APL required a special keyboard and the DECwriters had the APL symbols printed on them in yellow. You would write entire programs on a single line if you wanted to. The IBM system also supported the more academic research software like SAS.
The DEC system supported mostly the CIS department and was our favored machine. You could do LISP, ALGOL, Snobol, SAIL, Prolog, Fortran, and a slew of other languages that are just fond memories. The CIS department was my Gryffndor.
The ‘network’ at S.U. was pretty unique, almost entirely home grown. All of the DECwriter II terminals around campus were connected via serial line to a DEC-11. When you approached a machine and hit the return key you were given a login prompt. You had two accounts: one for APL and one for the DEC-10. Depending on which account you entered the DEC-11 directed you to that computer and then made the connection for you. Marvelous system. It even switched the DECwriters to APL mode if you signed into your APL account.
One of my first classes in computer science was LISP (List Processing Language) given by the much-loved Dr. Ed Storm (who has sadly passed away). Can you imagine that the first language you were to learn was LISP? Most people learned BASIC. Not us. We learned LISP. LISP is a beautiful, if impractical, lanaguage. It is entirely recursive and wonderful to teach Computer Science, not computer programming. Learning LISP was like having a light bulb switched on and illuminating a landscape filled with algorithms.
(FUNCTION FACTORIAL N) ( (IF N EQ 1 (RETURN N) (RETURN (MULT N (FACTORIAL (MINUS N 1)))) )
I actually never learned BASIC, nor FORTRAN, nor COBOL. Over my four years we used Pascal, APL, SAIL, and others. The point of the languages was to teach the science behind the software, not the software itself. Our artifical intelligence classes used LISP, Prolog, or PASCAL. The Math department was heavy into APL because multi-dimensional matrix multiplication was easy to do in APL. One of the hardest classes I ever had was Semi-numerical Algorithms (based on Don Knuth’s book) given by the much-loved Dr. Pardee (who also has passed away). We used APL to figure out algorithms in different bases, such as base -3. Why? To understand how to express irrational numbers, logic, sorting, fractals, and much more.
I’ve only begun to tell you of the wonderland that was the S.U. campus, in terms of computing. Bleeding edge, that’s what it was. We had some of the best professors in the world come teach there. And S.U. embraced computers in ways that other places were only beginning to understand.
I have never regretted going to Syracuse University (except for the snow) and cannot recommend it enough. My love affair with S.U. lasted longer than my four undergraduate years. I’ll tell you about that next time.