I AM ORANGE: 1976-1980

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.


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.

7 Responses to I AM ORANGE: 1976-1980

  1. Another Orange (76-80) says:

    Were you in Lawrinson (on the 9th floor), by any chance?

  2. Peter Ent says:

    Yes I was. And you are….

  3. Steve Kladstrup says:

    Hi Pete,

    Steve Kladstrup, 905, rooming with Mike Apter the first couple years, and later, Rob Evans. Maybe you will remember me as the inventor of Elevator Slot Machine?

    I don’t want to distract you or anyone else from your blog, so I’ll just quickly say that I’m a Flash lover as well. I was an Anthropology-Geography major at SU, so I spent the 80’s working for mapping firms, and the 90’s working for mapping SOFTWARE firms. I was fortunate enough to be able to work alongside some first-class Smalltalk and Java developers for most of that second decade, and I’ve essentially learned any software “skills” I may have on the job. It was also then that I discovered Flash. Today, I am using it in a labor of love to build an education-related app for a private venture.

    Having been a social science major, I’m afraid my only contribution to your orange-themed history is that I remember the DECwriter IIs in our dorm at SU as occasional gaming platforms (e.g. Star Trek, etc.). Seems to me that there was a Zork-like game as well…

  4. Carl says:

    Syracuse was way too cold, but Orange was my favorite color! How are things Peter? I googled you up and happily found your blog. Thiongs are good in California still, and we should catch up sometime!

  5. Mike Mattson says:

    Am I guessing correctly that you’re in Silicon Valley? I’m assistant dean for college advancement at ECS — we’re looking for ways to connect our alumni group out there to ECS to help us recruit students, find employment opportunities for graduates, invite faculty members to speak, etc., etc. I’ll be out there next week. If you’re available on the 31st, 1st or 2nd, I’d love to meet you.

  6. Mark Fineman says:

    Sent via http://weblogs.macromedia.com/mtadmin/mt-comments.cgi
    I saw your article in Syracuse University
    Synergies Winter 2006, page 17

    Some comments:

    . I was at SU from 1967 September to 1975 November.
    The 360 was gone before I left. The IBM was either a 370/155 or 370/158,
    or perhaps a larger machine by the time you got there, unless things moved
    . The SULIRS design was done by Arnold Goldfein. The terminal stuff (for SULIRS,
    PDP-11 part) was probably based on the same terminal stuff as was in SUPARS, but perhaps
    was completely rewritten by the same guy who tailored it for SUPARS, somebody-or-other
    Green, I think. (Maybe some IBMers did some of the work.)

    Goldfein did all of the interface design and assigned modules. Some were actually written by
    professional programmers, some by Goldfein and various of his students. The disk storage
    modules were designed and implemented by me. The design and implementation
    was very good. Any reasonably good programmer could pick up any module
    (except possibly my modules in the IAM part, below) and fix or add to with
    no problems. Much better than the IBM system code, which was far better than
    the Digital Equipment Corporation code that I had to work with while working on
    database management software at DEC; light-years better than the student written
    code from Stanford (and other) computer science graduates that I dealt with while working in
    CAD at Intel for 15 years. (I.e., Goldfein taught his students to write maintainable code.)

    All of the work, except for some of the terminal interface was done in PL/I (F),
    including the IAM (Indexed Access Method) used for the catalog storage. IAM was
    my implementation of B-trees before anyone else published or implemented. I think
    the total disk size was about 350 MB when I left, on two 200 MB drives. For a
    while we were on four 100 MB drives. (At least one future SU professor did
    a theoretical analysis of B-trees that he started working on after the IAM stuff
    was implemented. His PhD thesis was essentially a subset of the analysis that I
    did for the RADC (Rome Air Development Center) before starting actual implementation.

    . Peter B. Olson did the PDP-11 programming and the IBM HASP replacement
    programming. The HASP replacement was earliest, then the PDP-11 terminal
    switch. Olson was a superprogrammer. An interesting thing about the
    PDP-11 code was that one power supply died one night and was replaced the
    next day. The power supply died one night a few weeks later, was replaced, and then
    died one night a few weeks later. At this point PBO noted that he zeroed memory
    when not in use. Therefore, at night the terminal buffers were 0. It turns out that the
    semiconductor memory used more power when storing 0’s than 1’s. The DEC system
    was designed for average, not load. DEC also followed its usual rule of protecting
    fuses and circuit breakers with other hardware, so the power supply had to be
    replaced, rather than just reset, each time.

    .I thought that the library stopped updating the card catalog before I left, but I saw
    a web reference that says that the catalog was maintained in parallel until 1980.
    My memory isn’t faulty here, but I may have been lied to.

    For SULIRS, Teresa Strozik was the head of the library. Goldfein reported to her.
    I worked at the Computer Center in Machinery Hall for Dominick Auricchio.

    . APL versus LISP: Didn’t you learn APL before LISP? I thought that was how
    things worked at SU in those days. (LISP may have been your first language learned
    in a programming course, but APL was a big deal at SU.

    CIS versus SIS: You say you were in the CIS department. My degree was from the SIS,
    Systems and Information Sciences Department. The SIS that I was in doesn’t seem to be
    related to the SIS now. (The SIS now seems related to LIS (Library Information Science, or some such)
    from my time.) Did SIS change to CIS when you were at SU? I thought the change came after

    . PDP-10: If I remember correctly, SU got a very good deal on the obselete PDP-10, so
    it was SU’s new DEC when other places were getting PDP-20’s. However,
    I thought it was replaced by a PDP-20 before 1976. Are you sure it was still a PDP-10
    when you got to SU? (As noted above, I know that the system used for APL and SULIRS
    was a 370 before 1976.)

    You might want to look at:
    but I don’t know how accurate the information in them is.

  7. Steve Adams says:

    Hi Pete,

    I’m sure you remember me…been a long time. I was there from 78-82 for BS in CE, and stayed for MBA through 84. We were roomies for a year or two, with Mike and Craig. Saw your article appear in Synergies. Send me an email, it’d be great to catch up.