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Computer history exhibit opens in Gates

There was a time, not so long ago, when computer hardware was big, bulky and heavy rather than small, sleek and mobile.

The Whirlwind computer built by Jay Forrester at MIT in 1951, for example, was built from vacuum tubes and took up 3,100 square feet. Similarly, the UNIVAC computer that was used to predict the outcome of the 1952 presidential election (correctly awarding the contest to Eisenhower by a landslide) took up an entire building. The first hard drives were metal disks about 5 feet in diameter that weighed about 5,200 pounds and wouldn't have looked out of place in a sawmill.

Photos, hardware and equipment trace the 50-year development of computers ­ from the hulking goliaths of yesteryear to the miracles of miniaturization that fit in the palm of our hands ­ in a new exhibit titled "Memories" that opened Nov. 5 in the Gates Computer Science Building.

The exhibit, which fills the display cases in the building's basement to fourth floor lobbies, is a joint production of the computer science department and the Computer History Center.

"When I was teaching here at Stanford, I became alarmed when I would hold up something like a vacuum tube and discover that a lot of students didn't even recognize what it was," said Leonard J. Shustek of Network General Corp. "I realized that a lot the legacy of the information is being lost." Shustek is chairman of the newly formed center, which is affiliated with the Computer Museum in Boston.

As part of the ceremony, Donald Knuth, professor emeritus of computer science, gave a brief talk about the early history of the department. It turns out that 1997 is a particularly auspicious year because it is the department's 32nd anniversary, Knuth noted. To computer scientists 32 is much more significant than 50 because it can be represented as 25 in the binary language of digital computers.

Using personal letters and memoranda from the 1960s, Knuth demonstrated the great lengths to which the late George E. Forsythe, professor and first chairman of the computer science department, went to recruit top computer science talent to Stanford. "By 1967 other universities had realized that this was important and there was intense competition for computer science professors, but in 1960 it was a very strange thing," Knuth said.

Forsythe's prescience gave Stanford a five-year jump on the rest of academia. By 1968, when Knuth finally gave in to Forsythe's persuasions and moved up from the California Institute of Technology, "the department was definitely the best in the world; everybody important was coming here; and it had the best students," he said.

Not only did Forsythe seek out the best computer scientists, but he also inspired them to give their best effort. "George had an attitude that made us want to work 10 times harder than we thought we could, and enjoy ourselves as we did," Knuth said.

According to Knuth, one of Forsythe's key supporters was Albert Bowker, professor emeritus of mathematics and statistics, who attended the opening. In the 1960s, he was dean of graduate studies and backed Forsythe's efforts, first to create a computer science division within the mathematics department and then to form an independent department in 1965.

"Forsythe is the one person most responsible for computer science as an idea and as an academic discipline," Knuth said.

Several of the displays focus on Forsythe and the computer science department. Others trace the evolution of the desktop computer from the Xerox Alto, which was the prototype of the personal computer, through the Apple II, Radio Shack TRS-80 and Commodore PET, the troika of competing machines that forged the first major desktop market. Ironically, the IBM Personal Computer, which coined the term "personal computer" and dominated the market for a number of years, is represented only by its keyboard, which many critics at the time considered one of its weakest features.

Another portion of the exhibit memorializes the contributions of Stephen Cray, who designed the world's fastest supercomputers in the 1960s and early 1970s, by photos and pieces of hardware that illustrate Cray's elegant engineering designs. The CRAY-1, introduced in 1976, weighted 5,300 pounds. The world of the large, mainframe computers developed for the government and corporate markets are represented by artifacts like an IBM 360 operations console, an electric key punch and a sample of the punched cards that were used to input programs and data.

Much of the material related to the computer science department was provided by department members, including Hector Garcia-Molina, Mark Horowitz, Terry Winograd, Carlo Tomasi, and Gio Wiederhold. The rest was comes from the Computer History Museum, which is setting up shop in Silicon Valley. Because of his concern about the fading legacy of the information revolution, Shustek joined the board of the Computer Museum. In that capacity, he discovered that the museum was concentrating increasingly on the function of public education and, as a result, was devoting less time and energy to collecting, organizing and maintaining historical materials. So he played a key role in convincing the museum to set up a Silicon Valley center devoted to this purpose.

The new center has a temporary office in the Moffett Field industrial park, and has secured storage space for the thousands of artifacts that are being shipped from Boston to Moffett Field. The center is organizing regular lectures on computer history topics and is putting up a website. In four or five years, they hope to have a permanent home in the area.

Meanwhile, the center is eager for volunteers willing to help organize the collection, work on web pages and participate in other projects. Potential volunteers can get more information on the web at or by calling (650) 604-2577.


By David F. Salisbury

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