A fun resource on the history of computing, 1930s-1990s

Pointer from: Deep dive into learning about Echelon / LonWorks
Place digested: Can’t even begin to digest; just know that this serves as a resource
Time digested: Oct 1, 2018


Columbia University Computing History

A Chronology of Computing at Columbia University



The world's most powerful computer at Columbia University's Watson Lab, 612 West 115th Street NYC, 5th floor rear, 1954.
Making History:
Local Milestones:


This document gives a chronology of computing at Columbia University, as best I can piece it together, written mainly in Jan-Feb 2001, updated periodically since then (time of last update listed above). It does not aspire to be a general history or museum of computing, but in some ways it's not far from one either. Corrections, additional information, and more photos are always welcome.

Who am I and why did I write this? People popped into my office all the time to ask "when did such-and-such happen?" — the first e-mail, the first typesetting, the first networking, the first PC lab, the first hacker breakins, etc -- since I was there for most of it. So I took some time and wrote it down, and in so doing became fascinated with the earlier history. I was a user of the Columbia Computer Center from 1967 until 1977 in my various jobs and as a Columbia student, and I was on staff from 1974 until 2011. Brief bio: After some early programming experience in the Army (mid-1960s), the Engineering School and Physics Dept (late 1960s, early 70s), and Mount Sinai Hospital (early 70s), I came to work at the Computer Center Systems Group in 1974, hired by its manager Howard Eskin out of his graduate Computer Science classes. After a year of OS/360 programming, I was manager of the PDP-11/50 and the DEC-20s (first e-mail, early networking, the first campuswide academic timesharing), then manager of "Systems Integration" (first microcomputers, PCs, Kermit), principal investigator of the "Hermit" distributed computing research project, then manager of Network Planning for the University and chair of the University-wide Network Planning Group, before "retiring" to the Kermit Project, which had less (well, zero) meetings and way more fun. I was laid off from Columbia in 2011 but still have access to this website. (Note: the Columbia Kermit Project website was cancelled and its website frozen July 1, 2011; the new Open Source Kermit Project website is HERE.)

Capsule Summary

Automatic computing at Columbia University got off to a serious start in the 1920s in the with the installation of large IBM accounting and calculating machines in the Statistics and Astronomy departments and a close relationship that developed with IBM that would last 50 years. Columbia soon developed a world-class reputation for innovation in scientific computing. As World War II approached, Columbia astronomy professor Wallace Eckert was recruited by the US Naval Observatory to apply the techniques he had developed at Columbia to the production of the almanacs that guided air and sea navigation throughout the war. At the end of the war Eckert rejoined Columbia as the founder and director of IBM Watson Scientific Computing Laboratory on 116th Street, IBM's first pure research facility, which also served as Columbia's "computer center," and created the world's first Computer Science curriculum. In 1963 Columbia opened its own Computer Center on campus underneath the Business School. From 1963 to 1975 all computing at was done on large central IBM mainframes, with a handful of smaller computers in the departments. Jobs were coded on punched cards and run by operators in the Computer Center machine room. In 1973 a public Self-Service Input/Output area (SSIO) was opened with key punches, card readers, and printers where users could submit jobs and retrieve the results themselves. Beginning in 1975 interactive timesharing was introduced based on central Digital Equipment Corporation computers with public hardcopy and video terminals installed in the SSIO area and in the Engineering building. Other terminal rooms were added over time, mainly in the dormitories. During 1977-80 a lively online community developed, with email, bulletin boards, and file sharing, and courses increasingly required the use of the central computers, or took advantage of them in other ways. In the 1980s public terminals were gradually replaced by microcomputers, PCs, and workstations connected to the central computers through their serial ports, like terminals. Columbia joined the ARPANET (later to become the Internet) in 1984. The terminal network was replaced in stages by Ethernet, which was also extended to dormitory rooms, offices, and even apartments. About 1995 the combination of Windows 95 and the World Wide Web led to widespread migration from centralized timesharing to distributed desktop computing, wired and then increasingly wireless. Students began to arrive with their own computers, laptops, tablets, and mobile devices; the need for public PC labs dwindled. By 2005 or so, the Computer Center merely provided the infrastructure, mainly the network, e-classrooms, and email. Now even email is being outsourced.