Last Wednesday, I visited Drexel University’s Hagerty Library in Philadelphia for the opening of their new temporary exhibit, titled Access for Everyone: Computing at Drexel, 1946-1984. The exhibit highlights the expansion of computer usage to Drexel students.
Following the construction of an ENIAC at the neighboring campus of Penn during the 1940s, computers entered Drexel’s curriculum beginning in the 1950s. In 1958, Drexel’s Computing Center was founded with an IBM 650. At the opening ceremony human competitors challenged the machine to a game of tic-tac-toe. As computers gradually became smaller and more powerful, usage expanded beyond the technical fields to include literary analysis, library science and even home economics.
In 1982, Drexel required incoming students to purchase a computer, arranging for the cost to be included in financial aid packages. Before long, upperclassmen were clamoring for similar access.
Among the objects Drexel University Archives and Special Collections have included are yearbooks, excerpts from the school newspaper (Triangle), course catalogs, photographs, brochures, newsletters, and internal memos distributed among the administration. Some of the more fascinating items include a 1964-65 course catalog listing computer science classes (offering instruction in FORTRAN for the IBM 7040/1401) and a photograph from February 1965 of a professor with a female student looking over what appears to be a large teleprinter. Each object had its own label, printed in a charming white block font reminiscent of typewriter print (or more appropriately vintage printer type). Each tag is also written in an html style (for example: “<object name here/>”) that was a nice touch.
Overall the exhibit provides a fascinating look at the numerous applications for computers on a college campus; I found it especially interesting to learn about students using computers to examine grammatical structures in the works of John Milton. Special Collections has also provided some neat photographs of the first few decades of computer use in academia.
One thing I would like to have seen is more on who was using the computers. What were the social implications of computer usage and where do gender and race factor into computer access? For me, this is part of what makes that photograph I mentioned earlier of the professor and student at the teleprinter so interesting. The history of computer usage is something that has been garnering greater academic attention in recent years. For example, Nathan Ensmenger’s recent book on computer programming points out that the earliest programmers were women (the so-called “ENIAC girls”), so it would have been interesting if the exhibit go into greater detail of who was actually taking computer classes and using the machines, especially in those formative years during the 1950s and 1960s. In any case, University Archives and Special Collections have put together some interesting material that provided some great discussion at the exhibit’s opening.
For the opening of the exhibit last Wednesday, one of the local student organizations brought out some old computers and set them up on display for visitors to try out. Unfortunately, their presence was somewhat of a mixed blessing. While it was great to see the antiquated equipment in action (I especially enjoyed watching one visitor playing Doom on an IBM Thinkpad), I feel the exhibit could have been better served if the demonstrators offered some context for the machines on display, either through descriptive labels as in the exhibit proper or by simply telling visitors about the computers and why they are significant. To make matters worse, the technicians who provided the equipment took up most of the time on the machines, in some cases thwarting others’ attempts to try the hardware.
If you’re around the Drexel campus and have an interest in the history of computers, be sure to stop by Hagerty and check out the exhibit. A photo id is required for anyone other than Drexel University students and faculty. It can also be viewed online via Drexel University Archives and Special Collections’ website. Located in the main lobby of the library it’s in an easily viewable location. Just be sure to not confuse it with the history of fashion exhibit that is also running in the same place. “Access for Everyone” runs until July 29.