Steve Jobs’ death at the beginning of the month marked the passing of one of the most influential figures in modern computing today. While I wouldn’t go so far as some and say he was the most influential figure in the history of video games, there is no doubt that much of how we view computerized technology has been stamped by Steve Jobs and Apple. He had that unique combination of technical expertise, showmanship, and a foresight for potential market demands that marks a great businessman. To celebrate Jobs’ life and Drexel’s connection to him, Drexel University Libraries hosted “Going National: with Apple Computers: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow” at their recently-opened Library Learning Terrace. It was an event primarily directed at the student body; however there were also Drexel alums (and one representative of the University of Delaware) in attendance. Refreshments were also served.
The festivities began with a screening of the documentary film Going National, directed by Dave Jones, the current dean of Pennoni Honors College. In the film, which initially debuted in 1985 (Jobs in fact attended the premiere) Jones documented the deal forged between Apple and Drexel to supply the University with computers for the student body, the introduction of the Macintosh, the process of educating both the faculty and student body in utilizing the machines, and the impact the project had on research and education at Drexel. Drexel was one of the earliest colleges, if not the first, require students to purchase computers. While the cost was still high for the Macontosh ($1000 in 1984 translates to over $2100 in present-day dollars) the discount put the computers within greater economic reach than would have been otherwise possible. The introduction of the Macintosh at Drexel has also become a mark of pride for the Philadelphia university (as I reported a few months ago, Drexel University Libraries hosted an exhibit on their history of computing).
In the early eighties, at the behest of then-University President W.W. Hagerty, Drexel instituted the Microcomputer Project, an effort to introduce computers to the student body and faculty. Drexel established a partnership with Apple in 1983 for the young computer company to supply their new model to the University beginning in 1984. The administration remained tight-lipped on the nature of the technology, referring to the machine as the “Apple DU” in promotional material and divulging nothing of the technical capabilities of the hardware until Apple’s historic reveal of the Macintosh during Super Bowl XVIII on January 22, 1984. The following year the incoming freshman class received the Macintosh at the marked-down price of $1000, an extraordinary discount for the time considering the Macintosh’s initial retail price of $2495. Jones’ film documented the initiative as it happened, from the administrative planning to teaching instructors on how to operate the machinery and integrate it into their lessons. His camera recorded administrative and faculty meetings, meetings with student test audiences, the distribution of the Macintosh to incoming students, instructional sessions, classroom demonstrations, and students hard at work computing.
The film was a fascinating look into the history of computing, demonstrating the introduction of computers to a mass audience (albeit confined to Drexel students and faculty) during the formative years of personal computing. For me the most interesting parts of the film were when it covered the instructional sessions for the faculty members as they learned how to operate the new technology and when Jones interviewed students on the ways they integrated the computers into their studies, such as watching students typing research papers in their dorm rooms and printing out English papers on the University printers (a hour before they are due, of course).
Following the end of the film Drexel Libraries hosted a panel discussion on the microcomputer project and its impact on the University. The panel consisted of Jones, Cohen, Sheldon Master a sales rep for Apple during the 1980s who was involved in the deal, and John Gruber, a Drexel alum and currently author of the Apple-related blog daringfireball. The moderator was Dr. Youngmoo Kim, professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering and the Dean Media Technologies.
Master believed the Drexel project “helped launch Apple into the corporate world” partly because of Apple was able to penetrate the academic world and in part because students introduced to Apple at Drexel brought it with them into the corporate world. On the impact of the computer, Cohen compared it to the printing press in terms of technological innovation. All the panelists provided an interesting firsthand account of the introduction of computers to the student body. Jones and Cohn, professors of film and English respectively, offered a unique perspective as at the time computers did not seem immediately relevant to their fields. They described an initial reluctance by the faculty to adopt computers but many eventually came around as a result of training programs and a university mandate to integrate computers into their curriculum.
After the panelists spoke they opened the floor to the audience. The students who spoke expressed a concern that computers were not being utilized to their full potential by the faculty. Those who spoke up expressed a desire for faculty to use computers to create engaging programs that foster a more hand-on learning experience rather than a lecturing tool. One student went so far as to call the computer in its current usage a “glorified projector.” Another student delivered a rambling denunciation of classes as useless, although she also complained that lectures were getting in the way of her doing other things in class (read by me: Facebook).
All in all it was an enlightening experience, one I was fortunate to attend.