Computer Center, Computer Science, Math Lab & Computing

People who were adults in the late 1950s and early 1960s remember slide rules and mechanical (hand-cranked or electric) calculators. Some of use recall the introduction of Monroe machines that could multiply, divide and even store some intermediate results. Wow! Such machines would cost several hundred dollars-not cheap! Eventually faster electronic computers that used paper tape or IBM cards for data input were available in the 1960s and 1970s. One had to use a special punching machine to produce sometimes thick stacks of cards to input a program with data (rubber bands were a hot commodity). Depending on the priority system you might have to wait overnight for your program to run, only to find out that one card was mispunched and you had to resubmit your run. It was a blessing when it became possible to input programs and data by means of a typewriter terminal while writing and modifying programs on the fly.

As computing machines developed, it became inevitable that the University should create a Computer Center. A committee of which Basoco was a member had been studying the question for some time, and in 1960, the administration, on the basis of the committee's recommendation authorized the purchase of a modest computer and the appointment of a Director of the Computing Center. At that time computer work was largely regarded as an activity whose natural home was the Department of Mathematics so it fell to the Department to recruit a director.

The first director, John Christopher, who was by training a number theorist with a Ph.D. from the University of Oregon, joined the Department as a nonteaching member with the Computer Center as his sole responsibility. The demands of the Center grew rapidly--much more rapidly than either the computer or the director could cope with on the basis of the available resources. Christopher resigned and returned to a teaching position elsewhere. The next director was not a mathematician and since then no administrative tie with the Department of Math has existed.

The Department of Computer Science originally in the College of Engineering only, is now also in the College of Arts and Sciences. A joint Ph.D. program (this has always remained an informal agreement between the two Departments) with the Department of Mathematics has evolved and to date three students have earned degrees under that program. In recent years there has been a good deal of collaboration between individual faculty members, particularly in the areas of combinatorics and semigroups. In 1984, the Department of Computer Science instituted its own Ph.D. program.

As a connection between CSE and our Department, we have had three faculty (Peter B Worland: 1972-1974, George F. Corliss: 1974-1978, and Spyros S. Magliveras: 1978-1984) who held joint appointments with the Department of Computer Science. While these formal bridges seemed beneficial, the hassles of serving in two departments together with the lure of higher pay in Computer Science led to each person leaving (Magliveras became a full time CSE at UNL). The Math Department and CSE have alternated in supplying someone to teach numerical analysis (which is cross-listed by both departments) and recently logic has been occasionally taught by someone from CSE. As mentioned earlier, strong collaboration continues to this day between Math and CSE individuals in combinatorics and semigroups.

Because of the UNL mainframe's limited speed and size, one could never seem to get enough access to it. I (Kramer) do, however, recall a fortuitously free usage period during one Christmas break when I spent several days babysitting a large search program on the mainframe. There were but a limited number of terminals and few faculty used computers for research or word-processing. In 1981, the Department owned one 64K Northstar microcomputer. The first real PC's came on board in 1984 (the IMB-PC) when Logan purchased two for the department.

To have your own computer in the 1980s was a privilege whereas now it has become a necessity. In 1998, virtually every faculty office has a terminal if not a stand-alone workstation with substantial speed and storage capabilities. Most offices have, or have easy access to, a printer that produces typeset-quality print. many faculty routinely produce their own typeset-quality papers, letters, exams, etc. without assistance from office staff. Email is a common communication tool and internet access, though sometimes slow, is universal.

In 1989, Professor Shores applied for $51,000 in NSF funds (with equal matching from UNL) to buy machines for a Math Computer Lab in Bessey Hall ($15,000 was also needed to renovate the room). This lab opened in 1990 and additional machines have been bought as more money became available. In Fall of 1994 Rex Dieter was hired to manage the Department's computers. Rex has relieved the burden that had fallen on some faculty for selecting and maintaining needed hardware and software.

Teaching (as well as research, word processing, etc.) has been changed by the now affordable hand-held calculators and portable computers which have increasing speed, storage, color, modems, etc. Many courses use or require calculators, computers and multimedia. In Fall of 1994, graphing calculators were required in the first two semesters of calculus. Projects which may require computer experience are now assigned in courses like Calculus, Differential Equations or Linear Algebra.

Placement Exams (introduced in paper form in 1989) have now been placed on the world wide web and students can access them throughout the State. Journals, books and courses also appear on the world wide web. Ironically, while information storage and flow has increasingly become electronic, paper usage has probably increased.

Rapidly changing technology will continue to affect the basic structure (and mission?) of education and research.