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Congress 2013

On June 5, 2013 the History and Archives group will be presenting a paper at Congress in Victoria, Canada

"Click, Whir, Zing, ZOT! You've Got a Date!: The Early Use of Computers on a University Campus"

Abstract

How were computers discussed by a university public? Computers made their way onto the campuses of large post-secondary institutions beginning in the late 1940s1. This paper looks at how computers and computing were discussed through the student and university newspapers of the University of Alberta. A combination of content analysis and close reading methods teased out three themes that will be discussed in the paper:

1. How computers became research and funding priorities in the University. How a breadth of faculties including Arts and Education were experimenting with computing early on.
2. How the administrative use of computers contributed to growing anxieties on campus specifically about privacy and data collection.
3. How the computer was used for entertainment purposes like dating and match-making.

Though the University of Alberta had a Computing Centre beginning in 1957 the first mention of the world ‘computer’ in the Gateway student newspaper appears in a 1959 article describing ongoing campus construction projects; one of which includes a designated space for the University’s new digital computer, also referred to as the “electronic brain”2. Originally used for research purposes in math, science, and engineering, the computer quickly became a useful tool in other faculties including Arts, Education, and Agriculture. By 1965 the University of Alberta was on its third computer, the IBM 7040, and it was being used around the clock.  Image - Users of Computing Facility for Research

In addition to research, the computer was used for a number of administrative purposes on campus as well. From the assembly of the telephone directory4 to accounting services5 computers assisted with day-to-day activities, though not always with the appreciation of staff and students. In the late 1960s anxieties over the use of computers in society and the potential threat to privacy grew as catchphrases like “Do not Fold, Spindle or Mutilate” indicate.6 At Sir George William University in Montreal students protesting discriminatory treatment by a faculty member occupied and then set fire to the University’s Computer Centre causing $2 million dollars in damage7. The protestors’ choice to take over this building is symbolic of the importance of the computer for universities at this time as well as students’ distrust and contempt for these machines. Nevertheless in the student newspaper a number of articles at the same time were dedicated to computer dating and matchmaking. Regardless of the apparent suspicion of computers university students always found time for love. The project team’s ultimate goal is to understand public perceptions of computing (and humanities computing) in Canada but to do so we must first understand the history of the discourse around computing on campus.


Bibliography Lubar, Steven. “”Do Not Fold, Spindle or Mutilate”: A Cultural History of the Punch Card.” Journal of American Culture, Vol 15, issue 4 (Winter 1992), pages 43-55. DOI: 10.1111/j.1542-734X.1992.1504_43.x

Oke, David. “Quaret-million deficit for SU.” Gateway, October 5, 1976, Page 3.

Scott, D.B. “The Computer Centre.” Folio, December 15, 1965, Page 1-2.

Unknown. “$2 million damage at Sir George William as frustrated students burn, smash comp centre.” Gateway, February 13, 1969, Page 3.

Unknown. “New Telephone Directory.” Gateway, October 25, 1963, Page 4.

Unknown. “Three Modern Buildings with Better Facilities Nearing Completion.” Gateway, November 6, 1959, Page 9.

Paper

In the early years of computing how were computers discussed by a university public? A 1966 article in the University of Alberta student newspaper The Gateway begins with: "Attention, love-starved students. Tired of sitting home on Friday nights reading "Gulliver's Travels"? Board with lonely carrels in Cameron Library? Throw away your books, your solitude, and your inhibitions. Cupid Computer, the scientific approach to dating is presently being introduced at the U of A". After filling out an 80 question survey that was then run through a computer to determine compatibility, Cupid Computer participants were promised the chance to find "ideal" dates. Originating out of London, Ontario from the company Computronics the program spread to campuses across Canada and hailed as "Canada's foremost IBM Dating Service" (Coryphaeus, 1966-67, v7, no09, pg 3-4). Considering that dating is likely part of the normative experience of most university students it is not surprising that the topic of computer dating appears in the student newspaper.

This study looks at early references to computers in three campus publications: the student newspaper The Gateway, the alumni newspaper New Trail, and the University of Alberta Staff Bulletin Folio. Computers made their way onto the campuses of large post-secondary institutions beginning in the late 1940s (Scott, "The Computing Centre") and being the first to deal with the coming of the computer campuses offer a unique perspective. By looking at these early discussions of computers, by way of three separate publications from the same campus, we can tease out an early social history of the arrival of computers in Canadian society through the lens of post-secondary education.

This paper will:

  • Describe our methodology;
  • Present an historical account of the arrival of computers on the University of Alberta campus;
  • Identify the themes that appear such as research and funding priorities, growing anxiety around privacy and data collection, and rebellion on campus.


Methodology

Our methodology was a combination of content analysis and close reading. Peel's Praire Provinces is a resource of the University of Alberta Libraries; an online bibliography of books, newspaper issues, and other materials related to the development of the Prairies, as well as a searchable full-text collection of many of these items. Using this website we searched The Gateway, New Trail and Folio for all references to computer and downloaded for reading and coding all the relevant articles. The content analysis rubric was developed iteratively and coded for things such as:

  • Title, Author and Year;
  • Type of reference (i.e. news, classified, advertisement or opinion piece);
  • The presence of photos or illustrations;
  • Category of application (Science, Commerce, Industry, Government, the Arts and Humanities, the Library, or Education);
  • Gender of named people;
  • Discourse features such as the computer being described as a 'brain';
  • Departments or faculties mentioned;
  • Hype or anxiety present in the reference; and
  • Types of computers mentioned where applicable.


History
The first reference to a digital computer comes in 1957 from New Trail. The article "Electronic Brain Aids University Research" describes a direct line teletype communication system with FERUT, a high speed digital electronic computer from the University of Toronto’s computation centre; according to the article “Ambitious problems in the fields of physics, mathematics, engineering, statistics, etc., can now be solved on the campus in a matter of minutes”.

Shortly following the success of this teletype link with FERUT at the U of T, in 1957 the University of Alberta became the third university in Canada with a computing facility, preceded by the University of Toronto in 1948 and the University of British Columbia also in 1957. In Edmonton the Royal McBee LGP 30 was primarily used for numerical calculations and was quickly being used around the clock. Soon the LPG 30 was replaced with an IBM 1620 and an IBM 7040 after that.

Royal McBee LGP 30

Themes

Even though there is evidence of computers being used in art departments the UofA publications have a heavy emphasis on introducing computers to the public around the topic of medicine (Folio - electrocardiogram)

End with computer dating Set of anxieties, but playful with students (dating brought by students)

The arrival of Cupid Computer on campus in 1966 was not the first attempt at match-making at the U of A. The year prior it was excitedly reported that a computer would be used to select dates for the Wauneita dance hosted annually by a women’s fraternity. Sadly the necessary instructions did not arrive on time and “computerized romance proved to be a failure” (Unknown, 1965, Computerized romance proves to be a failure)

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