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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"


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.


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, rebellion on campus, and playful attitude of students as seen in the discussions around computer dating and matchmaking.


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.

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”. (New Trail, Vol. 15, No. 1)

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. The Royal McBee LGP 30 was primarily used for numerical calculations and after its arrival was quickly being used around the clock. Soon the LPG 30 was replaced with an IBM 1620 and an IBM 7040 after that. The improvement in the speed of calculations was measured in terms of electric desk calculators and human operators; the calculation speed of the LPG 30 was roughly equivalent to 500 human operators. With the purchase of the IBM 1620 in 1961 this speed increased 20-fold and then another 60-fold in 1964 with the addition of the IBM 740. The increased speed combined with accuracy of calculations by the digital computer meant that research that was "previously unthinkable" could be done. (Scott, Folio, "The Computer Centre Part One, Vol 2, No. 8, 1965)

Royal McBee LGP 30


Research and Funding

By the time of the arrival of the IBM 740 on campus the Computer Centre was being used by over 30 different departments from nine different faculties. Though the highest rate of use was from departments located in the Faculty of Science researchers also included members of the Arts and Education communities.

Departs Using Computing Facilities

Though we know that these faculties are making use of the computer there is little discussion about this type of research found in any of three publication, at least in the 1960s.

In a 1963 Gateway article we find an announcement from the Sociology Club describing a future talk by an Associate Professor of Computer Science titled "Application of Computers to Behavioural Science Research".(Unknown, 1963, Sociology Club). Though Folio and New Trail are publications that are traditionally more focused on the types of research being done at the university neither make any mention of the use of computers in Arts or Education research. Rather a significant focus is instead paid to the use of computers in medical research:

  • "Electronic heart watching" New Trail, 1967
  • "Computer to analyze electrocardiograms" Folio, 1967
  • "Immunology and Transplantation" New Trail, 1970
  • "Biomedical engineers and nuclear medicine" New Trail, 1970

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)

Departs Using Computing Facilities


One of the most interesting themes we see develop is in the lack of discussion on the topic of campus rebellion in both Folio and New Trail. The 1960's are a time of major social upheaval and 1968 is widely remembered as a year of protest worldwide with a number of movements supported by college and university students and in many cases actually occurring on campuses. At Sir George Williams University (SGW) in Montreal the Computer Centre becomes a focal point for exactly this type of student rebellion. In 1969 disgruntled students that charged a professor of biology with racism led a protest that ultimately took over the university's computer centre. It was reported in The Gateway that over 300 students held the centre for over five days before the centre was set on fire and destroyed incurring $2 million in damages.

Other articles in The Gateway go on to describe the aftermath of the burning of the computer centre; in addition to the arrest and prosecution of many of those involved the response of university administrators, including the arrival of codes of student behaviour on campuses and on Ontario campuses the introduction of a working paper 'Order on Campus, are detailed. Though New Trail and Folio are not necessarily focused on external campus events it is noteworthy that there is no mention of the University of Alberta administrators' response in reference to the SGW incident.

Computer Dating

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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