History of Computing in UCC

UCC's first computers

John Murphy (Senior Technical Officer) wrote this in 2010:

The first computer — as in flashing lights, large console, noisy fans and 3-phase power supplies! — arrived in UCC in approximately 1965. It was an IBM 1620 Model 2 and was located in the Electrical Engineering building. The main users of that machine were from the Elec Eng and Maths Physics departments.

That computer remained in regular use until about 1973, with occasional usage by the late Professor Paddy Quinlan of Maths Physics up to 1974-5 A ‘general attendant’ named Pat Murphy (and I can’t recall his official title) used to power it up each morning and attend to bookings for ‘hands-on’ usage.

Actually, I know very little about the day-to-day administration of that machine because it was rarely used when I arrived at UCC in 1973. It was de-installed and moved to a storage room in the Lee Maltings in about 1975. A former director of the Computer Centre, Fred Damoderan, tried very hard to persuade the local Museum to exhibit it but they steadfastly declined. It remained in the Maltings until the mid-1980s when one Ambrose Nestor, Head of Services, decreed that, since it was unwanted and taking up useful space, it should be scrapped. I believe it was donated to Hammond Lane Foundries! You can see photo of a fairly identical Model 2 at http://www.columbia.edu/acis/history/1620.html and Wikipedia has details of the 1620 at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/IBM_1620_Model_II.

In passing, I should mention that the main method of transferring ‘source data’ onto those older computers was via either paper tape (not widely used at UCC) or via punched cards. For about 10 years from the late 1960s, UCC employed up to 6 people (invariably female!) who were officially the Data Preparation staff but were known colloquially as ‘the Punch Girls’ There simply weren’t any terminals or suchlike devices connected to these machines. Everything was ‘hands-on’.

By about 1970 the venerable 1620 was already deemed to be too slow and a replacement was installed that year — again in Elec. Eng. This time they acquired an IBM 1130 model. In between their lecturing roles, Dr. Paddy O’Regan and Dr. Dick Studdert — both now retired — somehow found time to develop a functioning Payroll System and, for it’s time, an excellent Student Registration System, both of which served UCC well until replaced in 1974. In addition, the 1130 was used by postgrads and lecturers in the Engineering and Maths Physics departments. (I would have to check with Dick Studdert to find out which other departments made use of the 1130. Not very many, I suspect.) The 1130 remained in service in Elec Eng up to the late 1970s. I can’t recall when it was finally scrapped…Wikipedia has details about the 1130 model at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/IBM_1130.

In 1973 the computing role of the Elec.Eng department was hived off to a newly-created department called the UCC Computer Bureau, ‘re-branded’ in 1990 as the UCC Computer Centre.

The Computer Bureau

John Murphy (Senior Technical Officer) wrote this in 2010:

In 1973 the replacement for the IBM 1130 arrived in a new custom-built air-conditioned room on the 4th Floor of was then known as the Science Building, later renamed to the Kane Building. This time it was an IBM 370 Model 135 and I’m sure we must have a list somewhere of it’s storage capacity and processing speed. The sad fact though is that one of today’s laptops would leave it standing on both of those fronts! For it’s time it was basically a fairly bread-and-butter configuration — but the one very notable feature was the choice of Operating System.

Just about all of IBM’s commercial customers used something called OS/VS1 or the newer DOS/VS. We opted for a newly-released OS called VM/CMS which stands for Virtual Machine / Conversational Monitor System. Yes, we went straight for a system geared to supporting interactive terminals (about 20 or so IBM 2741s!). Admittedly, at that time maybe two of the Irish Universities were using DEC (Digital Equipment Corporation) computers that also provided interactive capabilities for users; we just happened to be the first to do so using an IBM model.

The IBM provided both Academic and Administrative services, though it has to be borne in mind that at that time the only students using it were mainly a bunch from the newly-created Computer Science Department, plus some Chemistry, Math Physics and Statistics final-year or postgrads students and the odd few individuals from the Social Science and Psychology areas having surveys processed. Unsurprisingly, our 370/135 regularly very soon ran out of steam, so to speak, and within 2 years had to be upgraded to a speedier model 138. In turn, this remained in use until 1980-ish when it was replaced by an IBM 4341. Some years later we acquired a second 4341 and split usage into Academic applications on one and Administrative on t’other. The academic one was retired in the mid-1990s but the admin one remained in use up until about ?2003?.

I’m getting ahead of myself, though. Let’s recap:

In late 1978 — before the arrival of the 4341 — UCC decided that an IBM monopoly on campus wasn’t ideal and ordered one of the newly-announced DEC VAX 11/780 computers. It was the first one ordered by an Irish university, although thanks to a strike at the time by Otis Lift employees, it sat unused in the basement for weeks, during which time the one ordered by TCD was delivered and installed. UCC continued to use that VAX model up to 1990 and it’s replacement — a VAX 6310 — remained in use up until about ?2001.

Networking arrives

John Murphy (Senior Technical Officer) wrote this in 2010:

“The Internet” as we know it nowadays had been in the process of evolving ever since the early 1970s. By about 1990 the perceived threat from the Russian Bear had greatly diminished and so-called Glasnost arrived. The US Defense Department had been the main source of funding for the development of the network and the US Government decided then that the time had come for it to, in effect, Go Public by freeing up the technology in the hope of recouping their investment via the opportunities for increased trade & commerce that would inevitably follow on from easier, faster and cheaper communications. Almost on cue, the greatest so-called ‘Killer Application’ of all time hit the streets about that same time, namely the development at CERN, Geneva of the technology that evolved into the World Wide Web.

Hang on — I’ve jumped the gun again! Press Rewind briefly…

Back in 1985 when UCC was still an IBM mainframe customer, we availed of the opportunity to join an IBM-funded academic network called BitNet — or, to be pedantic, EARN – European Academic Research Network, as it was called on this side of the Atlantic! We were able to connect both our IBM and VAX computers to the network and although the services available would be deemed primitive by today’s standards, it became very popular with students — or to be more precise, with a at least a few hundred students. After all, the student population back then must’ve been only 7k at most and there were only a handful of ‘computer labs’ around campus, all of them equipped with mere DEC VT100 terminals or equivalent.

At any rate, once we were connected to BitNet/EARN, both files and messages could be sent to contacts at other universities around the world. File-sharing was also made possible. Email facilities had existed for many years prior to then but in practice only as a way to send messages to other fellow-users on a non-networked mainframe. Suddenly our staff and students could now communicate not only with the thousands of other academic sites on BitNet/EARN but also, thanks to the many ‘gatewaying’ facilities that began to spring up, with the growing number of academic sites on the ‘early’ Internet. Technically, we weren’t on the Internet, but we definitely were on the fringes. The more versatile email facilities that became available then on each our mainframes took a long time to catch on, although as always the students were by far the more enthusiastic users…

Our link to the BitNet/EARN service was finally ‘retired’ in about ?1994. From the mid-1980s there had been a flurry of activity by the Irish universities — coordinated by the HEA — in developing what eventually became HEANET, and this service ‘went live’ from about 1991(?). The Internet as we now know it had finally arrived.

Key milestones

John Murphy (Senior Technical Officer) wrote this in 2010:

It has to be borne in mind that prior to at least the early 1990s, attempting to create even a primitive network of linked computers within a campus was, by today’s standards, a massively expensive undertaking. Bear in mind also that the earlier Apple IIs, MACs and IBM PCs were difficult to connect to a network and, frankly, not really all that reliable. Moreover, up until the mid-1980s when the Micro-VAX models came on the market, ‘real’ computers were still relatively expensive. As a result, the Computer Centre remained in effect the “IT Capital” of UCC until a few of the academic departments gradually ‘went solo’ by acquiring their own MicroVAXes.  Most undergrad courses — outside of Computer Science, obviously — just didn’t have a significant IT component.

Peter Flynn adds (in 2013):

When I arrived in 1984, academic facilities consisted of the 4341 and the VAX, and a handful of PCs in departments that could afford them. Leo Durity, a former staff member turned consultant, lent us our first Apple Mac, but it wouldn't connect to anything (not would the PCs).

Soon, however, we got connected to BitNet/EARN, and started to take advantage of wide-area networking. Over the next few years French user Eric Thomas wrote LISTSERV (still used in UCC); Turkish user Turgut Kalfaoglu wrote TRICKLE, which let Bitnet/EARN users download files from Internet FTP servers over email (chunked to acoid clogging the network); and someone came up with RELAY, the first wide-area chat system, using the inbuilt interactive messaging (TELL) in CMS. UCC contributed also: we wrote the world's first bidirectional email-fax gateway, and the world's first email-accessible Acronym Database (still online, although not to email, and not in UCC).

When we got our first Internet connection we were just in time to start using the World Wide Web. The details are in a separate section on this page. The roller-coaster hasn't stopped since...

Serving the web

The first I heard of the WWW was when Tim Berners-Lee mentioned it at a meeting of the RARE WG3 (to which I was Secretary and HEAnet representative and he was CERN representative) in late 1991. As a result of this I downloaded his software to try it out for the CELT project, which was then just starting. That was the point at which our then-new Sun IPX workstation became a web server with information about the CELT project, and out link entered Tim's original homepage from CERN, at the bottom of the first screen (http://info.cern.ch).

I couldn't give an exact date, but Tim did confirm to me many years later that there were nine links on that page, so we were the ninth.

The server was originally running Sun OS 4.1.3 and TBL's original httpd daemon. We replaced this with the NCSA httpd in about 1994, and migrated to Apache httpd when that became available. The OS was upgraded with a Y2K-compliance patch in 1999.

At a later meeting of RARE WG3 in Zurich in 1992, Tim demonstrated the whole WWW system to us (mentioned by Erik Huizer, who was chair of that meeting, in his report at http://www.terena.org/publications/files/20th_anniversary.pdf on p.2). That was the meeting at which Anders Gillner, who ran the Swedish WEP for the Gopher service (a directory-based network information system) turned to me and said he thought this WWW thing could spell the end of Gopher.

The first CELT document (the Aisling Oenguso) was served to the Web around March 1993, but was later taken down (against our advice) by the then Editor of the CELT project because they didn't want to raise the expectations of the Celtic Studies community — producing the electronic editions of ancient documents is difficult and time-consuming, and having only one document there for a long time was felt to be an indication that nothing was happening. With the benefit of hindsight, this was a major error: we should have persevered.

In removing the document but not notifying Tim, I inadvertently became the first person ever to break a link on the Web ?

From 1994 onwards we were serving CELT documents again, plus other UCC pages (some Computer Bureau information) and from later that year there were the first departmental and project pages.

The Sun workstation which was the CELT project host thus became Ireland's first web server, and continued in action into 2010 when the boot disk was corrupted by a power brown-out. It's currently (Oct 2013) on the floor of my office, waiting for me to take it to pieces and send the hard disk off to a company in Dublin to see if it can be resurrected, but that will cost money we don't have at the moment.

IT Services Department

Seirbhísí TF

Room 3.34, 4th floor, T12 YN60