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Ahead of its time: U-M Computing Center celebrates 45 years

Ahead of its time: U-M Computing Center celebrates 45 years

ANN ARBOR, Mich.—There was a time when computing and its future at the University were in flux.

Shortly after the creation of the Computing Center in 1959, Ralph Sawyer, vice president for research at the time, decided that the center’s main computer should be released and its research and funding sent to U-M’s struggling Willow Run Laboratory and Project Michigan—a University contract with the U.S. Army to conduct combat surveillance research.

But it was then that mathematics professor and center director Robert C.F. Bartels secured the future of computing at U-M. Bartels and others who challenged the move noted that the charge given to the Computing Center by the regents was against moving its functions to a sponsored research facility.

“We spelled out what it meant to move everything out away from campus,” Bartels recalled of a meeting in which he and others made the argument to keep the computer on-campus instead of shipping it and the work off-campus. “We wanted to keep it on campus because that was where the students were.”

“The equipment is therefore not available for use on routine problems pertaining to the administration of the University,” Bartels wrote in a letter to Sawyer. “It is available to faculty and students of the University of Michigan without charge for unsponsored research and educational activities consistent with this policy.”

Vice President for Academic Affairs Roger Heyns then made the decision that the Computing Center would remain on campus.

Former colleagues and friends are invited to a public reception to honor Bartels—center director from 1959-78—and celebrate the 45th anniversary of the creation of the center 4-7 p.m. Sept. 10 in the Alumni Center. Bartels retired June 30, 1978, and was named professor emeritus of mathematics and director emeritus of the Computing Center.

“All of a sudden, the idea of a smaller computer started to spread,” Bartels said of the computing environment when he left U-M. “It was obvious they were going to take over.” Bartels says he uses a PC with Windows XP today.

The center’s first home was in the North University Building. It moved to a new location in 1971 when a new $1.5 million facility opened on North Campus (now the School of Information North Building). Bartels served as the center’s first director until 1978, when he retired.

“We had the opportunity to work on problems that weren’t being solved anywhere else, and Dr. Bartels gave us the flexibility and freedom to just go ahead and do it,” said Gary Pirkola, Information Technology Central Services (ITCS) technologist.

The Computing Center was created for faculty and students, and it was housed with the Horace H. Rackham School of Graduate Studies. In 1985, it was absorbed into the Information Technology Division—now ITCS.

When Project Michigan was canceled in 1961, the Computing Center was a beneficiary. The IBM 709 that had been used at Willow Run was moved to the center. It was an upgrade over the center’s IBM 704.

“The Computing Center envisions a computer system which can respond simultaneously to many users via terminal devices, and one which is capable of serving a wide range of the University’s research and instructional needs for direct communication between the computer and man or instrument at rates consistent with human reaction times,” Bartels wrote in a 1964-65 Computing Center report.

The center made its mark in the 1960s with the creation of the Michigan Algorithm Decoder (MAD) and Michigan Terminal System (MTS)—a timesharing operating system featuring a shared-access file system, message facility (i.e. e-mail), file editor and comprehensive set of language processors.

The MTS system capitalized on a state-of-the-art hardware/software feature called “virtual memory,” which enabled efficient sharing of computer resources among multiple users. It became so popular that the work was divided between two mainframes—UM-University Maize (for sponsored research programs) and UB-University Blue (for student accounts).

The work of the Computer Center staff on “virtual memory,” which now is found throughout the computing industry, was an important influence on IBM’s decision to adopt it for all of their computers in the 1970s, said Bernard Galler, professor emeritus of electrical engineering and computer science.

MTS was phased out in June 1996, and ITD began to focus on network development and to orient users to a networked environment. According to ITCS—which manages telecommunications, e-mail, Web services and public workstation sites on campus—there will be 1,683 computers in use this fall at the University’s computing sites.