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Archive for Saturday, November 4, 2006

Rest in pieces, computer relic

50-year-old machine was first of its kind when KU bought it

November 4, 2006

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Earl Schweppe, a retired professor of electrical engineering and computer science, has spent most of his years working with computers. Recently he's been taking apart KU's first mainframe computer and salvaging what he can, in the basement of Learned Hall.

Earl Schweppe, a retired professor of electrical engineering and computer science, has spent most of his years working with computers. Recently he's been taking apart KU's first mainframe computer and salvaging what he can, in the basement of Learned Hall.

In the dim basement of Kansas University's Learned Hall stands the dust-covered carcass of what was once a technological gem.

"It's the first financially successful, mass-produced computer in the world," Earl Schweppe said, pointing to the old machine that he believes was the first mainframe computer on KU's campus.

The university called on Schweppe, KU professor emeritus and founder of KU's computer science program, to haul off the IBM 650 after resigning itself to the fact that there's simply no room for the relic.

Schweppe on Friday began the process of dismantling the computer and salvaging what parts he could.

"This is an archaeological dig," he said.

Schweppe said there's no way to be sure, but he believes the machine is the IBM 650 that the university first purchased more than a half century ago.

In an effort spearheaded by professor G. Baley Price and then-Chancellor Franklin Murphy, KU in the mid-1950s purchased the computer. It was housed in Strong Hall, in a room painted "Florentine orange" to brighten up the dark gray equipment. Price, KU distinguished professor emeritus of mathematics, included the machine's arrival in a 1976 book on the history of KU's math department. Schweppe said that, though he wasn't at KU at the time, the computer would have had broad uses, including for statistical calculations and math problems.

"It hasn't done anything for 40 years at least," Schweppe said Friday. "It would be impossible to make it work."

Schweppe, who has a vast collection of computers and parts, won't keep all of the computer. But he'll salvage what he can, he said.

The machine is a reminder of how quickly technology advances.

"Things change every 18 months," said Aaron Blanchard, director of laboratories for KU's electrical engineering and computer science department. "What you have is old at that point. You can just imagine over 50 years the amount of stuff that gathers up."

Earl Schweppe is thinking about cleaning up and giving some of the pieces from KU's more than 50-year-old IBM 650 to honor students at graduation.

Earl Schweppe is thinking about cleaning up and giving some of the pieces from KU's more than 50-year-old IBM 650 to honor students at graduation.

Blanchard said KU sought Schweppe's help because it simply doesn't have the space for the old machine, which stands in the corner of a passageway.

"It wasn't doing its job down here collecting dust," Blanchard said. "If there's some place that this needs to be it's with Earl at this point."

Schweppe pointed to the rusty column where lights once flashed - an attractive feature for early users of the computer. And he picked up one of the many vacuum tubes, used before transistors.

He removed a coat of dust on the tube. He plans to clean some tubes up and mount them on some type of base to give to honor students at graduation.

"I thought it would be an interesting token of the past," Schweppe said.

Comments

compmd 8 years, 1 month ago

I think a much better project would be to make it run. Talk about educational value! What better way to teach EECS students about computers than to actually rebuild one of the very first? I know plenty of people in Lawrence whose combined skills and creativity could get that machine running. IBM does have a FORTRAN compiler for the 650, so you could run stuff on it. I wouldn't be surprised if IBM provided documentation or schematics for this beast.

I must say I am disappointed by Mr. Blanchard's ignorant, consumerist statement regarding the obsolence age of computer technology. Most people would be surprised to find what an 18 year old computer can do, let alone an 18 month old one.

I really wish I would have known about this machine before its disposal. My IBM 24 and 29 card punches could use some friends, and the 3360 processor storage units are lonely. Bah, I'm going to sit in front of my 5250 to bask in the green (and bright green) glow and IPL one of my ancient beasts to feel better.

bearded_gnome 8 years, 1 month ago

very cool! nice job Prof!
glad to see this effort going on here!


this old computer, no word in the article on just what exactly it could/couldn't do. no games on it I guess! hope somewhere there's a working model of this preserved for history's sake, kinda like Harrison's Chronometers.

bearded_gnome 8 years, 1 month ago

thanks compmd. agree, would be a great ECE project, but most probably don't even recognize/understand tubes!

johnadavies 8 years, 1 month ago

I was wondering if Professor Schweppe has any plans to have his collection set up as a museum? I can remember being impressed by what he had stored back in the 1980's and I'm sure he has a much larger collection now!

packrat 8 years, 1 month ago

If I remeber correctly the 650 used VSAM files for database type functionality, but I haven't coded for anything that old in 30 years.

compmd 8 years, 1 month ago

bearded_gnome, a couple applications for a 650 might include a simple database system for recordkeeping. it could also probably be used for lengthy calculations, such as rocket trajectories. there are probably one or two left that work, but I don't know for sure.

holygrailale, I know what you mean. I'm too young to get the gray hairs that computers give me.

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