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From the Archives
On January 21, 1959, the goals of the Computation Facility Committee were realized as Professor Elliott Buell oversaw the installation of an IBM 610 Auto-Point Computer. First introduced in 1957, the IBM 610 was among the first computers to use a keyboard; it weighed approximately 800 lbs. Buell was able to lease directly from IBM one of the 180 models (which had a price tag of $55,000) for $5,500 per year. Identified as a major need by every department on campus, the computer was available to any student or faculty member for research after completing a single four-hour training session. In the first three months after it was installed, 45 individuals were certified as operators solving complex problems related to critical mass calculations within nuclear reactors, crystallography, transmission line calculations, matrix inversion, heat transfer, and harmonic analysis.
By 1965 WPI’s computation facility had converted to the IBM 1620. Much smaller than the IBM 610, the 1620 was one of the first desktop personal computers—2,000 were sold between its introduction in 1959 and its withdraw from the market in 1970. A 1965 report on the use of WPI’s Computation Facility noted that the IBM 1620 was in use more than 60 hours per week on average, with the note that toward the end of the semester the machine was seemingly “always on.” Realizing the increased interest in machine computing, the WPI faculty soon began plans for a dedicated degree in computer science. In 1968 Norman Sondak was hired as WPI’s first computer science professor. Within two years of his appointment, MS (1969) and BS (1970) degrees were offered, with the PhD program following in 1983. Today, as WPI’s computer science program embarks on the second half of its first century, its students and faculty explore new and exciting applications of technology across academic disciplines in the spirit of Buell and his fellow pioneers of computation at WPI.