Based on an article by George P. Wolfe, retired professor of computer science. Photo courtesy of the Penn College Archives..
FIFTY years ago, the college’s first computer arrived on campus. Installed in the southwest section of Unit 6, the former “trolley barn,” and set upon a raised hardwood floor to absorb the computer’s vibrations, the IBM 1620 Data Processing Unit symbolized yet another pioneering moment for the institution.
Computer education, says George P. Wolfe, a mathematics faculty member who became the first instructor in Williamsport Technical Institute’s computer science program, had a fortuitous genesis. The seed was sown on Oct. 4, 1957, when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1, the world’s first artificial satellite. The launch sparked the U.S.-USSR space race and increased spending on technical and scientific education programs.
"Dr. Carl then slipped in the loaded question: ‘What do you know about computers?’"
“One afternoon, in 1962, Dr. Kenneth E. Carl, director, WTI, approached me in the hall and mentioned that he had some good news,” Wolfe wrote in an article titled “Computer Education at Pennsylvania College of Technology: The first decade.” “He stated that WTI had an opportunity to receive a grant that would enable the school to obtain a state-of-the-art computer system with various related equipment. He added that the grant would obligate WTI to design a two-year computer curriculum and teach a pilot class, after which, all the equipment becomes ours to keep.
“Dr. Carl then slipped in the loaded question: ‘What do you know about computers?’
“I innocently confessed that I had only taken a single Fortran (programming) course during the summer session (of a master’s program at Clarkson College of Technology).
“‘Good!’ he said. ‘That’s more than anyone else in the school; if we get the grant, the project is yours.’”
The object of the grant was to help meet the critical need for trained data-processing technicians.
With the grant approved, a classroom and lab were prepared, and equipment was installed. In addition to the IBM 1620 – which included the console panel and typewriter – the CPU was augmented with a 1622 card read punch, 1621 paper tape reader and 1624 paper tape punch. The system had 20,000 positions of magnetic core storage (20 kilobytes, in today’s terms) and executed instructions at speeds measured in microseconds. The input-output media were 80-column punch cards, paper tape and a typewriter. Peripheral equipment included a sorter, accounting machine and one key punch.
The computer lab – half the size of the adjoining classroom – could accommodate the equipment and 10 students. The room was furnished with a 10,000 BTU window air conditioner, which helped to cool the room but was not quite adequate for some summer days, when the equipment had to be shut down and the room vacated because it became too hot for student comfort.
Wolfe was tasked with designing the two-year curriculum, writing the data processing and mathematics course syllabi, and teaching the data processing and mathematics courses. (He jokes that, given the “formidable task,” he tried to stay at least one day ahead of the class.)
In October 1963, with one instructor and a class of 24, the first computer technology class in the college’s history was inaugurated. The official title of the curriculum was “Engineering and Design Data Processing Technology.” The length of the program was 2,650 hours – equivalent to six contemporary semesters – over a 24-month period.
The first class from this experimental program – the birth of today’s six information technology majors – graduated 17 students in the fall of 1965, each successful in procuring a career in the field.