Columbia University Computing History   

Recollections of CUCC 1968-70

Elliott Frank
January 2004

Some thoughts regarding the history of the CUCC [Columbia University Computer Center] and the [IBM] 360/91....

Student Consultants

I was a member of the first group of student consultants (September, 1968). I had been working as a gofer and informal user consultant at Princeton's Computer Center while a high school student, and had gotten to know the director there, Roald Buehler. He was friends with [Columbia Computer Center founder and director] Ken King (during the 1968 garbage strike, he sent a telegram to Dr. King, "Suggest you run for mayor slogan garbage out garbage in"¹) and suggested to Dr. King that students such as myself (who would be paid out of the student aid budget) would be a good replacement for full-time CUCC staff (who were paid out of CUCC's budget) in handling user issues. I matriculated in September, and was installed in the user desk (in the CUCC library, next to Nuala [Hallinan]'s desk) the following week.
  1. My copies of the Henry Miller novels (the authoritative source on the policies of the Cosmodaemonic Telegraph Company) are in storage, but IIRC telegrams had a special rate if you could say it all in ten words or less. "Suggest you run for mayor slogan garbage out garbage in" meets the requirement. I remember spending an hour working with Dr. King on a witty rejoinder that would meet the ten-word requirement: we couldn't come up with one.

The CCCP Chess Program

The 2250 was part of the 360/91, and was required for its diagnostic software. Other models of the 360 family displayed all of their diagnostic scan information on the front panel, but the 360/91 had enough addressable gates that the diagnostic scan was run from the 2250. The 360/91 control panel (which only displayed the gates that were of interest when the machine was in 'normal' mode) was the largest such collection of lights that IBM ever assembled -- the 'scan to memory and display on graphic device' paradigm of the 360/91 became the norm for future machines.

The 2250 display normally sat idle when the machine was in use. A group of us (including Andrew Koenig, Benjamin Yalow, Aron Eisenpress, Robert Lerche, and Steven Bellovin) discovered that GIM (IBM's painful Graphics Interface Method) had support for the 2250, and programmed it to display a chess board. We subsequently used that effort as the user interface for a postal chess program originally written in PL/1 by Dr. Hans Berliner of Carnegie-Mellon University. This marriage participated in the first computer chess tournament in 1970 (held at the ACM convention downtown, under the supervision of Dr. Monty Newborne, of the department of Electrical Engineering). I have the dubious distinction of being one of the first people to lose a game of chess to an online chess program (Andy, Ben, Aron, Bob and Steve all played at the master level or better -- I didn't, and the program did). CCCP (a pun on the Cryllic abbreviation for the official name of the Soviet Union, Союз Советских Социалистических Республик), which replaced the back end with a much better set of algorithms, was a year's worth of effort to replace the original prototype.

360/91 Loop Mode

I wrote one of the first user programs that actually went 'into' loop mode. Given that a program sequence had to be less than 63 halfwords long to be run in loop mode, the 'loop mode' light would, at best, flicker. There was concern at the time that 'loop mode' was a chimera, and that 'serious' programs would not be able to take advantage of this hardware capability. The bean counters needed proof that 'loop mode' could be activated by 'normal' program behavior. Most observed 'loop mode' behaviour to that point was either IBM diagnostic routines, or programs looping due to coding or compiler error. Sans loop mode, the machine was ~1.5 times as fast as the 360/75, but cost considerably more (even before the 'education discount' and the 'discontinued machine' discount). I was on the 'machine should stay' side, and took an FFT algorithm from a recent Communications of the ACM issue, coded it in FORTRAN, and coaxed it though the FORTRAN H compiler (an undertaking of some magnitude, as the compiler had the habits of looping, crashing, and emitting incorrect code). Fourier transforms of matrices of random numbers put the machine into loop mode for impressive periods (tens of seconds) after which the program exited gracefully.

Machine Room Acreage

Somewhere on your web page you refer to the /91 as taking up a half-acre of raised floor. The machine room at CUCC wasn't that big: it was all of 10K sq. ft. with support columns for Uris Plaza running through it. Shoehorning the /75, the /91, and all of the support peripherals into that space was a bit of an exercise. Princeton had 20K sq ft of column-free raised floor when they built their standalone PUCC building in '68: they fitted in a /91 and had room to spare.
Columbia University Computing History Frank da Cruz / This page created: January 2001 Reformatted: 3 April 2021