Columbia University Computing History   

Columbia's First PC Lab - 251 Engineering Terrace, 1986

April 2021 Preface: This was written long before most students had computers of their own, and before the dorm rooms were wired for terminal connections, let alone Ethernet. Since the mid-1970s, to access the central computers, students had to go to public terminal rooms like this one, which were full of, well, terminals. This document describes the first public-access facility with desktop computers and workstations instead of just terminals.

PC Lab floor plan
251 Engineering Terrace PC lab floor plan 1986
On January 29th, 1986, a brief ceremony was held to mark the opening of our first PC Lab in Room 251 Engineering Terrace, attended by representatives from Digital Equipment Corporation, Deans of the School of Engineering and Applied Science, and CUCCA staff.

The Lab contains DEC Rainbow 100+ microcomputers, DEC Professional/380 Unix workstations, Apple Macintosh and Mac/XL microcomputers, Hewlett-Packard microcomputers, and an IBM PC. There are also eight terminals, an Apple Laserwriter, HP pen plotters, a Printronix printer and an Apple Imagewriter. The lab is operated by CUCCA and staffed by full-time and student User Services consultants.

Opening the PC lab is the first (and long-delayed) step in the "Hermit Project," a joint research and development effort of CUCCA and Digital Equipment Corporation, first announced in the Newsletter issue of February 17, 1984 (V16 #2), and described in greater detail the April 11, 1984, issue (V16 #6). To recapitulate very briefly, the idea is to connect personal computers to the central systems in a way that allows a potentially very large number of users to simultaneously access their central files and "identities" -- many more than can presently do so by logging in directly to the central systems. Users of Hermit PCs operate entirely within the PC's native environment (MS-DOS, Unix, etc) using native PC applications (compilers, editors, graphics) but their files are kept in their central DEC-20 directories.

In support of this project, DEC has granted to CUCCA about $3,000,000 in hardware, software, and consulting. The DEC PCs (11 Rainbows and 17 Pros), a VAXstation-2 Unix workstation (soon to be installed), the Printronix 600-lpm printer, two LN03 laser printers, and an LCP01 color printer are among the devices to be available for use in the Lab. In addition, DEC granted us a VAX-11/750 and a VAX-11/730 for development, two MicroVAX-II systems for connecting the laboratory PCs with the central systems, and numerous upgrades for the central DEC-20s, including Common File System hardware and software (which is gradually being installed, and will include vastly increased disk capacity), tape drives (for backing up all the new disks), and a great deal of Ethernet hardware and software. The grant also includes a wide range of application software for the PCs, including compilers, spreadsheets, and graphics programs.

The Hermit environment is not yet available in the PC lab. A preliminary version should be available on the Rainbows and Pro/380s before the end of the semester, and Macintosh support will follow later. In addition to the time required for software development, delays have been caused by difficulty in obtaining and renovating space for the first lab, changes in technology since the beginning of the grant requiring a great deal of redesign, and numerous personnel changes.

Until Hermit is installed, the PCs will operate as normal standalone PCs, some of them connected to the central systems through the PACX (Kermit may be used for terminal emulation and file transfer) or through the campus Ethernet (where TELNET and FTP may be used to access the central systems). The Macintoshes and Mac/XLs are interconnected on an AppleTalk network, allowing sharing of a hard disk and a LaserWriter.

Upon completion of the Lab, and after we've had some experience with the Hermit environment, a second Lab will be installed in Carman. For the present, instructors are encouraged to inspect the Engineering PC lab with an eye towards possible use in courses and to inform User Services of any plans. The PC hardware and application software is ready for evaluation; only the communications environment will change with the introduction of Hermit.

Frank da Cruz
Manager of Systems Integration
1 February 1986

Columbia University Computing History Frank da Cruz / This page created: 1 February 1986 Last update: 3 April 2021