By Harry McCracken | Friday, March 27, 2009 at 4:07 pm
Ars Technica’s Nate Anderson has a good post up on the fact that the University of Virginia is shuttering its computer lab. With almost every student owning a laptop, the school decided that the time was right to save several hundred thousand dollars by eliminating access to shared machines. (It’ll continue to offer space for students to share as they work together, so the lab’s value as a collaborative environment won’t disappear.)
Reading Nate’s story gave me an unexpected Proustian rush, since it left me thinking about my college computer lab, the Boston University computer center as it existed from 1982 to 1986. I spent a fair amount of time there but haven’t given it any thought whatsoever in the last couple of decades.
Even at the time, it was anachronistic. My high school was equipped with microcomputers–Radio Shack TRS-80 Model Is–and while they were far from cutting-edge they were at least representative of the microcomputer revolution that was taking off at the time. The BU lab, however, had exactly one computer, an IBM 370 mainframe. True, it was powerful enough to satisfy the computing needs of an entire university, but you didn’t have to be a futurist to figure out that the days of students accessing mainframe applications via Teletype machines spitting out dot-matrix print on greenbar paper were numbered.
Of course, there was a time when dot-matrix output on greenbar paper was the latest thing–a fact we were reminded of by the giant bins of punch cards that sat in a corner of the lab. They were laughably obsolete, but had apparently been useful recently enough that nobody had bothered to get rid of them.
The best thing about the computer lab was its laser printer–yes, singular, for the entire school. Its print quality was so eye-popping that I didn’t mind waiting in line to pick up my printouts from one of the staffers at the counter.
So what did I use the computer center? Oddly enough, I have trouble remembering. Not word processing (I typed most of my papers, and did some on my dad’s TRS-80) and not, for the most part, research (though I may have had at least limited access to the DIALOG database). I think I did some BASIC programming for my part-time job at school (though the mainframe’s version of the language suffered in comparison to every BASIC I’d ever used on a microcomputer).
Oh, and Star Trek–a text-based version, naturally. And tic-tac-toe. And a buggy version of Monopoly that ignored some of the rules. And ELIZA. (Um, maybe computer labs weren’t absolutely essential even in the mid-1980s.)
I did have a computer of my own at the time, an Atari 400. It was of limited use for schoolwork, since I couldn’t afford a printer, and I don’t recall owning a modem. And if you’d explained to me at the time that within 25 years, nearly every college student would own a highly portable computer that was in some respects more powerful than the IBM 370 and computer labs would become archaic and unnecessary, I’d like to think that I would not only have approved but considered it an entirely plausible scenario.
As far as I know, BU isn’t ready to shut down its computer center–in fact, not only is the one I used still there, but there are other ones scattered around campus. They’re equipped with both Windows PCs and Macs–and, I assume, more than one laser printer. But I wouldn’t be completely amazing if there were a bin or two of punchcards hanging around somewhere…