From the Archives: So Much for Big Brother
by Erik Nordberg, University Archivist
Writing in 1948, George Orwell predicted that world culture would be transformed by autocratic politicians, government-controlled media, and computing machines into a repressive, totalitarian nightmare where "Big Brother" would be constantly watching you. When 1984 finally arrived, some social commentators felt we hadn't heeded Orwell's warnings and had allowed technology to erode our essential human nature. The Michigan Tech Lode even hinted that the "proliferation of computers and the data banks of credit bureaus" were making Big Brother a reality—or at least a distinct possibility.
Yet, looking back twenty-five years to the computing activity on the Michigan Tech campus, one wonders what all of the fuss was about. Certainly in comparison to our current generation of computer technologies, things look rather tame.
Texas Instruments advertised its TI-66 calculator in the Lode with "170 built-in scientific, engineering, and statistical functions" and a "10-digit angled Liquid Crystal Display"—for only $69.95. Hewlett-Packard advertisements offered to "end the pencil-and-paper drudgery" with up to 6,437 bytes of memory in their HP-41CX.
Actually, 1984 was a big year for computing at Michigan Tech and one in which the campus was clearly state of the art. A new Digital Equipment VAX 11/750 mini-mainframe, purchased with a grant from the National Science Foundation's Computer Research Equipment Program, became the third VAX maintained by Physics, Mathematics, and Computer Science. (This systems group continues today as the Center for Experimental Computation). The new system was reserved primarily for faculty research, including higher-performance experimental computing and some sensitive military projects, while the other two units were used for course work.
"Those VAX computers operated on about 8 meg of memory but allowed us to run either Digital Equipment's operating system or the latest version of the Berkley Unix operating system," recalls Jim Hoel, a mainframe systems manager at the time. "This was also one of the first systems to use virtual memory to page out to fixed and removable disk drives."
On the other side of campus, new terminals and an IBM 4341 processor were made possible through a $2 million donation from the IBM Corporation, the largest single grant ever awarded to Michigan Tech at the time. The processor included storage for 16 million characters and quadrupled the number of workstations for training in computer-aided graphics.
At an administrative level, computing was still relatively centralized. Although the new IBM equipment was physically located in ME-EM room 120, "we will be implementing software that will spread this impact to many other disciplines," reported David Carlson, then director of Tech's Academic Computing Services. "Electrical Engineering could become equally as big a user as the ME students. Also we will see usage begin by Civil Engineering, Chemical Engineering, Mining, and Geology students."
Academic Computing Services also began offering computer seminars to students on the new systems. Some meetings explored the Sperry computers at START (including sample runstreams and batch runs), while others addressed IBM programming techniques, REXX, and FORTRAN.
Access was not without a price, however. The arrival of computers also meant the arrival of computing fees. The Lode reported student disgust with lab fees, some of which ranged up to $24 per class, with charges based upon actual connect time on the mainframe system ($1.50 per hour). The newspaper offered "Tips for Thrifty Sperry Use" on another of the campus mainframes, a Sperry 1100/80, including using non-peak hours (evenings, weekends, and holidays) and executing programs as batch rather than demand processes.
Personal computers began appearing on people's desk tops, too. The Apple Macintosh made its debut on January 24, 1984, but IBM and Sperry desktops were more popular on the Tech campus. Hoping to increase personal computer literacy, Michigan Tech launched a program in September 1984 for students, faculty, and staff to buy a personal desktop computer at a greatly reduced price—and to pay on installments over two years without interest. Those wishing to "build their own" could buy components or a compatible machine from Ultramatic Data Processing in Hancock with "up to 512 kilobytes of memory and a fast-access 320 kilobyte floppy drive."
Computing also made forays into administrative offices. Ann Roth recalls that the early word processing systems, although crude by today's standards, were pretty impressive. "The Sperry Unisys desktop computers were a step up from my first memory typewriter. There was no spell-check, no graphical interface, and hardly any text formatting, but being able to see your mistake on the screen and change it right there was a big thing compared to carbon paper, white-out, and trying to realign the typewriter to fix a mistake."
"We were wowed by how much information we could save on a floppy disk in comparison to the memory typewriter," Roth recalls. "On the desktop, saving a file took seconds, and you could hear the machine chugging away while it saved the file."
Many celebrated what automation could offer the campus community. "Campus-wide computer literacy will dramatically change the role of the professor in the classroom," reported the Michigan Tech Alumnus in December.
"Computers are beginning to 'teach' the routine, basic material. This leaves faculty more time to be motivators—asking the probing questions and stimulating student creativity with their own research experiences."
Automatic teaching hasn't yet replaced the teacher in the classroom, though some could argue that distance education is beginning to alter the equation.
Yet, looking back over those twenty-five years, it is hard to imagine Big Brother establishing much control with 8 meg mainframes, 512 kb desktops, and 5-inch floppies.