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>  News Releases >   2007 >   June

Dartmouth fetes its computing history-making student "sysprogs"

Dartmouth College Office of Public Affairs • Press Release
Posted 06/12/07 • Rebecca Bailey • (603) 646-3661

The 1960s and ’70s were a feverish era in Dartmouth computing—a period that saw the creation and implementation of software and systems that made Dartmouth a leader in academic computing and brought computing out of the realm of experts and into everyday life.

And who were the ones tackling the challenges that cropped up at every step of the way? Mainly 18-to-22-year-olds.  While other institutions were also trying to use computers in new ways, the work at those schools was being done by graduate students and faculty. At Dartmouth, the work was in the hands of undergraduates.

A group of Dartmouth student "sysprogs," circa 1970.
A group of Dartmouth student "sysprogs," circa 1970. (Photo by Adrian Bouchard)

The college will host a one-day reunion for the former undergraduate “sysprogs”—short for “system programmers”—on Thursday, June 14. Events include a roundtable discussion from 3 to 5 p.m. at Filene Auditorium, Moore Hall, by former sysprogs. The roundtable is free and open to the public. At least 30 of the 80 or so known former sysprogs are expected to attend.

The reunion is a way for the College to thank a group whose work changed computing and changed Dartmouth’s image in the outside world, said Thomas Kurtz, emeritus mathematics professor and one of the faculty who guided the sysprogs. “All these kids were drawn to Dartmouth because of the tremendous opportunity to work with computers. There were stories about parents bringing their kids to visit the campus and having them disappear into the basement of Kiewit (where the central computers were housed) for the entire day.”

For the sysprogs themselves, it was a memorable era, said Ron Harris, a 1971 Dartmouth graduate now retired from a career in business computing. “The professional staff and faculty really gave us, an undergraduates, the responsibility for building the Dartmouth time-sharing system, although with guidance from older and wiser heads. We were at the cutting, bleeding edge of computing technology. We would get assignments like, ‘Here’s what we want: go invent it.’ The understanding was, nobody’s done it before—figure it out. It was an incredibly creative environment, incredibly motivated, incredibly diverse. We had a lot of fun. I don’t think any of us realized how hard we were working.”

Dartmouth computing history began with a clever accounting maneuver, recalled Kurtz. In the late 1950s, after commuting to Cambridge, MA, for several years to use an MIT computer, Kurtz and fellow Mathematics Professor John Kemeny—who would later become the college’s president—convinced then-Provost Donald Morrison to include a computer in the furnishings budget for the Bradley Mathematics Building, then under construction. It was no small item in either size or cost: the LGP-30 (short for Librascope General Precision, made by Librascope, Inc., of Glendale, CA), although referred to as a “desk computer,” was about 20 cubic feet in size, weighed 740 pounds, and retailed for more than $40,000.

The college’s next computer, a GE-235 (made by General Electric) obtained in 1964, was the machine in use at the inception that year of Dartmouth’s two computing innovations, the Dartmouth Time-Sharing System (DTSS) and the BASIC (which stands for Beginners’ All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code) computer language, which was created by Kurtz and Kemeny with the help of the undergraduate sysprogs.

Time-sharing allowed multiple users to use the same computer by giving the users short spurts of access to the main computer. While not the first time-sharing system—MIT had a system starting in 1961—DTSS was the first aimed primarily at non-technical users. By the late 1960s, students at 50 high schools and colleges were using the system through remote terminals connected by telephone to Dartmouth’s mainframe computers. “Today's packet switching networks (e.g, the Internet) owe a great deal to the development of this time-sharing system conceptually and technically,” wrote Jay Robert Hauben in a profile of Kemeny in Hauben’s 1995 book, Computer Pioneers.

Meanwhile, Kemeny and Kurtz realized the need for new computer language that could be easily learned and accessible to typical college students. With the undergraduate sysprogs’ help, they developed BASIC, which used easy, logical words, such as “hello” and “goodbye,” instead of the more obtuse vocabulary of the other programs of the time. Dartmouth copyrighted BASIC but made it available without charge. BASIC spread to other campuses, as well as government and military situations. “BASIC made personal computers possible,” Hauben wrote. “Beginning in 1975 with the success of Bill Gates and Paul Allen to write an interpreter for a subset of BASIC commands for the Altair computer, one form or another of BASIC spread to and accelerated the personal computer revolution.”

"We can argue, and I have many times, that what we did, under the leadership of Kemeny and Kurtz, laid the foundation for the modern computing age,” said Harris. “It was Kemeny who said if you make computers easy to use, then ordinary people will make them a part of their lives. That was Kemeny's idea and it was Dartmouth Time-Sharing that proved he was right."

In addition to the roundtable discussion from 3-5 p.m., which is open to the public, the activities on June 14 features numerous activities for the reunion’s participants, including a 1:30 p.m. tour of Kemeny Hall, the new home of the Department of Mathematics; a 6 p.m. reception at Alumni Hall featuring remarks by Dartmouth President James Wright; and a 7 p.m. banquet in Alumni Hall, followed by a speech by a Princeton University history professor, Michael Mahoney, who specializes in the history of computer software.

 For additional information on DTSS and BASIC, see also:

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