#tbt SYMBOL-2R computer

This week is Preservation Week – an annual week devoted to raising awareness about the preservation needs of collections. Since I am the Digital Initiatives Archivist, I thought I would make this week’s throwback thursday about computer history here at Iowa State.

I’ve blogged previously about the Cyclone Computer and Electronic Records Day. Today I’m focusing on the SYMBOL-2R computer. In 1970, when the computer was purchased, people used terminals that connected to a central mainframe rather than each person having their own computer. Simultaneous users at multiple terminals were accommodated by timesharing – the rapid switching of the computer’s attention between different processing jobs. The claim to fame for SYMBOL was its use of specialized hardware processors that negated the need for layers of software. By doing so, it sped up timesharing.

“To prove that many “software” functions could profitably be transferred to hardware, SYMBOL-2R was built as a pure hardware implementation, not only of a high-level programming language, but of a multi-terminal timesharing system; operable in the complete absence of system software.”

– Hamilton Richards, Jr. “Controlled Information Sharing in the SYMBOL-2R Computer System” (doctoral dissertation, Iowa State University, 1976), page 3.

Although the library doesn’t have the actual SYMBOL-2R and has no digital files related to the system, the university archives is preserving the documentation, such as the manual shown above, that can be used to maintain the knowledge required to create the computer. To help preserve this material, the archives replaced the rubber band holding the note cards together with a soft cloth tie. The polaroid shown above was peeling and getting damaged, so we placed it in a protective sleeve. All materials are stored in a cool environment in protective acid-free boxes. If you’d like to learn how to care for your own materials check out “Caring for Your Treasures.”

Learn more about computing history at Iowa State at the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and in RS 11/6 in the Special Collections and University Archives Department.

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