#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.


CyPix: A Computer Called “Cyclone”

Man with Cyclone schematic. (University Photographs RS 6/3)

In the mid to late 1950s Iowa State University was faced with the dilemma of increasing computational needs across multiple departments but no access to a high-speed computer. In 1956 the Working Committee on Improvement of Computational Facilities at Iowa State College inspected both the Datatron 205 (Purdue University) and the ILLIAC (University of Illinois) before deciding to build a vacuum tube computer based on the ILLIAC. The University of Illinois shared both the ILLIAC’s construction plans and its codes, routines, and subroutines enabling ISU to construct the computer more cheaply and quickly.

Cyclone - ControlChassis

One of the control chassis for Cyclone in the process of construction. (University Photographs RS 6/3)

IBM subsidized the rental of an IBM 650 which ISU began using while the new computer was being constructed. No funds had been provided by the Iowa General Assembly for the computer but the project was able to proceed based on donations from the Alumni Achievement Fund, the Iowa State College Research Foundation, and a National Science Foundation grant. A computer of this caliber was rare – it was one of only nine non-commercial machines in its class built during this period. As was typical with installations of similar computers, students and faculty were charged for each hour of use. The rate in the first year of operation (1959) was $40 per hour. That’s equivalent to over $320 in 2014!

This computer, dubbed “Cyclone,” was able to perform 600,000 additions per minute and had a 40,960 bit (.005 MB) memory. It was 10 feet high, 3 feet wide, and 12 feet long and it took several years to build. Cyclone had 2700 vacuum tubes and needed constant cooling by 6 tons of circulating air. In contrast, the Atanasoff-Berry Computer had approximately 270 vacuum tubes and was roughly the size of a desk. Unfortunately, soon after completing Cyclone, vacuum tubes had been outmoded by the new technology of transistors. The computer was retired in 1966.

We have a lot of information on Cyclone available in Special Collections. Correspondence and early progress reports can be found in RS 13/25/5 – Cyclone Computer Records . Additional materials are available in RS 13/24/55 – Jauvanta M. Walker Papers, and by searching for “cyclone computer” in our finding aids: http://www.add.lib.iastate.edu/spcl/arch/rgrp.html.