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.
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.