The Birth of the Computer Age at Illinois

Image depicting bubble chamber events on ILLIAC III (ca. 1960s). Found in Record Series 11/15/10.
Image depicting bubble chamber events on ILLIAC III (ca. 1960s). Found in Record Series 11/15/10.

Few innovations have captured the imagination as much as the computer, and even fewer academic archives have had the opportunity to preserve its history. The University Archives houses records that chronicle not only the history of computing at the University of Illinois, but also the “campus’ past, present, and future romance with it.”[1] Indeed, the University Archives contains records documenting Cyberfest ’97, a series of events held March 10-14, 1997, which celebrated the birth of HAL 9000 – the deceptive, clever, and sinister computer in Arthur C. Clarke’s and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, who “became operational at the HAL Plant in Urbana, Illinois” – as well as the plethora of technologies wrought by the computer.[2]

Cyberfest included a screening of the film 2001 accompanied by a forum in the Digital Computer Lab with researchers from IBM and Carnegie-Mellon University and Stephen Wolfram, a symposium on artificial intelligence featuring literary critic N. Katherine Hayles and sociologist of science Bruno Latour, and a live interview with Arthur C. Clarke via webcast at the CyberGala hosted by Roger Ebert. Though only a week-long event, the planning of Cyberfest had begun three years earlier when the Dean’s Office of the College of Engineering suggested forming a planning committee to organize a campus-wide event in celebration of the birthday of HAL and “birth of the computer age,” showcasing Illinois as a “leader in computer science and computers in education and research.”[3] Cyberfest underscored the importance of the computer and the technologies it yielded, while giving rise to discussions about its future.

Photo of ILLIAC I (ca. 1950s). Found in Record Series 11/1/12.
Photo of ILLIAC I (ca. 1950s). Found in Record Series 11/1/12.

The University of Illinois is the birthplace of another computer: ILLIAC I, the first automatic electronic digital computer owned by a university.[4] Identical to ORDVAC, a computer created for the Ballistic Research Laboratory in Aberdeen, Maryland in 1951, ILLIAC became operational on September 22, 1952.[5] ILLIAC incorporated architectural components outlined in John von Neumann’s First Draft of a Report on the EDVAC (1945). Louis N. Ridenour, Dean of the Graduate College, was in many ways the computer’s true architect though, as Ridenour’s prior experience working on ENIAC at the University of Pennsylvania and for the Radiation Laboratory at MIT during World War II shaped the direction of the project to create a high-speed computing machine. Recruited to Illinois in 1947, Ridenour immediately established a committee chaired by Nathan M. Newmark, who directed the work of chief engineer Ralph E. Meagher and mathematician Abraham H. Taub. ILLIAC’s main features comprised an arithmetic unit, memory storage consisting of 40 cathode ray tubes and 2,800 vacuum tubes, devices for input and output of information to and from the machine, and the ability to transfer information.[6] As a digital computer, it handled numbers as sets of digits having discrete values; it came to be called the “electronic brain” however, due to its electronic circuits for storing, transmitting, adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing numbers in digital form, facilitating its ability to rapidly process information.[7]

Yet the utility of the high-speed computer extended beyond its arithmetic capabilities, as it could also be used for performing advanced computational analyses and administrative tasks. Evaluations of radar and antenna patterns, atomic blast effects, stresses in materials used for the construction of highway bridges, and even the composition of music by Professor of Music Lejaren A. Hiller, made it apparent that ILLIAC was not merely a data processing machine which computed “relatively simple operations on a large amount of data,” but also a scientific computer “to carry out relatively complex operations on a small amount of information.”[8]

Computer typewriter operator Caroline Brown punches data and instructions on paper tape which is could be processed by ILLIAC at two feet/second (1954). Found in Record Series 39/2/20, Box 177.
Computer typewriter operator Caroline Brown punches data and instructions on paper tape which is could be processed by ILLIAC at two feet/second (1954). Found in Record Series 39/2/20.


ILLIAC was accompanied by a teletypewriter used for providing output from the machine directly in printed form, as information passed through the machine coded in patterns of holes in punched paper tape. In addition to correspondence relating to Cyberfest, ILLIAC IV Reports, the ILLIAC Bulletins, Guides and Manuals, and issues of Fourum, as well as the papers of faculty members who were involved in its use and development (such as Wolfgang J. PoppelbaumMichael Faiman, and James E. Robertson), the University Archives contains photos the many individuals who worked with ILLIAC, including engineers and the teletypewriter operators who prepared the data to be processed. Many of the latter represented are women, situating ILLIAC within the early history of computing in which women played pivotal roles programming and performing computational work.

Given ILLIAC’s heavy demand and use on campus, the need for higher speed computing and increased functionality led to the proposal for ILLIAC II, which debuted in 1962. Built under the direction of James E. Robertson, ILLIAC II was a hundred times faster than ILLIAC I and used transistors and semiconductors in its design. In 1967, a pattern recognition computer developed by the Department of Physics became ILLIAC III, enabling researchers to analyze visual data, such as high-energy particle events (as pictured above). Even before ILLIAC III became operational, however, plans to create ILLIAC IV, the largest and fastest computer in the world at the time, was developed under the direction of Daniel L. Slotnick. When it became public in 1970 that two-thirds of ILLIAC IV’s time would be utilized by the Department of Defense, however, protests on campus led to the computer’s removal to the Ames Laboratory in California.[9]

ILLIAC III (ca. 1965). Found in Record Series 11/15/10.
ILLIAC III (ca. 1965). Found in Record Series 11/15/10.

The history of ILLIAC and computational research at the University of Illinois is a long and multifaceted history. The University Archives documents the trajectory of this research from its beginnings with ILLIAC to the creation of the petascale computing capabilities of Blue Waters. ILLIAC, and advancements in computing the University of Illinois more generally, have served as a medium for a vast array of interdisciplinary research, including the development of PLATO (Programmed Logic for Automatic Teaching Operations) in 1961, the Sal-Mar Construction (the earliest interactive synthesizer instrument, constructed with TTL logic boards from ILLIAC II  — currently on display in the Sousa Archives), and advancements in artificial intelligence and robotics research beginning in the 1980s.[10] As Vannevar Bush noted in “As We May Think”, many ideas, such as a computer like HAL, have yet to reach fruition, being dependent upon the “economics of a situation”; as the University Archives continues to preserve the history of science and technology at the University of Illinois, we may continue to imagine what future advances in computing might yield as the records of ideas enable scientists and engineers “to manipulate and make extracts from that record so that knowledge evolves and endures.”


[1] Rowan-Rigg Correspondence, October 12, 1994, Record Series 11/1/5, University of Illinois Archives.

[2] HAL became operational on January 12, 1992 in the movie and 1997 in the book.

[3] Rowan-Rigg Correspondence, August 3, 1994, Record Series 11/1/5, University of Illinois Archives.

[4] “ILLIAC Programming: A Guide to the Preparation of Problems for Solution by the University of Illinois Digital Computer,” Digital Computer Laboratory, 1954, Record Series 11/15/804, Box 1, University of Illinois Archives; thanks to my colleague Denise Rayman for pointing this out to me!

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Statement concerning the New Program in Data Processing, January 14, 1958, ILLIAC Reference File, Record Series 35/3/65, University of Illinois Archives.

[9] “Illiac IV — the Computer that Outgrew Itself,” Illinois Alumni News, March 1971, 3, ILLIAC Reference File, Record Series 35/3/65, University of Illinois Archives.

[10] Stephen C-Y. Lu, “AI and Related Programs at Illinois: Challenges and Opportunities,” 1991, Record Series 11/1/1, University of Illinois Archives.


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