What was the first computer on campus? How did UMBC create a nationally-known reputation in the field?
—Matt Basch ’08, M.S. ’10

Remember punch cards? Room-sized computers? Computing centers where students would input data and wait – up to a full day – for the results? Even a university with a widely-acclaimed reputation in computer science and information technology had to get its start somewhere.

At UMBC, computer science had its roots across the university in departments including mathematics psychology, biology, and also in the business operations of the school.

In the early years of UMBC, students didn’t major in computer science. Instead, students who explored the discipline were biology majors using technology to study fruit flies, psychology majors crunching numbers from their experiments, and budding mathematicians working out complex equations.

The roots of UMBC’s reputation as a place that encourages undergraduate research are also located in those early years of information technology at the university. Students were doing a lot of computing tasks in UMBC’s early years – keeping key elements of UMBC’s administration up to date, as well as running student projects on the first mainframe computers.

“We were all students,” says Mike Petry ’78, mathematics. “It was all students doing the computing.”

Frank Elmore ’73, biological sciences, remembers vividly the arrival on campus of a room-sized Univac 9400 computer in 1972. “The computer ran one job at a time,” Elmore recalls, adding that it could take a day to get the data processed.

As a biology major, Elmore took UMBC’s first programming class, in Fortran, that same year. He also took all the new programming courses on offer at UMBC as they were introduced during his years as an undergraduate, and then later as a graduate student and a university employee.

It was an era before students could harness individual computing power via their own personal computers and laptops, says Jack Suess ’81, mathematics, and M.S.’85, operations analysis, who is now UMBC’s vice president of information technology.

The same big campus computers served the needs of every student, whether they were science students running experiments, or economics and accounting students studying Cobol. And everyone counted on a computer operator who would run the programs punched on stacks of cards, recalls Petry, who is now assistant director of network infrastructure at the University of Maryland, College Park.

“Students would show up with decks of these things,” observes Brian Cuthie ’84, and M.S. ’94, computer science, who was one of UMBC’s earliest computer science graduates. Far from the isolation that being locked into one’s screen can bring today, the UMBC computing lab was a busy place, in that era, filled with students who had to bring their work in person.

“It had the effect of making the computer center a very social place,”
says Cuthie.

Progress came in leaps and bounds. Between 1974 and 1984, computers got smaller and faster. Punch cards gave way to CRT screens. Apple computers appeared in the mid-1980s.

“That’s the point where you hoped to own your own computer,” says Charles Nicholas, a professor of computer science since 1988.

fa15-computer3-web
UMBC’s computer science offerings boomed in the 1980s and 1990s.

Networking became more than standing around waiting for your turn. A comprehensive system called “Control Data Cyber” was installed in the library’s lower level in 1982. With 60 terminals around campus, it was the first computer generally available for use by all faculty and staff. (See “Cyber’s Opening Day Marked by Ceremony”, The Retriever Weekly, page 4)

“That computer also had the first email system, though it could only send to people who had accounts on that system. It was the first use of email on the campus,” Suess recalls. (UMBC joined a pre-Internet National Science Foundation network connecting campuses in late 1985.)

This growth also meant that the university was ready for a computer science department. A. Brooke Stephens, a professor of mathematics, noticed many young faculty members in other disciplines who were really computer scientists. “I could tell that they weren’t happy and they were likely to move on,” Stephens recalls.

Richard F. Neville, who was the dean of UMBC’s College of Arts and Sciences, was convinced, and a department formed in August 1985. Samuel Lomonaco, who was engaged in a career with the U.S. Army performing lab work, arrived at UMBC and became the department’s founding chairman for its first six years.

“I looked at UMBC and I saw the tremendous potential of the institution.” Lomonaco says. “It was the Wild West. The first year we were frantically trying to hire people.”

fa15-computer2-web
UMBC President Michael Hooker, engineering chair Bino Koh, and computer science chair Samuel Lomonaco shaped the 1992 Engineering and Computer Science Building.

The growth of UMBC’s programs in these disciplines was cemented by the opening of a dedicated Electrical Engineering & Computer Science Building in 1992. Tim Finin, who succeeded Lomonaco as chair in 1991, called the building a “milestone” in the program’s history.

By the 1990s, Finin adds, “UMBC had more computer science graduates than any other research university in the country.”

UMBC also led in finding ways to increase diversity in an increasingly male-dominated field. Joan Korenman, a professor of English and the director of UMBC’s women’s program, was instrumental in establishing the Center for Women and Information Technology (CWIT) in 1998.

“I was very excited with the internet and what it was about. It was clear this was going to be a tremendous resource,” recalls Korenman. The center, now known as the Center for Women in Technology, continues to offer support and scholarships for women in these disciplines.

Today, the department of computer science and electrical engineering has grown to 1,100 undergraduate and 600 graduate students with 72 full-time and part-time faculty.

“There’s always been an incentive to hire the very best people we could,” Stephens says. “That’s one of the reasons we’re strong today. It is a good department, well balanced in various departments – artificial intelligence, cyber security, software development – and that’s another strength. No area has been overlooked or neglected.”

The growth, however, had firm roots in the earliest days of the university.

“I think we were very good,” Lomonaco says. “We were teaching the real thing.”

— Mary K. Tilghman ‘79

Read more Histories & Mysteries