Computing marks 50th anniversary at Penn College
Fifty years ago, Williamsport Technical Institute installed its first computer on the campus that is now Pennsylvania College of Technology, pioneering the early development of computer science education.
The first computer had its own small room, which could accommodate about 10 students at a time gaining hands-on experience in the college’s first “data-processing” courses. What grew from those courses is a highly equipped campus that hosts five information technology majors and one computer for every three students.
The impetus for bringing computer education to Williamsport Technical Institute – as the institution was called from 1941 to 1965 – came from a $125,000 National Defense Education Act grant that enabled the college to receive a state-of-the-art computer system. In return, the grant obligated WTI to design a two-year computer-programming curriculum and teach a pilot class, then share its findings with other schools interested in initiating a similar program.
The grant was the result of increased government spending on aerospace endeavors and technical and scientific education after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1, the world’s first artificial satellite, in 1957. The launch ushered in the Space Age, along with a fear among U.S. officials that there may be a technological gap between the two nations.
George P. Wolfe, a young mathematics instructor who, with one Fortran programming course in graduate school was WTI’s most computer-savvy faculty member, was tasked with developing the curriculum and teaching its first courses.
As Wolfe studied and sought industry expertise, WTI staff selected a classroom in the southwest corner of Unit 6, a former trolley-car depot that had become classroom and office space for the institute. The site, now occupied by a parking lot and Remembrance Garden, is on Third Street, east of today’s Carl Building Technologies Center.
The Unit 6 classroom was expanded and remodeled to include a lecture area and the adjacent laboratory, which housed the data-processing equipment and punch-card storage. It featured a raised floor to absorb the computer’s vibrations.
In October 1963, with lab space and curriculum ready, one instructor and 24 students inaugurated the first computer technology class in the college’s history. Two years later, as WTI became Williamsport Area Community College, 17 of the first 24 students graduated from the major, then called “engineering and design data processing technology,” and each quickly found work in the emerging field. The same year, the program changed its name to “engineering computer science technology,” and a second major was added in “business computer science technology.”
1965 also marked the beginning of automated records processing with the formation of the administrative data processing department. William Heverly, who had been hired a year earlier to split his time between teaching and exploring such a department, was assigned to the initiative full time.
In 1966, the college took part in a Penn State experiment in distance learning, serving as a remote site for the university’s trial of what was then called “computer aided instruction.” Two teaching stations were installed in Unit 6, consisting of a two-way typewriter, slide projector and audiotape player, all interfaced via a direct phone line to the mainframe on Penn State’s campus. Selected computer science students served as lab assistants and experiment subjects.
In 1967, as the program grew, it moved to the Rishel Building, a former furniture plant (after the company moved its operations to the facility that is now Penn College’s College Avenue Labs building). Taking advantage of its newfound space, the college acquired its second and third computer systems: an IBM 1401 and a Univac Spectra 70. The COBOL programming language was taught for the first time.
In 1972, Bill Ward, who had been a member of the college’s computer science faculty, was appointed director of administrative data processing.
Eventually, computer use expanded to many of the college’s academic majors, and in 1984, Wolfe was appointed director of a new Academic Computing Division, which supported computer instruction campuswide. He remained in the position until 1989, when he became the first director of the college’s Technology Transfer Center, the predecessor of today’s Workforce Development and Continuing Education. He was replaced by Jim Cunningham, ’96, who would eventually become the college’s vice president for information technology and business process improvement before retiring in 2012.
In 1985, Mike M. Cunningham, ’75, was named manager of systems and programming. He eventually became the director of administrative data processing and later the chief information officer. Today, he is the college’s vice president for information technology and CIO. Jim and Mike are among seven Cunningham siblings to graduate from Penn College and WACC.
In 1992, the college opened its first personal-computer lab on the second floor of the Breuder Advanced Technology and Health Sciences Center.
“The early IBM PC/STs were equipped with a 5 1/4-inch floppy disk drive, a 20 MB hard drive, small green-screen monitor and a whopping 640K of memory,” Jim Cunningham said. “Compare that to a typical PC of today: DVD drive, 500 MB hard drive, 19-inch HD-resolution color monitor and 8,000K of memory.”
The college’s first computer network was installed in 1993. In 1994, email came to the college. It was used only internally until 1995, when the college made its first Internet connection.
“Today, email is something people take for granted as a way to communicate between different companies, but some of the first nonresearch use of email was within a company, employee-to-employee,” Mike Cunningham explained.
With the campus connected to the Internet, the college launched its website, www.pct.edu. Today, the award-winning site provides information on admissions and academic majors, video clips and photographic features, a virtual tour of the campus and access to college news through PCToday, which is updated throughout the day.
In the late 1990s, the Academic Computing and Administrative Computing divisions merged to form today’s information technology services.
In 1996, students, for the first time, scheduled their classes online.
“Prior to online scheduling, students had to report to the Registrar’s Office at their allotted time with their desired schedule of classes written on paper,” Mike Cunningham said. Students used a printed master schedule to look for the classes they wanted to take.
“The registrar had three terminals to the mainframe where they could enter in the student’s schedule. Any classes that did not have room left would be rejected and the student sent away to find a different class and return to the registrar,” he said. “Some students had to make many trips, and the entire process could possibly take days. Lucky students got all their classes on the first try and were only in line for a few hours.”
In 1997, the college installed networks in residence halls, and in 1998, the Student Information System, which allows students to access their records online, was launched. A similar system for faculty and staff, the Employee Information System, was launched in 2005.
The college implemented a learning management system in 2001, providing the first platform for faculty to interact with students online. Today, among its many functions, faculty can provide video, lecture notes and chats, while students can submit homework, take exams or complete entire courses online.
In 2005, a high-speed wide-area network was installed to link the college’s five locations (the North Campus in Wellsboro, the Advanced Automotive Technology Center on Wahoo Drive, the Lumley Aviation Center in Montoursville and the Schneebeli Earth Science Center near Allenwood).
In 2007, the college implemented the myPCT Portal, an intranet for internal information sharing.
By 2009, the college’s wireless network encompassed all parts of campus, and 100 percent of classrooms and labs were technology equipped.
In October, the college hosted a daylong Golden Anniversary celebration for information technology majors. Eight alumni offered talks for current students. The speakers’ careers span from top-level information and networking security positions, to systems engineers and systems administrators for hospitals, universities and such companies as Penn National Insurance, Learning Sciences International, Cisco Systems, Lockheed Martin and Dell. Alumni presentations were followed by campus tours and a reception and talk with Wolfe.