Virginia Tech® home


people standing next to a computer holding a bunch of magnetic tape
While the old computing days had their fair share of mishaps, folks by and large have fond memories of using technology of yore.

Short form recollections from IT folks all over the university as they recall their technology experience as students, graduate students, and in the early years of their employment. 

I remember (in 1976) sleeping in line in the tunnel between Norris and Holden to wait for the punch machine to be available. If someone was smart and sold ched punches ...they could have made a killing....$$$$$
— Ben Poe

students napping in a hallway
Students bonded over the shared experience of waiting hours and hours for their computing jobs to be finished.

I remember seeing a guy with a box of cards walking out of Norris and someone bumped into him, which caused him to drop the box of cards and they went everywhere. We managed to get them all picked up for him, but then he realized he had to put them all back in order
— Rob Lowe

You could also tell when a CS major was done and ready to graduate when you saw a deck of cards flung out a dorm window to be scattered to the Blacksburg wind.
— Bruce Harper

page out of photo album showing a donut shop and students waiting for computers
Anyone who studied computer science or engineering in the 1970s and early 1980s will tell you about the long lines to wait for keypunch outputs, terminal time, etc. Overnighters were the norm.

My class was the last year for punch card (I arrived Fall 82).  As an [aerospace and ocean engineering) grad student, we acquired an old tape punch machine.  We would take mylar tape and apply several layers of electrical tape. Re-run through the tape punch to prepunch the feed holes. You would then apply this to a wind tunnel model - fill the holes with plaster or boundo - let cure.  Remove tape.  You now had uniform in hight and space of small posts that could trip the boundary layer. Some of the models are still floating around Randolph Hall.
— Kevin Shinpaugh

We dropped off a deck of computer cards in the old police building and came got a printout two hours later on the next courier run. You didn't want to make keypunch errors for sure.
— Catherine Winfrey, Class of 1973

One major trick about those punch cards was to number them. If you had no system, and dropped the deck you had a job getting them back in order. Any good programmer numbered their punch cards.
— Jean Brickey, Class of 1978

keypunch card
Punch cards were the original means of writing and storing programs. Once punched, cards had to remain in proper order, or else your program would not work.

Christine Morrison, Roger Brickey and Wayne Donald came to Virginia Tech [in the 1960s]. Christine started July 21, 1968, Roger started July 28, 1968 and Wayne came in 1969 not sure of the month. When Christine and Roger came The East side of Burruss was not built. Virginia Tech had two IBM 360 mod 50’s in the computer room in the back of Burruss, and a second generation IBM was still being used and was located in a quonset hut near Derring Hall. Christine and Roger were hired to work on the conversion from the generation 2 IBM to the 360. All three of these people were in Systems Development when there was a split of staff part going to User Services and the others going to Systems Development, which was responsible for creating the systems like payroll, student systems, financial systems, etc....You have more storage on your tablets, laptops, or even your cell phones that those two IBM 360s had combined. Storage was done on magnetic tapes, which after the takeover of Williams Hall in the early 1970s, backup tapes were stored in the vault at the bank.... By 1978, terminals were being used.  Amazing how things have changed.
— Jean Brickey

rows of computer tape decks
The mainframes in Burruss Hall required rolls and rolls of magnetic tape to store data. Each cartridge of 9-track tape stored between 22 and 175 megabytes of data - less than 1% of what your smartphone likely can store.

I started part-time at VT in 1983 while still a high school student. I was first in the Data Communications group...we were located at Plaza One. Then I moved to Burruss, where I first worked in the Systems Development group with Theta Bowden, Randy Marchany, Dennis Caffey, Chip Davis. From there, I went to work down the hall in Burruss to another group that I can’t remember the name of – Mike Washburn, Tom vonDeak, John Nichols, Al Holland, Peggy Smith and others. I know that Roy and Lori worked in some of these groups too. Too long ago to remember it all 😊. After that I moved on the CNS with Erv Blythe and Judy Lilly and many others. 38 years later and I am still in NI&S (CNS). My mom, Judy Poff, worked in the Computing Center for many years, so I remember Dept Heads/VPs starting with Sonny Gibson.
—Vicki Wright

old IBM tape drives
Tapes were loaded into the large drives to read and write data.

I started part-time for the System Research Center literally right before the tunnel fire between McBryde and Burruss.  (What do you mean the tunnel is on fire?  There's nothing there that can burn.  Except, oh, wait ....  tar paper and CABLES!!!). 
— Laurie Zirkle

I remember the fire in the tunnels.  It created a major changes for work crews going into the tunnels.  Someone had to know outside the tunnels had to be informed when crews went into the tunnels and when they left the tunnels.  I was working in Burruss when the Computer Room caught on fire.  
— Jean Brickey

Roy Vickers, Lori Balkan, Lee Ann and Mark Hoppe, Randy Crockett, Luke Ward and a few more are among those I know of who worked in the Computing Center in the ‘80s when there were massive changes going on around campus. There were others, including myself, working in other departments on computing projects – such as my Administrative Display System that grew into the INFO system and provided VT its foot in the door for web content. Institutional Research was a big user of SAS for enrollment analysis and pushed for data standardization across common databases.
—Bruce Harper

Before Localnet, we were troubleshooting hard-wired 3270 connections back to the Burruss controller patch panels through the tunnels. You had to pass through Jim Price before touching anything in the Burruss machine room patch panel, which was documented in what we called the 'ZNET config spreadsheet'. His strict documentation efforts became more appreciated every time a new trouble report came in. Our test equipment back then (1984-85) eerily resembled telephone booth handsets, with the flex metal protected wires with an alligator clip on one lead and a sharp probe on the other. A 9-volt battery wrapped in electrical tape completed the set. I remember Localnet through the trees (Norris to Randolph), and I still have a LocalNet T-Box in my office along with a frequency generator we used to calibrate the mid split broadband system. Oh and the 30dB down probe to use with the frequency generator.
—Brian Jones

I remember playing cursor-golf on Localnet, although I don't think that was because of hanging it in the trees after the tunnel fire. LocalNet worked great when not too many people were using it. The best thing about getting serious text editing capability on Localnet-connected desktop computers was that you no longer had to wait for for your display cursor to catch up with where your mainframe VM session had put it. Latency wasn't an issue when you uploaded the code to run it.
—Luke Ward, Technology Manager for Enterprise GIS

BItmail instructions
BITMAIL was an early email system, used primarily by education institutions, that predated the internet. Messages were sent from one node to another until they reached their final destination.

The IBM PC portable (or "Luggable", since it was a bulky and heavy beast) was really something new, and since my freshman year in the Corps of Cadets we could not have a radio or TV, the PC was a source of entertainment once we got 5-1/4 bootleg (um... I mean, backup) copies of games.
—Siegfried Hill (1990), Systems and Network Administrator, Graduate School

Ah, the old days… Engineering freshmen (1983) getting the IBM Luggables…Having to interrupt all night programming sessions while VTVM1 rebooted at 5am… Submitting homework assignments over my 300 baud modem… My campus ministry bought an IBM PC XT with 256MB and a 10MB hard drive for $2,000, and we didn’t fill up the hard drive for 3-4 years… And the Library’s card catalog system. Flash forward through several years of exploring the electronic world via BBS and Gopher, and I remember being in awe as my boss showed me the new program Netscape Navigator.
—Michael Leahy