History of UK Computing told by Ron Cummings

POSTED: DECEMBER 10, 2012

My name is Ron Cummings, class of 1960, Arts and Science, Physics. I returned to UK for the first time in October 2012 for the Golden Wildcat Reunion. All of the events were fantastic, thanks to Gretchen Bower and her staff. I asked Gretchen if I could have a tour of McVey Hall since I was there in 1958 when the first computer came to the University. It was a wonderful experience. What a difference 55 years make!

Butch Adkins and Allan Hetzel spent almost two hours showing me the center! We were taking pictures and looking at pictures from those early days. I was able to identify a few people and fill in a few holes.

I was asked if I could re-cap some of the early events, so here it is.
How did I wind up at Kentucky? I was born (November 6, 1937) and raised in Nowata , OK, a small town in the NE corner of the state. I graduated from Nowata High School with a reputation of proficiency in mathematics. In fact, I had a tuition grant and small scholarship to Oklahoma State University (OK A & M for the first 2 years). In my junior year, I had a part-time job in the new OSU computer center under Director Dr. John Hamblen. The center had an IBM 650. During the summer of 1958, between my Junior and senior year I worked for IBM. My job was to visit all the IBM offices in the Midwest and to solve problems brought in by their customers using a new IBM 1620 computer.
As the summer of 1958 ended and I prepared to return to OSU, Dr. Hamblin called and told me he had accepted the new position of Director of Computing at UK and asked me to be his assistant. On to Kentucky University!

When I arrived in September we began clearing out the old book depository in the basement of McVey hall and got the area ready for the new IBM 650 computer. The photo below with Carol Lotz shows her at the IBM 650 main frame. It was about 6 ft tall, 5 ft long and 3 ft wide. Storage was a revolving magnetic drum (about 10 inches in diameter and 20 inches long), with a capacity of 2,000 10 digit numbers. And more electric vacuum tubes than you can count! The console display is on the front panel of the computer. The unit in back of Carol is the power supply. The unit to her left is the card reader/punch machine. That was the only way to get data in or out of the computer.

IBM developed the FORTAN I compiler about 1956 which opened up computing at the university level for many different users and applications. Faculty and students would keypunch their program one line per card. A 30 card program was typical. The cards were processed through the FORTRAN compiler, producing an output of 50 cards in IT format. These cards were processed creating 120 cards (SOAP- Symbolic Optimizing Application Program). These cards were then processed creating a machine language deck of 250 cards. Now, at last, you could run your program! If there was a problem, you would correct the FORTRAN deck and start at the beginning again. You can imagine the frustration if you get all the way to the end and there is an error. You could take your deck back to key punch, but that takes time you may not have, so we had two 010 manual key punches in the computer room. You could cover the offending hole with a sticky tab designed for that, punch a new correction hole and get back in line for the computer. There were no sequence numbers on the cards, if you dropped your deck, you started over.

My main job was to teach programming to students and faculty; answer questions and try to catch the errors at the beginning. Every user had a different project so you had to be pretty quick to keep up. We ordered cards by the truckload.
The initial staff, September 1958 was: Dr. John Hamblin, Director; Miss Carol Lotz, head of the keypunch department; Mrs. Gloria Bartley, secretary; and myself, Chief Programmer (1/2 time).

We were open for business shortly after school started September 1958. A lot of demonstrations,
seminars, short course training programs, frustrations, but mostly success! Our staff was never over about 15 but we worked together, helped each other and built a very respectable reputation.Dr. Silvio Navarro was hired as Assistant Director during the 59-60 school year. The picture below, from left to right is: myself, Dr. Navarro, Dr. Hamblen, Miss Pat Mullens. The computer is an IBM 1620. Dr. Navarro had a previous commitment and was on leave for the 1960-61 school year.

I received my BS degree in physics January 1960, and was making plans to attend University of Chicago MBA program. In the spring of 1960, However, Dr. Hamblen accepted a position with Southern Illinois University, effective immediately. At UK’s request, I postponed my plans and served as Acting Director for about 5 months until Dr. Navarro Returned.

I then left for Chicago to work on my MBA. Unfortunately, Dr. Navarro’s career ended April 3, 1967 in an air crash. It was a severe loss to UK.
While at UK I met many friends, including my wife, Betty Jo Foley. She worked in Dr. Chamberlain’s
office where I delivered my reports. A romance developed and we married. We had one son and two daughters, all born in Chicago, where I received my MBA from U of Chicago. While in Chicago, I worked at Armour and then Peat Marwick. Unfortunately, our marriage ended in divorce. The children and I moved to Dallas where I worked as a Vice President at Anderson Clayton Foods and then Vice President at Darling Delaware Inc.

My son received a BS degree in physics from U of Texas and a MBA from U of Chicago. One daughter
received a BS from Baylor and a MS from Texas Women’s University. My second daughter received a BS degree from TCU and a MS from Dallas Baptist University.

I ended my career at Roche Colorado in Boulder. I met Julie Stone; we married in 2000 and are having a great time! Julie has one daughter, an M.D. Together we have 11 grand children and enjoy every day!

Thanks to the University of Kentucky for giving me the opportunities I received. I am very proud to be an alumnus.

Ron E Cummings

859-218-HELP (859-218-4357) 218help@uky.edu

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