By the mid-1970s, Baylor, like today, was a leader in offering a quality independent school education, producing outstanding, college-ready day and dorm students.
But the school realized it was behind other comparable schools in a field that was still very much in its infancy — secondary school computer science education. However, Baylor went to work – seemingly as fast as a computer operating system – and soon made significant progress.
As retired Baylor dean of faculty and math instructor Lewis Rush recalled recently regarding this aspect of the school’s history that has been little chronicled over the years, the architect of the beginning of Baylor’s program of teaching students how to use computers was former physics instructor Joe Page. “He was a serious advocate for computer literacy at Baylor,” Rush recalled of Page, who was a faculty member from 1973-1977 and was also a violinist and concert master with the Chattanooga Symphony Orchestra. “He enlisted Dan Kennedy and me to help with the program. I knew nothing.”
Although computers had been around since the World War II era and were mainly used in the first few decades by government-related entities and other large corporations and institutions to store and disseminate large amounts of data, people with foresight were beginning to envision a more mainstream and personal use for them.
We had a window knocked in the outside wall so there was a view of Elder Mountain. There were other terminals on campus. I think there was one in the library, Joe’s physics lab (in a lower floor of Barks), and another in a room attached to Dan’s classroom in Trustee Hall. All of the terminals were connected to the main computer.
In fact, in 1976 when Baylor launched its computer science program, Steve Jobs was a 21-year-old who that year had launched with Steve Wozniak a company called Apple, while the year before, another 21-year-old, Bill Gates, had started the Microsoft computer software company.
While Baylor had the motivation to catch up quickly, it also soon had that other important ingredient — funds. Money became available in a bequest upon the death of alumnus John M. Mitchell ’25, who Rush said had actually not had much of a connection to Baylor since he graduated. According to an old New York Times obituary Rush found online, Mitchell had enjoyed a career as an upper-level executive with Alcoa before his death in October 1972 at the age of 64.
With Mitchell’s gift, a Data General main computer was purchased and housed in an upper floor room in Barks Hall that had formerly been a one-room faculty apartment where Rush had lived after he came to Baylor in 1967. Across the hallway, a former storage room was repurposed for students and faculty to sit at terminals.
“We had a window knocked in the outside wall so there was a view of Elder Mountain,” Rush recalled. “There were other terminals on campus. I think there was one in the library, Joe’s physics lab (in a lower floor of Barks), and another in a room attached to Dan’s classroom in Trustee Hall. All of the terminals were connected to the main computer.” Of course, these terminals were for programming and did not have the user-friendly features later computer terminals did.
“Cables were run through existing ductwork and heating tunnels to the terminals,” he said. “Getting to Trustee was the greatest challenge. All of this was accomplished by the hard-working Baylor maintenance crew. The controlling computer used punched tapes for loading systems, and the system operator used an old teletype to communicate with the processor.”
A plaque was placed by the Barks Hall terminal room calling it the John Mitchell Computer Resources Center, and students took notice. A couple of pages in the 1977 Baylor yearbook were also devoted to the new center. The writeup mentioned such then-foreign words as BASIC and FORTRAN before explaining what they were. “They’re just some of the terms used in Baylor’s newest educational experience, the computer,” it said. The brief entry went on to say the computer had now become a vital part of the school curriculum. Instruction during that first year was almost as crude as the early computer programs were, however, with Page, Rush, and Kennedy primarily involved.
In those days, I had no inkling of what might be in store down the road, but some talented, visionary Baylor students knew there was much more coming. I wonder if even they could foresee how much we all now benefit from — and are dependent on — what was beginning all across the country.
“I’m not sure just how much classroom instruction took place, but I know I was involved in some short courses for Lower School students,” remembered Rush. “We sort of learned together some simple programming in BASIC. And I recall that there was a mechanical grapher in Joe’s lab which could draw graphs on large sheets of paper. It was cumbersome and expensive.”
Rush remembered that at some point the system was switched over to a Hewlett-Packard computer and eventually morphed into an array of Apple computers. Rush also recalled that the math department before too long adopted the use of hand-held Texas Instruments graphing calculators. “In my hand, I could hold more power and more memory than was available in the Data General and Hewlett-Packard systems,” he said.
Rush retired from Baylor in 2003 after 36 years at the school and admitted that in later years he had trouble keeping up with or even accepting all the changing computer technology in the world, joking that he was slow to begin using email. But he still takes pride in having been one of the Baylor computer pioneers, even though he did not see himself and the others in that way at the time, nor did he foresee the broad role of the computer today.
“In those days, I had no inkling of what might be in store down the road, but some talented, visionary Baylor students knew there was much more coming,” he said. “I wonder if even they could foresee how much we all now benefit from — and are dependent on — what was beginning all across the country.”