“Visions of Tomorrow With Computers of Today”: UNC’s First Computer in 1959

Computer_Center_SketchThe process of acquiring the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s first computer began with a 1951 memorandum from William M. Whyburn, then Kenan Professor of Mathematics and Mathematics Department Chairman, to Chancellor R.B. House. Whyburn became interested in digital computing during a conversation with mathematicians at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, where he did consulting work. By 1952, an effort to canvas the campus for interest in digital computing began, which resulted in a 1955 letter to Chancellor House from Dean of the General College Corydon Spruill listing eight academic departments with interest in a digital computer: Economics, Business Administration, Mathematics, Mathematical Statistics, Bio-statistics, Psychology and Psychometrics, and Physics.

With widespread interest established, the administration began seriously considering the type, cost, and location of the computer. In 1955, the estimated cost of a computer was 1.5 million dollars with Venable Hall, the Phillips Hall Annex, and Hanes or Gardner being considered to house the new device. The Phillips Hall Annex was ultimately chosen to house the computer and the accompanying Computation Center. It was also in 1955 that the U.S. Bureau of the Census expressed interest in partnering with UNC to process the upcoming 1960 census data. By 1957, negotiations with both IBM and the Sperry Rand Corporation had entered full swing, with Whyburn remarking, “competition is so keen that either of them will now make tremendous concessions in favor of the University.” In a 1957 report on the Computer Laboratory Project, Whyburn, then serving as Vice President for Graduate Studies and Research of the Consolidated University, gave a sweeping introduction to the digital computer:

Man’s efforts in the field of computation began long before the dawn of history. His progress in this basic endeavor has been a most important factor in, and index to, the advancement of his civilization. The first high-speed computer that we know of consisted of such body appendages as the fingers. The abacus was developed quite early and even today remains an indispensable computing machine for a large segment of the world’s population and in many of the business transactions of the present period. In the development from the fingers through the abacus, the simple adding machine, the slide rule, and the desk calculator with automatic operations and limited storage, to the fantastic digital and analog computers of the present time is to be found the history of a major part of our civilization. Wherever quantitative thinking, speaking, writing, or action is involved, services of computing devices are required. The depth and scope of these quantitative activities are determined, in a large measure, by the versatility, speed, and other attributes of the computing facilities used.

UNC ultimately decided to acquire a UNIVAC 1105 from the Sperry-Rand Corporation due to a large 50% educational discount and being able to own the machine outright versus renting one from IBM. The computer weighed 19 tons and had an estimated value of $2.4 million, which, adjusting for inflation, would today be over $20 million. The Census Bureau and National Science Foundation were the first organizations to rent time on the computer, with the former also paying 50% of the total cost.

Lecture_PamphletIn the summer of 1959, the Computation Center held a series of lectures introducing the new digital computer. These “Courses in Frontier Research in Digital Computers” covered subjects such as programming and artificial intelligence and numerical analysis. These courses drew researchers from across the world, including two lecturers from the Soviet Union. The Computation Center was officially dedicated on March 30, 1960.


5 thoughts on ““Visions of Tomorrow With Computers of Today”: UNC’s First Computer in 1959”

    1. Oops! It looks like we used a caption meant for another image. Thanks for alerting us!

  1. The first computer I programmed on. I was a junior math major. Still have a printout of my ALGOL program.

    1. That’s a good question! We aren’t sure where it is now, but the Daily Tar Heel reported on August 4, 1966 that the UNIVAC 1105 was to be dismantled and taken to a state warehouse in Butner with plans for it to be “made available to the state technical schools…for teaching purposes.” It was replaced with an IBM 360-75 and a smaller IBM 360-30.

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