Before Macbook Airs, there were punch cards.

Brian Merlos
A University employee uses new computing equipment in the Computing Center on campus in July of 1967. Back then, students and faculty often waited hours for computers to process. (Courtesy of the Bentley Historical Library)

Back in the late 1950s and early 1960s, University computer programmers wrote their code by punching holes in paper, each hole representing a different letter or number. They then fed the paper into a giant IBM 650 mainframe located in the basement of Rackham Graduate School and waited two hours for the code to process.

If the code had even one mistake, the printer would spit out a mocking error message: a portrait of Mad Magazine’s gap-toothed doofus Alfred E. Newman drawn out in dashes, periods and number signs.

University students didn’t have a fraction of the readily available computer resources around campus today. Computers were an arcane study for University mathematicians and engineers 40 or 50 years ago. The machines could process complicated arithmetic, but were too expensive to have in every laboratory or classroom.

Karl Zinn, a professor emeritus who pioneered campus computing during the ’60s, said one differences, between the way people use computers now and the way they used computers before is that they no longer have to understand the mechanics of what they’re doing.

“People use computers without thinking about the fact that the machines run on strings of ones and zeros,” he said.

While computers remained an obscure study for researchers throughout the ’60s, by 1972, a change began to take place that made computer use more mainstream.

CONFER, a precursor to online forums or discussion boards developed at the University, gave students and their professors the chance to argue politics, professional wrestling, and, of course, find love interests.

The program, which connected computers with an early form of a dial-up connection, was graphically bland – it had black backgrounds and white text. Despite its bare bones appearance, the program remained massively popular and wasn’t discontinued until 1999.

For many students today, waiting in line for two hours to use a computer would seem unthinkable. But even in the mid-to-late 1980s, within the lifetime of most undergraduates, the wait was part of a regular routine in Angell Hall.

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