Looking Back at a Prototype

It had the honor of occupying its very own room in Electrical Engineering West. With its two thousand germanium diodes and its myriad of blinking lights it looked far more impressive than its table-top descendants. In this, the one-hundredth year of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, it seems appropriate to recall that summer day in 1956 when the Pennsylvania State University launched itself into the fledgling field of computer engineering.

That was the day that PENNSTAC (Penn State Automatic Computer) was born. - It may be more accurate to say that this was the day that PENNSTAC took its first steps. The birth of the University's first working computer actually began two years earlier when faculty and students began wiring the different components of PENNSTAC, which contained parts that had been purchased, donated, and just plain improvised. The entire cost of the computer was about fifty thousand dollars, by no means cheap, but quite remark able considering similar models were retailing for $250,000 at about the same time. The relative low cost of the project was testament to the shrewdness of the faculty and students of the time. Dr. Arthur H. Waynick, head of the Department of Electrical Engineering during PENNSTAC's development, and Professor Harold I. Tarpley, who would become head of the University's first computer lab, used only $25,000 of University money. Assistance came from the National Science Foundation, which donated, $17,000 and from IBM and General Electric, each of which donated various components.

Some alumni may recall the student's role in PENNSTAC's development since students at the time helped wire the machine. Dr. William Adams, head of the Engineering Computer Laboratory, was one of the students. According to Adams, students were given fifty cents an hour for their labor. Adams later did a doctoral thesis on the computer. Many others would follow.

It is interesting to note just how far computer engineering has progressed in the thirty-six years since PENNSTAC blinked to life. According to Adams, this early prototype had only about one tenth the power of modern day PCs. Because PENNSTAC ran on vacuum tubes, it had to have a built in cooling system.

"We could only run PENNSTAC for a few hours at a time before it overheated and we had to shut it down," recalls Adams. The model was also somewhat difficult to operate since it could only be inputted by using binary numbers. Users at the time had to know the inner workings of their computer in order to work with it. "It wasn't exactly user friendly," says Adams.

These drawbacks, though, were common to all early computers. While PENNSTAC quickly became obsolete (It was replaced by a better DEC-10 model in 1968, a unit still operating in a limited role in the basement of EE West) it is important to recognize its trailblazing role within the University

There is some evidence to suggest that PENNSTAC was the first computer to be put to commercial use at an American university. PENNSTAC did computations for the School of Agriculture that helped Pennsylvania farmers predict season yields. PENNSTAC, like all of the fledgling computer systems, was a prototype for better things to come. Students could look at some of the short comings of the system and figure out ways to improve them. It was a tool for learning, as well as problem solving. When PENNSTAC was replaced in 1968, it had already accomplished its main purpose - launching Penn State into the computer age.

For several years the control panel of PENNSTAC was kept on display in Hammond Building as a beeping, flashing reminder of an earlier era in the Department of Electrical Engineering.

Today, it is kept in several storage crates in the basement of Electrical Engineering West under the watchful eye of Dr. Adams. The name plate remains as do some of the separate components of the system. Within those boxes lies an important piece of Penn State history, a testament to the hard work and savvy of students and faculty who built a state-of-the-art computer for a little under $50,000.