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History of Computing at UMass Amherst: An Overview

Central computing came to the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 1961, triggered by a need for computational computing in the Chemistry Department. The Research Computing Center (RCC) was founded that year. In those early years, computers were large mainframes administered and used by experts; jobs were submitted via stacks of paper cards.  Most people who needed computers were scientists doing massive calculations.

As the student population on the Amherst campus tripled in the 1960s, the demand for computing and capacity also grew. In 1967, the RCC was renamed the University Computing Center (UCC) to reflect the growing use of computing on campus. The same year, the UCC developed a major innovation, the UMASS timesharing system, which allowed faculty and students to input a program in BASIC, FORTRAN or SMALL and receive an output.  UMASS stood for Unlimited Machine Access from Scattered Sites and opened the door to computing as we know it today.

More innovations followed. In 1984, the UMass Amherst connected to other universities with BITNET, an early point-to-point network predating the Internet that provided email and group gaming.  PLATO was an early online learning environment, paving the way for decades more of computer aided-instruction, including OWL, SPARK, and Moodle.  In 1986, the UCC established the Microcomputer Resource Lab to allow students, faculty, and staff to experiment and evaluate the new and exciting world of microcomputers and associated software.  The UCC opened its first microcomputer classroom in 1987.

Thus began a growth spurt in UCC’s support of microcomputers and their users on campus.  To respond to the demand for repair of the microcomputers that departments were buying, UCC opened PC Maintenance in 1987. By 1990, the need for support for hardware and software grew beyond the abilities of the Microcomputer Resource Lab, and Personal Computing Support Services (PCSS) was established. PCSS’s services soon grew to include consulting on hardware purchases, support and sale of software, and workshops on software usage.

At the same time, the need for more robust communication came to the fore, and in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the campus launched a massive project to replace its aging telephone system and wire the campus for a modern computer network. In the 90s, Internet connectivity between the campus and the world was via a 56 kilobit-per-second connection. The University now participates in two consortia that provide multiple 10 Gigabit-per-second connections to and from campus.

Late in the 1990s, the department, now known as the Office of Information Technologies (OIT), expanded its mission to meet the computing, instructional technology, and telecommunications needs of the University. We now provide students, faculty, and staff with high-speed wired and wireless Internet access, email and telephone service, free and low-cost software, computer classrooms, and support on a host of computing issues. We also maintain our own student information system (SPIRE), two learning management systems (SPARK and Moodle), and other administrative applications, including a data warehouse and an imaging system.

The computing environment at UMass Amherst has changed substantially the last fifty years. From modest IBM machines (with 64k of memory) that served a specialized clientele in the 1960s to a wide array of technology services designed to help students, faculty and staff, computing at UMass Amherst has evolved to keep pace with technological innovation and the growing needs of our campus.