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Father of Computing at Virginia

From Virginia Engineering
April 1, 2000

Alan Batson, now professor emeritus, remembers when the University had one computer

When Alan Batson established the University's first computer center in 1960, his qualifications were unique. "I was the only one at the University who had ever used a computer," he says. "I had used computers in England but had decided to put all that behind me and pursue a respectable career in physics." Fate led him down a different path, and today he enjoys the unofficial but undisputed title of "Father of Computing at the University of Virginia."

Physics professor Frank Hereford - already recognized in his late 30s as a faculty leader and ultimately to become the University's fifth president - lured Alan Batson from his British homeland to Virginia. Hereford saw a worthy colleague in Batson, who had earned his Ph.D. at the University of Birmingham, England, where Hereford spent a year as a Fulbright scholar.

In his first weeks at Virginia, computers were in the background while Batson focused on physics research. Then he and chemistry professor Paul Schatz were asked to conduct a study of how U.Va. might acquire and use a computer. Past efforts had failed to win a National Science Foundation grant to fund such a purchase for the University.

"In those days it was literally a computer," Batson recalls. "If a university had a computer it had only one, which was a resource for the entire faculty and graduate students. You had to reserve time on the computer."

Batson and Schatz's efforts resulted in the University's first computer, a Burroughs 205 mainframe. The size of a small school bus, it relied on banks of vacuum tubes and had less computing power than the desktops students bring to Grounds these days - but it was a wonder for its time, and people were awed.

Once the University had a computer, the question became: Who would manage the computer center? Who else but the man who advocated its purchase?

"I figured I had stuck my neck out so much, I ought to volunteer to run it," says Batson, "especially since there was nobody else who knew how to do it. So that's how both I and the University got into computing."

Batson remained on the physics faculty for another seven years. He taught a few computer classes through the mathematics department, part of the College of Arts & Sciences, but well into the 1960s, there was no such thing as a computer science program in either Arts & Sciences or Engineering.

Lured to Engineering
In the mid-1960s, the Engineering School's dean, Lawerence Quarles, recruited Robert Owens from the National Science Foundation to head the school's applied mathematics program. Owens said he would come, but only as the chair of a Department of Applied Mathematics and Computer Science. Owens spent some months planning the new computer science program, only later to become a separate department, and began assembling a small faculty.

"Bob persuaded me to make myself an honest man and come over from the College as a faculty member in Engineering," says Batson. "I came over in 1967 as professor of computer science. We had two graduate students to start with, and things developed from there." One of those two graduate students was William Wulf, who went on to become an internationally known computer scientist, a member of the Univeristy of Virginia faculty, and, recently, president of the National Academy of Engineering. In his role as professor emeritus of computer science, Batson now shares an office with that first student of his.

The Early Years
In his roles as teacher, researcher, and director of the central facility, Batson nurtured computers as they came of age at the University of Virginia. Faculty members throughout the University, many of them skeptical or scornful at first, learned to use and respect these new academic tools. Bit by bit, significant work came to count on them.

"Early in the 1960s we worked with people in the Department of Government on reapportionment studies that depended on computers and became quite influential," says Batson. "Once, the U.S. Supreme Court waited for weeks to review the results of one of our studies before rendering a decision. We did a lot of work with the College faculty, through the Institute for Advanced Technologies and Humanities" - a center founded by Batson, William Wulf, Ira Jacobson (now president of Embry Riddle Aeronautical University) to introduce computers into traditional liberal arts research fields. "One of my favorite projects," says Batson, "was producing the first computer-generated book ever made, a concordance of the works of Racine, which I worked on with French professor Bryant Freeman, now at the University of Kansas."

During the 1980s, mainframe computers gave way to scattered groups of personal computers, then to networks. Some of the early PCs on Grounds were built from kits by faculty members. Alf Weaver, now a faculty expert on electronic commerce, was among the hands-on pioneers who employed his soldering skills for the computing cause.

As he helped develop the computer science curriculum, Batson was also still serving as Director of Academic Computing. He resigned that position after a dozen years in 1972, but was later asked in 1980 to "reinvigorate" the central computing operation, a request that kept him at the helm for another 13 years.

A Vision of Networks
Under Batson's leadership, networked computing developed, with an initial network of 100 machines at various units of the University. During a recent luncheon honoring Batson, a member of the President's staff recalled that the administration listened to his vision of networking, approved funding, and "then held our breath." In time, the central computing operation he created became Information Technology and Communication, now a major division of the University.

Batson's contributions to computing are legion, but one program is most memorable for its formal opening ceremony. Convinced that a computer laboratory at the Engineering School was essential as a student resource, he led a campaign for support from AT&T. His success resulted in gifts-in-kind from AT&T, machines that helped turn the old library stacks into the Avery Catlin Computer Lab in Thornton Hall.

"I raised sheep as a hobby in those days," Batson recalls, "and always took a week off in February because it was lambing time. They said I had to be there for the ceremony, which was in the middle of that period."

"I showed up, but was nearly asleep on my feet. I had been up half the night helping a ewe deliver her lamb."

No longer a sheep breeder or a full-time faculty member, Alan Batson does a bit of gardening and returns as professor emeritus to the Engineering School, contributing to the computer science program "wherever they may find my services useful."

Flanked at his desk by photos of the huge old early mainframe computers and artifacts such as a plug-in section of vacuum tubes, he has the satisfied look of a man who has loved his hands-on role in bringing computing to U.Va. Things have evolved beyond the early days, when a few bold spirits like himself saw what could be done and just did the job. Nowadays, administrators call in squadrons of consultants before they can establish any new computing project. Even that step in evolution brings some satisfaction to Alan Batson, one imagines. He has watched his vision exceed everyone's expectations - except perhaps his own.

Original Article | Local Copy


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