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Out With the Old, In With the New

By Charlotte D. Smith, Crimson Staff Writer

Though the personal computers available in 1986 were roughly 300 times slower than today’s laptops, they began what would become a technological revolution on Harvard’s campus.

The University first started selling personal computers—including the first-generation Macintosh 128K and the IBM PC/XT—at heavily discounted prices in 1984.

In spite of the wide array of available options, the user-friendly Macintosh—which is often credited with popularizing the modern-day graphical user interface, as well as the use of the computer mouse—became the most widely-used personal computer on campus, according to Computer Science Professor and former Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68.

“It was miserably slow and clumsy, but ... the interface was enticing,” says Lewis, who says he was the first person to own a Macintosh on campus.


In 1985, Lewis decided to teach his course Computer Science 11: “Computers, Algorithms, and Programs” using personal Macintosh computers instead of the older IBM computers, which required students to do their work by means of a mainframe system in the Science Center.

“Harry had the vision that [personal computers were] something that you could actually teach a course on,” says Edward “Ted” D. Nesson ’83, who served as Lewis’s head teaching fellow for CS 11 in the late 1980s. “His vision was a little ahead of its time.”

The Macintosh computers that students used had 128KB of RAM memory, which amounts to roughly .003 percent of the memory available in a Macbook Pro today. The older Mac’s limited memory made it difficult to use, and students had to keep all of their information on floppy disks.

Nevertheless, the novel operating systems of the Macintosh computers, which allowed users to click on icons rather than typing in commands, brought a new element to CS 11.

“You had to beat your way through these esoteric incantations to do things on other computers,” says Penny Rheingans ’85, another CS 11 TF, in reference to the command-line interface of older computers. “[In Macs], there was a ‘magic incantation’ level, but there was also a level where you can use things without having to know these commands. The barrier to entry was much lower for the Mac than it was for other computers at that time.”

The advent of more user-friendly personal computers also increased their appeal to the lay student, who had previously relied primarily on typewriters, Nesson says.

In fact, by 1986, computers had become a coveted academic tool on campus.

“Initially, you didn’t need one if you weren’t in CS. Gradually, though, people bought them for word processing. The fact that you could type something and have it printed out was revolutionary,” he says.


The University faced a challenge in enabling different computers to interact with one another.

Administrators were able to email each other, but the faculty pushed to create a campus-wide network, which was implemented—to a limited extent—in July of 1985.

“The idea was to tie up Sever, University Hall, and the Science Center using a cable system,” says Professor of Pure and Applied Physics and former Dean of the Division of Applied Science Paul C. Martin ’52. “At the time, there was only a cable system that connected the Unix fax machines on campus.”

As personal computer use became more widespread, the University was also able to improve its technological resources.

“Harvard bought about 300 new, faster machines, so students were able to come to the technology center and not have to wait for hours to use a computer,” says Rheingans.

Harvard’s transition into a more technologically advanced age sparked a gradual change in the computing world both on and off campus.

“CS went from being a field made up of a bunch of geeks to a field where we began to see a broader mix. We saw more women in the field who were every bit as qualified as the men,” says Nesson. “It’s a field where if you were good, you could get a good job.”

Looking back on 1986, Martin recalls how his Applied Sciences committee first pondered if and how computers could be used on campus.

“I think that question has largely been answered,” he says. “Computers have become such an integral part of our lives.”

—Staff writer Charlotte D. Smith can be reached at

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FAS ITTechnologyCommencement 2011Class of 1986