There were no smoking six-shooters and creaky saloon doors in the Wild West of Computing. Instead, there was the unearthly buzz of electric hums and high-pitched beeps of ancient (well, 1950s-’60s) computers whirring to life as the digital realm was being born, to a large extent, in the labs and classrooms of Carnegie Mellon University.
This fascinating era of technological innovation is chronicled via Cut Pathways, a podcast series from Carnegie Mellon University. It’s being created by musician and filmmaker Dave Bernabo (who made the documentary “Moundsville”), and co-host Katherine Barbera, director of the university’s Oral History Program.
This new season, titled The Wild West of Computing, starts with a blast of whirring, beeping, blooping, burbling sounds from Bernabo’s collection of synthesizers — many of them created with local analog synth makers Pittsburgh Modular.
The technological Wild West was a time of constantly expanding frontiers before law and custom had a chance to catch up with computers.
In 1956, Carnegie Tech started it all by establishing the Computation Center.
“They believed in chaos,” says Jesse Quatse, a computer science researcher at CMU in the 1960s. “There weren’t any rules. That was one of the great, significant parts of this university, and the reason why it has become so great: freedom, nothing like it.”
In the first podcast episode, Raj Reddy — a legend in the field of computer science who arrived at CMU in 1969, and cofounded the Robotics Institute in 1979 — discusses the history of computing. Reddy goes way back before Carnegie Tech even existed, to the “father of the computer” Charles Babbage — who designed the difference engine in the 1820s — and describes the use of punch cards for calculations, which were in turn inspired by 1800s mechanical weaving looms.
The foundational figure Alan Perlis created a community that gradually identified itself as “computer scientists,” and was shaped by giants of the field such as Allen Newell and Nobel Prize-winner Herb Simon. They took charge of the early computers, the giant 5,000-pound IBM 650 and the Bendix G-20, and had to figure out what to do with them.
“They were used in the business school for doing calculations,” notes Bernabo. “And as these computers were around, more and more people would start using them and expand their capabilities.”
The question became, he says, “What is computer science? What do we want to make it? It was ‘the Wild West,’ meaning there’s this freedom to explore and experiment.”
As the name suggests, it also was a turbulent time. The group started getting ARPA grants (Advanced Research Projects Agency, an arm of the Department of Defense, which developed ARPANET, the precursor to the Internet) in the 1960s. In the 1970s, Perlis left and a budget crunch caused CMU to fire 40 staffers. That meant the culture at the school’s Computer Science Department had to be rebuilt from scratch.
Pamela McCorduck, a pioneer in defining what would become known as artificial intelligence, passed away just weeks ago (she was interviewed in 2018). Upcoming episodes will be dedicated to her and to Clint Kelly, a former DARPA (the later name for ARPA) director, who talks about testing autonomous vehicles in the 1980s — which led directly to the autonomous vehicle boom in Pittsburgh today.
While it documents the major timelines, the podcast also shows how early CMU computer science pioneers had fun in suitably eccentric ways.
“There’s a fun story about the cheese co-op they formed in the mid-70s,” says Bernabo. “Everybody would pull their money, and someone would go down to the Strip District to buy big wheels of cheese.”
The department Coke machine was an unwitting witness to history, too. When the Coke machine was refilled, the bottles would be cold, but they didn’t stay that way for long. So the group programmed the machine to signal when it was newly refilled, so they would know a cold Coke awaited them. It was the debut of the Internet of Things.
So far, there are two podcast episodes, out of a planned six, chronicling the prolific time period from 1956 to 1987.
“Cut Pathways really is just a tool for people to know that this archive of interviews exists,” says Bernabo. “So we’re up to about 30, nearly 40 interviews there; they range between one and seven hours long.” It is, he says, “a trail of breadcrumbs back to the archives.”
The first season of the Cut Pathways podcast, which covers a broad array of CMU-related topics, is also available. It includes the fascinating tale of World War II codebreaker Julia Parsons.