Waikato University crest

Department of
Computer Science
Tari Rorohiko

Computing and Mathematical Sciences

History

The Computer Science Department celebrated its 25th year in 1998. For most of this time it had a strong link to the School of Science. The following account probes the development of the Department from its modest beginnings in the early 1970s.

Prior to 1973 computing on campus had been administered by a small unit of academics. This unit was led for a number of years by Dr David Swain and then Dr John Turner and Chris Galbrath. This unit administered access and research on the IBM 1130. The old IBM 1130 and many other historical artifacts of the early days can still be found today powerless in the hallways of G basement.

The development of computing at Waikato was up to this point lacking direction. It was decided that to establish a computing frontier there would have to be an appointment to manage computing within the campus and to launch the Department of Computer Science in taught courses also.

1973

The launch of computing into the campuses of New Zealand was a priority within the Education Ministry. In 1973 the installation of Burroughs main-frame B6700 model computers was announced for every university in the country. As the deal was closing it was apparent that Lincoln College and Waikato University were being omitted from the deal. Waikato was being expected to make do with the current IBM 1130 and a link to Auckland University’s machine. Neither Auckland nor Waikato had yet formed a faculty directly related to computing, so it was felt that the needs of the two could be met by one system. The establishment of a director/academic position to administer the formation of computer teaching at Waikato and the administration of contracts was now essential for any establishment of computing in the near future.

Before his appointment started D.L. Smith had arranged interviews and appointed another teaching member, A.J. Paine, to join him on his arrival. Later in November D.L. Smith took up the position which would mark the foundation of the Department of Computer Science and the Computer Services division at The University of Waikato.

The initial home for Computer Science and Computer Services was the temporary building TB1 (now known as Kopuroa).

1974

The prescriptions for the courses were laid out and the first two courses were offered in the Calendar of 1974. A close association existed from day one with the fairly new Management Studies Department and the School of Science. It was intended that the subject would be independent and relate to the whole university.

Shortly after the start of 1974 teaching, the two original staff were joined by two further colleagues - S. Petraska from Wellington, and Mark Apperley, a researcher and computing engineer from Imperial College, University of London. The Burroughs deal was quickly becoming a nightmare. The contracts were still unsigned as Waikato would not accept the link in its current state. The plan had shown four terminals connected to a DC1200 unit and this would be linked to Auckland via a modem connection. However, the terminals never worked as specified and so were reconfigured. Waikato was presented with a modem link and DC1200 but this would only operate a card punch/reader and line-printer. Auckland University was still quite disorganised in the computing field and still had no formally organised Computer Science Department. Thus Waikato was getting very little service from the Auckland site and the services at the Waikato end fell short of expectations by a mile or two.

The international reputation of the Burroughs company was on the line as Waikato would not sign for the Burroughs machine. Ministerial pressure was being applied and although very dissatisfied Waikato University allowed the University Grants Commission to sign the deal closing it. This still allowed Waikato to be seen making it public that it had never accepted the state of the machine.

The DC1200 was a bottleneck from day one. Enrolments crept towards 800 students. Two key punch operators working full time were getting snowed under. COBOL programs took 3-4 days to get punched and verified before being sent up the line to Auckland to be compiled and run. Then there was the 1-2 day delay before the results were received. The error rate was high and the chances were that even though the programs were punched twice to check the input - they would invariably come back with compiler errors and weeks might pass before a single program would successfully compile and run.

1976

In 1976 the Computer Science staff and those administering the system could no longer occupy the small space in TB1. So a split was made and the teaching staff moved across campus to offices in the Teachers’ College. D.L. Smith remained with the Computer Centre, thus causing a rather large rift in the management of the Computer Centre and the leadership of the Computer Science staff some distance away. This was remedied to some extent when a small temporary block was built next to B-Block. The block has subsequently been removed and the site is now occupied by yet another temporary block (BX) occupied by the Payroll Section of the University. This measure would suffice until new office space could be located.

Under poor computing conditions the Computer Science Department fought to make another computer deal. Due to the stand Waikato had made on the Burroughs deal it was unlikely that the Education Ministry would look favourably on requests for funding, so in 1976 a small deal was contemplated and lawyers sought to approve the next purchase. Waikato Computer Science would buy a brand new PDP 1170 at a cost of $548,000. It would of course do this with absolutely no ability to pay the bill. At 11:00 the Computer Science Department brought the PDP, and then at 11:01 it was sold for exactly the same amount to a merchant bank. At 11:02 it was then signed back to the University on a rent-to-buy contract. Thus had the Ministry been cheated - or that’s how the papers saw it - and they were furious. The University had bought the computer, thus avoiding sales tax; sold it, thus being able to pay the company it brought it from; and established a low cost mechanism to hold and run a new PDP.

Although disliked by some members of staff, more possibly for the fact that they had not been consulted, the PDP 1170 was a marvel. It had a superior timesharing mechanism which did not favour the number-crunchers. This made it ideal for a large user-based environment like the University. Of course there were those that felt the machine was lacking in many areas compared to other timesharing systems, but these were usually number-crunchers.

1977

Room was now found for the Computer Science staff in B-Block. The Director of the Computer Centre was needed with his academic colleagues in Computer Science and rejoined them.

The Computer Science Department at Waikato was now very attractive. Not only was this the first educational institution in New Zealand to have such an advanced machine, it was amongst the first timesharing system in the whole of New Zealand. The system was finished off with the addition of some research funds to buy the Tektronics terminals and printer.

Courses at Part III level were offered in 1977 for the first time. The 1977 calendar had no less than 14 Computer Science papers.

  1. 27.101 Introduction to computing
  2. 27.201 Computer systems
  3. 27.202 Systems and practical computation
  4. 27.203 Data structures and fundamental algorithms
  5. 27.204 Numerical analysis I
  6. 27.231 Management systems
  7. 27.301 Computing machines and communication systems
  8. 27.302 Information systems and systems design
  9. 27.303 Operating and programme development systems
  10. 27.304 Numerical analysis II
  11. 27.305 Applied systems analysis, design and control
  12. 27.306 Programming languages
  13. 27.307 Information science
  14. 27.309 Special topics

The acceptance of Computer Science around the Schools of Studies was growing rapidly. These courses, especially those at third year level, could be taken as an integral part of degrees in Science, Social Science, Education and Management. In fact the only School which was maintaining a stand against the Computer Science Department was Humanities, which was a shame as Linguistics and Philosophy were to form an integral part of Artificial Intelligence.

With Management on one side of Hillcrest road and Computer Science on the other the gap between the two Departments widened ever increasingly. Computer Science was being viewed as a Science subject from almost everywhere but within Science. As Management now began to oppose Computer Science’s growth the strength in Information Systems, once held by Computer Science, rapidly declined.

1978

In 1978 D.L. Smith took a sabbatical in which he investigated the future of the computer purchases for the University of Waikato. His recommendations came down to selecting another PDP from the 10 Series, or moving to the newer architecture of the VAX series. The later would be his recommendation and would drive the Computer Centre for the next 15 years.

1979

Since his appointment in 1973, D.L. Smith had acted in the capacity of Director of the Computer Centre, and Head of the Department of Computer Science. In preparation for growth these posts were divided in 1979.

D.L. Smith first chose to stay with the Computer Centre, however he had opposed the establishment of using the University computer as a payroll system and was not favoured for the position. Remaining as Academic Director D.L. Smith was confirmed in his position as Head of Computer Science and it was decided to appoint a Manager for the Computing Centre. The current senior staff member of the centre was Chris Potter. Chris had established a payroll section where he had worked previously, so was an opportune choice for the VC to finally establish his payroll section at the University. Unfortunately Chris had had first hand experience with the establishment of a payroll section and to the disgust of the VC opposed the move more strongly than D.L. Smith. Thus the establishment of the third computer division in the University called Payroll Services was formed.

The winter of 1979 was just too much for the original roof of A-Block. The Library (in A-Block) was in threat of becoming a librarian’s nightmare. The new Library was soon completed and the books transferred as quickly as possible. The structure of A-Block was quite sturdy, so massive renovations were undertaken to the roof. Computer Science and Maori Studies staff now moved into the newly renovated A-Block. I believe it was some years before Computer Science and Maori Studies staff stopped looking up every time it rained.

During the first few months the Maori Studies Department began to decorate the windows, posts and walls of the building. A Computer Science student decided to do the same at the Computer Science end of the building. Approval for the establishment of wall hangings was a painstaking process which the Chairperson declined to enter at this time. As the Maori Studies Art spread they finally came to the wall where .... hold on, where did this come from? In the stairwell, between the ground floor and 1st floor A-Block (Library end), had appeared a computer printed image from the Escher collection. Printed entirely of characters on a line printer the image covered a 6 x 8 foot area. In the interests of avoiding conflict the Maori Studies Department declined to make any issue of the fact and the picture remains there today.

 

Photo of staff in a computer lab

This photo, taken in the late 1970s, shows TB3.26 and the newly installed PDP 11/34 system used by the Computer Science Department.
The photo also shows from left to right Rex Croft , John Burton, Bill Rogers (now Lecturer in Computer Science), and
Mark Apperley (now Professor and Dean of the School of Computing and Mathematical Sciences).

1980

In the 1980s Computer science continued to grow and the labs began to fill not only parts of TB3 but also A-Basement and the dark basement rooms of K-Block. And thus it would remain until G-block was constructed. This did not happen as soon as expected and the building of G-block would not be realized for over a decade. The PDP’s would be replaced by ever increasing VAX systems. The presence of Digital on campus was going to last for some time yet.

1983

In 1983 the control of the Computer Centre was released from Computer Science. Chris Potter became the Director of the Computer Centre. He and the staff went on to develop a facility which would in years to come not only provide computer power across campus but setup networks, sell home systems to staff and students, provide a maintenance facility and provide technical support and training across campus.

1984

1983 also saw D.L. Smith step down from the Chair in Computer Science. The position was advertised and the first Professor in Computer Science was appointed. Professor E.V. Krishnamurthy, a mathematician, took the Chair in 1984 and administered the Department under the advice of D.L Smith.

1985

With the appointment of the new Vice-Chancellor, Professor W.G. Malcolm, came a turning point in the direction of Computer Science. Dr John Turner and Dr Kevin Broughan, both mathematicians, had a strong interest in Computer Science. The new VC was also a mathematician, as was the newly appointed Professor Krishnamurthy. With the support of Dr Ian Graham and Keith Hopper in Computer Science a coupling of these departments was formulated. A new degree was established combining Mathematics and Computer Science into one School. Within this new School the Computer Science Department continued to flourish. More courses, more staff, more degrees offered. The link to Science remained with the three year degree BSc while the School of Computing and Mathematical Sciences offered the BCMS, a four year honours degree.

1989

The wait for G-Block finally came to an end in 1989. The Departments of Computer Science and Mathematics together rejoiced in the opening of G-Block with its new labs and office space. Computer Services also rejoined Computer Science again, if only geographically. The Departments filled the new halls with great enthusiasm. The first-year labs in TB3 were still to remain there, however. The expansion of the enrolments at first-year were such that G-Block was simply not going to hold everything. The construction of the School of Law had begun to place demand on the shifting of the first-year labs out of TB3. Thus began the planning for R-Block to house large computer labs for Computer Science and other Science subjects.

1992

In the summer of 1992 Computer Science was evicted from TB3 with R-Block still incomplete. The computers were placed in storage while the Academic year approached fast. The first two stories of R-Block were in place and the roof had just been built. Then to the amazement of all, floor three was being added over the top of the previous roof, thus giving the building a twin roof. Finally the internal roof was removed and the building opened for the teaching to begin. The students dodged construction workers for some time until the building was complete, apart from an unsightly half-painted roof which annoyed us as it could be seen from the G-Block tea room. Despite the protesters Lockwood Smith, Education Minister, was invited to open the building (or in some views - to get the roof painted).

1993-2003

More recent times have seen the return of Mark Apperley as Head of Department and the addition of Prof. Ian Witten and Prof. John Cleary from Calgary. There have also been numerous new appointments as the department has expanded.

In 1999, the VC proposed that several schools should be merged into faculties, including merging the School of Computing and Mathematical Sciences into the School of Science and Technology. Fortunately, this proposal was overturned, after a flurry of letters to the VC and a court case by the AUS union.

The Department celebrated its 30th Anniversary on the 5th December 2003.

2004

The Department is ranked first in New Zealand in the Mathematical and Information Sciences and Technology sector in the Performance-Based Research Funding (PBRF) exercise by the Tertiary Education Commission.

Staff

Accounts of developments in the computer industry are often mundanely embroidered with flourishes of computer purchases. While this may seem interesting at first glance many of those machines are now found neglected and abandoned. These machines have dated as the advancement of technology in the field proceeded. Where computers were once great monoliths of power, most today, although more powerful and fitting on the desktop, are simply regarded as tools of the trade.

While these accounts of machine advancements may seem interesting to look back upon, it is the people within a Department which really give it meaning. We found it of interest to look back and see who had come and gone. It is interesting to note that some 40 Lecturers have been involved in the Computer Science department over the last 21 years, and that just over half that number are currently serving in the Department.