Eye on the Quads

Digital Diehards

A search for the oldest computers on campus.

Ancient clams and trilobites aren't the only fossils you'd find within Henry Hinds Laboratory—just ask geophysical sciences senior research associates Ian Steele and Joe Pluth. Together, they operate what are probably the two oldest functioning computers on campus.

Steele's machine, a Digital Equipment Corporation PDP 11/73, dates from 1985 but runs almost every day, controlling an electron microprobe or an X-ray diffractometer. Pluth's PDP 11/23 is even older—it was manufactured in 1982—but it's only used infrequently to run a different X-ray diffractometer.

Why keep around a quarter-century old computer with less memory than your average cell phone? It's extraordinarily reliable, Steele says. “Only a power shutdown will stop it.” Besides, replacing the PDP 11/73 would also mean replacing the equipment it interfaces with, which would cost roughly $70,000. “I retire in four years. I'll let the next person worry about that.”

The older PDP 11/23 will be the first to go; the lab where it sits is scheduled to be cleared and revamped for a new faculty member, and Pluth retires this summer. He came to Chicago in 1971 to study rocks returned from the moon by the Apollo program and has worked most of his Chicago career with that computer. “This is our last stand,” he says with a trace of wistfulness. “This is the end of an era.”—Benjamin Recchie, AB'03

See more photos of ancient computers taken by Avi Schwab, AB'03 on Flickr.