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Labs of Yore

In the time before personal computers and smartphones, there were computer labs

A student at work in UVA’s first computer lab, which opened in Thornton Hall in 1985. Other popular computer labs on Grounds from the late 1980s to 2011 were in Clemons Library and Cocke Hall. Dan Grogan

On Feb. 4, 1985, UVA’s first computer lab opened inside Thornton Hall. These computers in the Stacks Computing Facility weren’t the first ones on Grounds; engineering professor John Thacker (Engr ’67, Grad ’73) remembers a computer terminal in the basement of the physics building dating back to 1963. But the introduction of the Thornton Hall lab, which was open 24 hours a day, meant professors could teach large classes in computing.

The lab’s arrival  was the culmination of a 15-month project spearheaded by then-engineering professor Avery Catlin (Engr ’47, Grad ’49, ’60), along with Alan Batson, the University’s director of Academic Computing. The $398,000 lab, with its 128 AT&T PC6300s, gave users the ability to “network,” or plug into the University’s data system. Initially, however, most students didn’t have a clue how to do so.

Dan Grogan

“Students came in with minimal knowledge of computers,” says Larry Richards, a professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. “We had to teach them.” Richards taught an 8 a.m. Intro to Computing class in the lab for engineers and nonengineers alike. Every Monday, he’d give a homework assignment due the following Monday. On Sunday nights around 7, students started pouring into the lab. “I’d receive a flurry of emails from students with questions,” he says. “As the night wore on, the emails became more desperate and inflammatory.”

The computers fed into several main printers, which alumni and professors say would often print at random. At times, students fell asleep on a bench near one of the printers while waiting for their print job to appear. Once townsfolk learned of the lab, they wandered in on occasion. Richards remembers walking in one day to find a restaurant owner printing out his menus.

Computer labs grew around UVA throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s, with 24-hour labs in Cocke Hall and Clemons Library. But by 2011, 99 percent of students owned personal computers. The labs across Grounds were dismantled.

Dan Grogan

Katherine Mitchell (Engr ’86) remembers the Stacks Computing Facility opening during her third year. She and her classmates steered clear of the lab, she says, thinking it was overcrowded by first-years; instead they used the mainframe terminals scattered throughout the Engineering School. “We all thought, ‘That won’t last. Personal computers are a fad that will come and go.’ Ha! I guess we missed that ship.”