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Features May 2004: Volume 1, Number 2
   

UCSD Pascal and the PC Revolution
by Christine Foster

 
     

Each year, the pilgrims from UC San Diego arrived at Disneyland on the day after Labor Day, precisely at noon. They made their way past Main Street, U.S.A., to the drawbridge at Sleeping Beauty’s Castle. The trip started as a way to mark one man’s birthday, but the group grew to love the tradition and so it stuck. As the participants in this annual ritual grew older, changes in appearance marked the passage of time. T-shirts emblazoned with the names of various technology companies announced new career paths. Gradually, the group expanded to include spouses and babies in strollers, and paunchy stomachs began to replace lean youthful figures.

At the high point of this gathering, in the early 1980s, as many as 150 alumni, friends and family met in the Magic Kingdom. An observer might have guessed they were friends from a sorority or fraternity or old dorm mates. But this group actually bonded in a lab, where they programmed computers, copied code onto floppy disks and shared their product with users around the world. Their endeavor, the UCSD Pascal project, is part of history now. But its influence continues to ripple across the technology landscape, touching—at least in a tangential way—nearly every computer user alive today. “You couldn’t point to many things that we were first at, but . . . it kind of added up to a nice tasteful package,” says Richard Kaufmann, ’78, now technical director of Compaq’s High Performance Technical Computing Group.

To understand why UCSD Pascal was important, you have to transport yourself back to the time before computers were on every desk, before tiny, powerful chips and cheap memory existed. The computers that existed in 1974 were mammoth—the smallest were as large as several file cabinets. Programming required using a keypunch that punched patterns of holes into cards resembling those notorious Florida ballots with the hanging chads. Stacks of the cards were then dropped into a card reader. The card reader was connected to the mainframe computer and it sent electric signals to the computer. The computer was able to translate those signals into the language of zeros and ones and thus run the program. The whole process was called batch programming because the mainframe read things one batch at a time. “In the past, basic programming all the way through advanced computer science education was all based on large batch systems. Virtually no one worked on his own computer,” Kaufmann says. “It was as if you threw a sack of paper over the wall and then waited overnight and the results were thrown back at you over the wall.”

One huge hurdle facing these early computer scientists was how much work it required to get a piece of software to run on a new computer. Each computer required translators to allow each piece of software to run. That meant that programmers had to spend lots of time on these translators, which meant less time working on actual applications. The logistics of this system also meant that those who were clinging to the lower rungs of the computing ladder, such as undergrads, rarely had hands-on computer time. They often spent their time working on punch cards, waiting for their assigned period on a big mainframe and then going back to do revisions later. “Batch” processing of these cards could take hours. Instant feedback simply wasn’t an option.

By 1974, Professor Kenneth Bowles could see a very different future. Bowles, who was then head of the University’s computing center, wondered if it would be possible to get Pascal— a relatively new language that had a bunch of technically attractive features—onto new microcomputers, rather than simply having it run on a big mainframe computer. The microcomputers were the first personal computers that allowed programmers to skip the mainframe entirely. Bowles envisioned a truly interactive teaching environment where students in large, introductory programming classes would get a chance to work on a program, run it, edit it and then try again. He envisioned portable software that would change the way people interacted with computers.

His idea was to create an intermediate language—in computer jargon known as “pseudo-code” or “p-code”—to run on each machine and serve as a uniform translator. That would save programmers a ton of work. It would allow programmers to write something once and have it run anywhere.

Bowles’ concept was radical in more ways than one. Computer programming was in its infancy and microcomputers, like the PDP-11, were just starting to come onto the scene. UCSD in particular had attracted a group of faculty and graduate students who were focused on more esoteric, conceptual questions. Solving a very practical problem that would give a bunch of 18-year-olds easier access to computers just wasn’t on their radar screen.

Bowles recruited graduate student, Mark Overgaard, ’78, and a handful of undergraduates, including Kaufmann, Roger Sumner, ’77, and John Van Zandt, ’86, to help with the first stage of the project—simply getting Pascal to run on these small computers.

Now, three decades later, the men can’t remember any “ah-ha” moment when they knew they had achieved their goal. The progress was incremental. But gradually they became less dependent on the computer center’s machines and more able to program entirely on the microcomputers. Students enrolled in Bowles’s programming class began to learn to code hands-on for the first time ever.

Word began to leak out about UCSD Pascal. Bowles added more students to his crew. The project, which began with just a computer language, expanded until “UCSD Pascal” referred both to a language and to an operating system. In the end more than 70 students participated in the project in some way. Other universities called, asking for copies of the program for their own computers. By 1978, the tiny original cadre had grown to dozens and dozens of students. They packed printed manuals and floppy disks into boxes and began shipping hundreds of copies of UCSD Pascal around the world. Each new user paid a $15 royalty fee to defray the cost of paying the small student stipends.

There is a sweet innocence to the work that Bowles and these students were doing. They created simply to create. “I still don’t quite have a handle on Ken’s precise motivations—academic utility, industry contribution, instruction—it certainly wasn’t money,” wrote Barry Demchak, ’79, in a remembrance sent to the engineering school. “UCSD Pascal may have been the last commercial success that wasn’t about money (for a long time).”

Gradually, however, the issue of money raised its head. The University of California’s administration feared that the burgeoning project might catch the attention of the Internal Revenue Service. The chance that the whole multi-campus system might have to file a tax return or might lose its tax-exempt status was simply too much to deal with. UCSD Pascal had to go.

The University began looking for companies to take over the technology. By the early 1980s, SofTech Microsystems, a subsidiary of Boston-based SofTech, inherited both UCSD Pascal and a chunk of the staff—now graduates and ready for the real world.

This is where the story turns sour for some of the UCSD Pascal alumni. When IBM was considering operating systems for its original personal computers, the company considered three possibilities: one was UCSD Pascal. SofTech’s execs bargained hard. Another one of the competitors saw that getting his software onto the PC was more important than how much he made on this deal. His name: Bill Gates. Some in the UCSD crowd remain convinced that their software was technologically superior to Gates’s MS-DOS, and still mourn that outcome. Overgaard refers to it as “the brass ring that was missed.”

Whether UCSD Pascal was actually better is a matter of some debate. Kaufmann argues that some of the project’s key feature, its portability, made it slower, a liability when fast machines became king. MS-DOS was simply faster. Demchak agrees: “IBM wanted there to be one and only one system. Why would you choose a system whose strength is portability? UCSD Pascal’s strength was a mismatch for IBM’s strategy.”

One option that might have allowed the project to continue was the open source movement, which encourages programmers to put their work into the free domain. The idea is that you can put your work out there and others can improve upon it, but their improvements, too, would be available free to the public. No one could tangentially improve on someone else’s work and then make money from that. They would have to add real value. But open source came well after UCSD Pascal was gone. “I can’t blame the players,” Kaufmann says. “They were just using old rules for a new business.”

UCSD Pascal may not be running on computers all over the world, but its influence remains. A generation of computer programmers made their way to UCSD in part because they were influenced by UCSD Pascal. But they arrived to find no acknowledgement of the project anywhere at the University. Now administrators are hoping to change that. The School of Engineering is organizing a reunion in October to honor Bowles and his students. As UCSD prepares to open a new computer science and engineering building next spring, administrators want to remember the project and its contribution to today’s technology.

Which of UCSD Pascal’s contributions are deemed the most important depends on who you talk to. Technologically speaking, there are clearly UCSD Pascal-like touches in everything from modern PCs and Macintoshes to Sun Microsystem’s JAVA language. Pull-down menus, made ubiquitous by Apple and later Windows, were first created at Xerox Parc, but they were more widely disseminated by UCSD Pascal. Java incorporates an intermediate “p-code,” just like UCSD Pascal did more than 20 years earlier.

Of modern companies, Apple has the most direct link to UCSD Pascal. Barry Demchak can remember one day seeing a rangy-looking fellow sleeping on a piece of foam in the lab. The next day the guy asked him for a disk with the material Demchak was working on. Bowles told Demchak to do it. The man was Bill Atkinson, one of Apple’s earliest employees. Apple’s Lisa project bore many UCSD Pascal-like similarities. Stefan Savage, a professor at UCSD who was still in grade school at the time, can remember his first programming efforts. As a 10-year-old in New York City, he worked on an Apple II that included UCSD Pascal.

Others say the most important contributions are less technological and more the example that Bowles and his students set for future generations. Professor Ramamohan Paturi, now chair of the department of computer science and engineering, says Bowles made a breakthrough by conducting such an entrepreneurial, risky project in academia. He also lauds the extensive student involvement. Certainly few major research projects at any university have involved as many undergraduates in such a substantive way. (Mark Overgaard was one of the only graduate student involved.) “That kind of pioneering spirit provides a living model for our current students to follow,” Paturi says.

For the students who worked on UCSD Pascal, the project provided both a social network while they were in college and a springboard for their careers afterwards. Some practically lived in “the lab”—room 1138 of the Applied Physics and Mathematics building. The group bonded over sticky cinnamon rolls and eclairs from V.G.’s donuts in Cardiff and ordered the Hawaiian special from Square Pan Pizza to tide them through the long nights in the lab. At least two marriages emerged from the project’s ranks.

The students spent so much time together that they even created a rule to limit shoptalk. The “Chung King Loh Convention” was named after their favorite Chinese restaurant in Solano Beach. If someone invoked the convention, then the next person to talk about work had to buy dinner for the whole table. “When you are sitting at a table of 15 people, that’s a notable thing,” says Shillington.

UCSD Pascal may not have made it commercially, but many participants have used their experience to launch careers in technology. In keeping with their entrepreneurial roots, Roger Sumner, Barry Demchak, and John Van Zandt all head small technology companies. Many of those who joined the project later, like Lucia Yandell Bennett, ’78, have gone on to mid-level and senior positions in bigger companies. Shillington has recently taken his career in a different direction: he is running a cybercafé in Encinitas called E Street Café.

The central figure in all of this, of course, is Ken Bowles, affectionately called “KB” by his students. Bowles started his career in the 1950s and 1960s in applied physics, working on radar systems, but gradually got interested in the fledging field of computer software. Bowles had the big-picture vision and the charisma to engage students who had the skills to make it happen. “I’m not sure KB had all this in mind when he started the project,” says Richard Gleaves, ’79, recalling his work in the lab and the social network it provided in a written remembrance, “but without his leadership it would never have happened. For this I am eternally grateful.”

Bowles’s students remember most how he encouraged them. Because of him, they believed that they could write industry-changing software—and they did. They talk about how he taught them to think “outside the box” before industry made it a cliché. And they remember how much he actually cared. He even took the time to counsel a young man on the periphery of the project who was struggling with a drug problem. “Ken is the most intelligent person I have ever met in my life, and one of the kindest. He is truly a great human being,” says Shillington.

Bowles himself, now 75, can remember vividly the height of UCSD Pascal’s success. He was in high demand, speaking by phone with Bill Gates, meeting with Apple’s Steve Jobs, and sending his students’ work around the world. At one point he spoke at a large conference at the convention center in San Jose. On a projector he showed what his kids down in San Diego had accomplished. “People just gasped in amazement at what could be done.” And to think this was created by a group of crazy young adults who took over the canoes and raced each other at Disneyland every September.

Christine Foster is a freelance writer living in the Bay Area.

 

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Ken Bowles

"Some in the UCSD crowd remain convinced that their software was technologically superior to Bill Gates's MS-DOS, and still mourn that outcome."
 

From Zurich to

La Jolla

The Swiss computer scientist Niklaus Wirth developed Pascal in Zurich, Switzerland, in 1969. The first version was implemented on the CDC 6000 in 1970. By 1983, it was an ISO standard language.


But Wirth attributed the success of the language to Bowles and his team. " Pascal gained truly widespread recognition only after Ken Bowles in San Diego recognized that the P-system could well be implemented on the novel microcomputers,” Wirth said in his 1985 Turing Award Lecture. “His efforts to develop a suitable environment with integrated compiler, filer, editor, and debugger caused a breakthrough: Pascal became available to thousands of new computer users who were not burdened with acquired habits or stifled by the urge to stay compatible with software of the past."


Raymond Hardie
Editor
UCSD Alumni Magazine