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May 2007: Volume 4, Number 2

UCSD Pascal
by John Vanzandt, Muir '76, M.S. '79, Ph.D. '86

If you have any stories about your years at UCSD, we would love to hear them.
Email the editor

I’m not quite sure why, but we really never drank Coke and 7-Up—it had to be Dr. Pepper or Mountain Dew. And the cans piled up everywhere. I remember creating a floor-to-ceiling archway to my section of the office out of the empties—ah, the freedom of youth. Such were the programmers of the UCSD Pascal Project, a small cadre of students who worked together tirelessly to bring Ken Bowles’s vision to life.

Ken was an amazing professor—more practical than researcher. He looked like the canonical engineer of the 1950s with crew-cut hair and horn-rim glasses. But in a time when computer programming was taught with punched cards, reams of paper and a single massive computer, he envisioned thousands of students learning on individual computers and interacting directly by keyboard and screen­—before the invention of the Apple Computer and IBM PC.

At the beginning, we didn’t even have a single office—the three of us had offices spread around the AP&M building. There were classes by day and programming by night. Ken had first approached Mark Overgaard, M.S. ’78, as the key person to make the p-code interpreter. Then the two of them came to Roger Sumner, Revelle ’77, and me to write the compiler, file system and editor. We were too young to know that it couldn’t be done. At that time, the mainframe in the computer center was a Burroughs B6700 computer. The equivalent software on that machine was developed and maintained by hundreds of programmers, with a million lines of code. But we didn’t think about that because Ken said, “It can be done, and by the way, I need it this year.”

A typical day: up by 10, on campus by 11. A class or two later, lunch with one of the Pascal gang, then working on the project till dinnertime. Dinner meant pilgrimages to either Boll Weevil in La Jolla, Petricca’s Italian place in University City or some cheap burger joint. Then back to work till 2 a.m. Dr. Pepper kept us company through it all. The night usually ended with a trip to VG’s Donuts for a fresh batch before hitting the sack.

Our lives centered on the AP&M building that was the Computer Center. People had to be in the card-punch room punching cards with their programs or data, running the programs—which meant putting the decks of hundreds or thousands of punched cards in the card reader—and then waiting  for the computer to spit out reams of paper with the result. So the first floor of AP&M was always a hive of activity.

Like all geeks, during our downtime we played computer games … on the teletype. What the heck is that? you might ask. Picture this: manual typewriters tapping out characters on an endless scroll of paper. The goal was to kill monsters and collect treasure. It was painfully slow but in those days we didn’t know any better so it was kind of cool.

I learned more from working on that program than I did from my formal classes. The classes were an extension of the work, not the other way around. Ken had the view that undergraduates could work on serious projects and this has since defined my whole approach to hiring—I look first at the projects that a graduate has been involved with, then the grades.

It is amazing how Ken Bowles’ little engine that could has impacted the world of computing. Almost every computer programmer I have met in the past 30 years knows of UCSD Pascal. For many, it was their first exposure to computers. Being a part of that is the strand that ties us all together. That, and drinking Dr. Pepper.

John VanZandt, Ph.D., is president and founder of CEO Softcenters Inc., a software development company specializing in Java applications and iPhone apps with offices in California, China and Malaysia. He is the author of the book, Parallel Processing in Information Systems.