black and white picture of men in suits surrounding a man working on a type of computer
Friday, April 5, 2013 - 2:35pm

When the University of Iowa’s mainframe computer system moved to new Jessup Hall quarters in 1988, it filled an entire room.

Now, it occupies a corner. Soon, it’ll disappear altogether.
On April 1, the university’s mainframe was powered down for the final time, more than 50 years after the first campus mainframes brought high-performance computing to the UI.
“It’s been a slow decommissioning, and the MAUI launch marked the last phase,” says Rich France, senior systems architect with Information Technology Services. “This is really the end.”
France retired in 2010, but has continued to work a few hours each week during the mainframe’s twilight years. He’s not the least bit sentimental about shutting down the machine.
“In computing, we’re always in transition,” he says. The changes of the past half-century have been truly remarkable, even for France and other UI pioneers who saw from the start the potential of computers.
Research tools
Mainframes powered decades of UI academic and administrative functions. The university’s first computing center opened in 1958 with an IBM 650, the world’s first mass-produced computer (which, foretelling tech’s future, soon became obsolete).
Two of the center’s first customers: James Van Allen and E.F. Lindquist.
Van Allen, professor of physics and astronomy, needed to crunch data from orbiting satellites. Lindquist, professor of education, was looking to score tests taken by thousands of schoolchildren.
Gerard Weeg, who became the computer center’s director in 1964, saw plentiful opportunities for expansion.
“Maybe even more than his predecessors, Weeg believed computing would be important to research and teaching in all disciplines,” says Bill Decker, former associate vice president for research and director of ITS.
Well into the 1970s, computing needed evangelists who could help potential users understand the implications of early programming languages, punch cards, and the terminals scattered around campus.
“I remember being sent out to visit a local engineering firm. They had a big box of computer cards, but no idea what to do with them,” says Rex Pruess, UI senior IT director who like France and Decker was among the university’s early group of programmers. “They treated me like a celebrity.”
A full story on the mainframe history and retirement is available in Iowa Now.