Early computers at UWI Mona

Prof. Emeritus Robert J. Lancashire of UWI Mona read my blog post and emailed me some information relating to the early computers at UWI Mona and I had to share bits of it on my blog for anyone who finds these bits of history fascinating. Please feel free to message me with additional information or corrections or feedback. We really should pay tribute to the pioneers and early efforts that laid the foundation for the progress that we enjoy today. Before I started I did a Google search to see what I could find. Bard tells me that UWI Mona campus established the island's first computer center in 1961. This center initially housed an IBM 1620 computer, which was primarily used for scientific and engineering calculations, which is the information I also have. Some other early computers included another IBM mainframe following the Jamaica census and a Convex 3440 supercomputer (1992).

According to wikipedia, Ronald Cedric Read, born in 1924 and passed away in 2019, was a British mathematician and university professor. Ron (as he was called) shared notes on the differential analyser on 22nd and 23rd May 2008 that I got in my email from Robert. I like the date 23rd of May because I was born on the 23rd of May. The first computer at UWI Mona (back then the University College of the West Indies) was a differential analyser which Ron and Sze-Chit Yeung and Ian Isaacs began building in 1952 or 1953. According to the notes I have, "A differential analyser is an analogue computer, that is, one that is mechanical as opposed to digital. In it, numbers are represented by the rotations of shafts and wheels. It is used to solve differential equations."

The differential analyser when completed was used for demonstration purposes and also, to a small extent for research but not as much as was expected. Due to space constraints the machine had to be dismantled and parts stored but would be later rebuilt around 1960. The Mathematics department later acquired its first digital computer, the IBM1620, which became operational in 1962. According to the bulletin I have, at the time the bulletin was issued, the IBM1620 would have been used extensively for research in Physics and Mathematics, and for statistical calculations. The bulletin went into detail about how the IBM1620 worked and ended with the following, "It is extremely likely then that the University's computer will not only help to further academic research inside the University, but, by virtue of its many applications to planning and optimizing problems, as well as its more obvious uses, will also be an asset to Jamaica in general."

I also have in my possession the resume of Ron as given by his daughter. He studied both at the University of Cambridge and at the University of London. He went from Assistant Lecturer to Lecturer to Senior Lecturer to Reader and finally Full Professor, all these at the UWI between 1950 and 1970. His areas of interest included enumeration problems, especially graphical enumeration, application of computers to combinatorial problems, graph theory algorithms and problems of chemical documentation. He gave many invited talks and attended many invited seminars and was the recipient of several research grants. He was involved in the publication of several books and many research reports and many publications and papers. I was certainly impressed by the extent of his many years of work and the world is certainly better for this.


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