Wang 300-Series Calculator Memories
By John Lesesne
Sometime around 1966 to 1967, my father was the head of the Chemistry Department at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas. Southwestern is a Methodist institution, and at one time was named Texas University, but later surrendered that name to the now well-known University of Texas at Austin.
My Dad was also chairman of the science division during those years, and he and Dr. Robert M. Brown (the Physics Department Chairman) needed some type of modern calculating equipment for the Chemistry and Physics Departments.
Dr. Brown was one of the pioneers in the development of RADAR in World War II. He also founded Tracor, Inc., years later in Austin Texas. Tracor did some early work with sound digitization and SONAR.
My father and Dr. Brown went to the president of the university and asked for around $20,000 to upgrade the departments with new calculating facilities. The president at the time, Dr. Bill Finch, nearly hit the roof! The proposal included a Wang 320SE for the Chemistry Lab, and a Wang 360SE for the Physics Department (the Physics Department needed the additional memory capabilities the 360SE offered over the 320SE), with four keyboard stations and two CR-1 punched card readers.
The university was getting more and more students, and the science departments had to have a solution that would speed up the calculations related to the lab work the students needed to perform. The students were waiting in line to use the existing old Burroughs and similar machines that were there.
My father, Dr. Brown, the University President, and the board of regents of the school discussed the issues related to purchasing the calculators for over a year, and finally my Dad and Dr. Brown got their wish, and received permission to get the calculators.
Wang Laboratories came in and installed the machines. Four keyboard/display units were set up in the Chemistry Lab, connected to the 320SE electronics package. Two keyboard/display units were set up in the Physics Lab, with two additional keyboard/display units (all connected to the 360SE electronics package) upstairs in the 2nd floor Biology Lab. Later on, a line was run from chemistry department's 320SE up to the Biology lab, giving the physics department two keyboard/display units, and one CP-1 card programmer available at all times. With this arrangement, all of the science department had access to the "new computers", as they were called.
I watched these units being installed by the Wang technicians. I was twelve years old and haunted them all summer. I am sure that the guys from Wang were glad to leave that job and me behind.
About two-thirds of the way through the installation, I walked into the Physics Lab, and the 360SE electronics package was hanging from the pipes in the ceiling of the lab! Dr. Brown was standing there overseeing two Wang technicians stationed on ladders, who were performing the installation process. It turned out that the extension cables for the keyboard units were not quite long enough to get to the student area of the Biology Department, and Wang did not want to extend the cables any further because they thought that they were run too far already.
Dr. Brown was always concerned about making things working reliably. He was concerned about potential problems with the keyboard/display unit in the Biology Lab not working properly because of the long lengths of the interconnecting cable. As a result of the potential problem, he and the Wang technicians came up with the idea of hanging the electronics package near the ceiling to allow the existing cable to reach upstairs to the student area of the Biology Lab without any additional extensions.
Dr. Brown's keyboard unit had a CP-1 Card Programmer attached to it, and the keyboard unit in the Biology lab also had a CP-1 at the time.
After Wang completed the installation of the systems, Dr. Brown tried to show me how to use the CP-1 to program the system. He provided me with a listing of a least-squares fit program, and set me to task of punching out the programming cards for use in the CP-1. I had to punch out almost five cards for that particular program. He would not let me into the Physics Lab to use the CP-1 there, but instead sent me up to the Biology Lab since Biology classes were out of session at the time. I put the first card into the CP-1 and started the program. It went through two cards without incident. It was really exciting seeing the numbers flashing on the display as it ran the program. Then, the machine just stopped. The electronics package had locked up! Apparently I had punched something wrong on one of the cards, and it locked up the electronics package for all four stations! It wasn't two minutes later that I heard the old rickety elevator's door open and close on the first floor. It was Dr. Brown, heading for the Biology Lab, and shortly thereafter, Dr. Brown briskly exited the elevator and asked what I had done to his machine. He told me it was my duty to go get a ladder and climb up to the 360SE electronics package up in the ceiling and press the "PRIME" button to reset the machine! That ladder stayed there below the 360SE electronics package for the next 18 years! From that point on, Dr. Brown insisted that I use the 320SE system in Dad's lab after that incident. At least the 320SE electronics package in the Chemistry Lab was easy to get to - it was located in my Dad's office.
In 1976 or 1977, the university wrote off the Chemistry Department's Wang 320SE and got something new. A friend of mine came to me and told me that my Dad's Wang calculator was being loaded onto a University truck (along with other items) with the final destination being the city dump. I immediately asked my friend to go after the calculators and procure them for me. If he was successful, I was willing to add a bonus to his weekly pay for the trouble.
Fortunately, he was successful, and rescued two keyboard/display units, one CP-1, and the 320SE electronics package. He brought me the equipment, I powered it up, and the machine worked fine, and continued to do so for five more years.
In 1984 or so, the university decommissioned the 360SE system. Dr. Brown had stored it safely, even though it had stopped working some time before. I had asked the university if I could have the machine if they ever wrote it off. They finally contacted me and said that the machine was surplus. Since I had just got out of the hospital recovering from another surgery, I had to leave the 360SE electronics package in my Dad's lab. Because I had to be careful during the recovery from the surgery, I was afraid to carry the unit out of the lab as it was rather heavy. So, I took the circuit cards out of the electronics package to take home with me (they weren't very heavy and were easily carried). I had to wait until I could get the maintenance man to help me carry the remaining heavy part (the card cage, backplane, and power supply) out of the building.
The 360SE electronics package sans it's circuit boards was left on a table in the lab. During a class session, a student had an unfortunate accident where a whole gallon of Hydrochloric Acid was spilled. A quantity of the acid made its way into the electronics package, corroding it beyond repair. Sadly, the electronics package was a total loss (but I still had all the circuit boards!), and was thrown out.
The 320SE system I had rescued earlier had quit working after about five years, and by trial-and-error swapping of some of the cards from the departed 360SE, I was able to get it running again. Unfortunately, some time later, it suffered another failure, and I wasn't able to get it running. The system has been stored away all these years awaiting someone to repair it.
My father passed away seven years ago, and Dr. Brown was buried on his birthday two years ago. Both had retired from the university some twelve years before.
I have strong memories of the days where Dad would let me do my homework on the 320SE system. My Dad used the system to do theoretical chemistry calculations as part of his research.
Over the years that the Wang machines were in service at the university, there must have been over 6,000 students that crunched numbers on the two systems. The volume of students that went through the Chemistry lab was quite high, because in those days, Chemistry 101 was a required class in order to get any degree from the university.
Southwestern is now rated in the Top-10 of small universities. It's ranking before the Wang calculators were installed was lower. These machines marked a change in thinking at the university. The difference these machines made convinced the administration that having modern equipment, and keeping it updated was a very important aspect of having a vital curriculum.
The upward climb of the university's ranking was aided considerably by the discussions over the old and new ways of calculating in the science departments, and by the successful installation of state-of-the-art equipment for both the students and the faculty to use. At that time, I had no idea I was witnessing the beginning of a bright new future for the institution.
As am alumni of the university, I am quite proud of the university's progress since my graduation and my dad's retirement from the institution. They now continually upgrade all aspects of the electronic equipment used at the university.
Why did my father and Dr. Brown go with the Wang 300-series? Because they could do one-touch square roots, ex, had storage registers and a card program reader - all functions that Dr. Brown wanted and truly needed. It was an easy machine for him and the students to use, and the built-in scientific functions made his day. My Dad's needs in his Chemistry Department were also met very well by the 320SE system.
Today, I replaced some worn-out electronic equipment at the university's auditorium. Afterwards, I went over to the Science Building and went through my father and Dr. Brown's laboratories, since I've been thinking a lot about the labs and calculators lately. The room where the 320SE was set up was a closet before it was installed near my Dad's office, and it's now back to being a closet, full of boxes. Down the hall technicians were busy preparing space for a new, top-of-the line magnetic spin resonance machine.
At one time, the two Wang calculating systems were nearly all the high-technology the school had. Even the accounting department used mechanical adding machines when the Wang calculators were purchased. The Wang calculators helped raise the level of understanding of chemical and atomic reactions for the students and science staff at the university and shortened the time they needed to interpret the data from experiments and lab classes. Now, with their new magnetic resonance machine, the students can almost see into atoms, right in in the very same place where the Wang calculators were assisting them in conceptualizing the atomic and chemical worlds so many years ago.