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ECE alumnus Wayne Lichtenberger donates a piece of computing history to the University

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By Shawn Adderly, ECE ILLINOIS
November 29, 2010

  • ECE alumnus Wayne Lichtenberger donated four ILLIAC I programming manuals to the University Archives.
  • ILLIAC I was the first supercomputers built at the University of Illinois.
  • After completing his PhD, Lichtenberger went on to a career in computing that has included time at UC-Berkeley, Cisco Systems, and Hewlett Packard.

Last summer ECE alumnus Wayne Lichtenberger (BSEE ’55, MSEE ’56, PhD ’61) returned to campus to leave behind a piece of computing history. Traveling from his home in Washington State, he brought with him four manuals detailing the contents of the ILLIAC I computer library routines as they existed in 1959.

While at the University archives, ECE alumnus Wayne Lichtenberger (BSEE '55, MSEE '56, PhD '61) met with University Archivist William Maher (right), who brought out some ILLIAC material from the archive's collection. The books in the foreground are the code books Lichtenberger was donating.
While at the University archives, ECE alumnus Wayne Lichtenberger (BSEE '55, MSEE '56, PhD '61) met with University Archivist William Maher (right), who brought out some ILLIAC material from the archive's collection. The books in the foreground are the code books Lichtenberger was donating.

On July 30 he turned the manuals over to the University Archives for safe keeping, and perhaps for computer historians to peer through.

“I kept them for over 50 years. I didn’t know what to do with them,” he said. “I thought maybe they would be of interest to someone,” he said.

Lichtenberger, who received all three of his degrees from Illinois, had been an exceptional student. While at the Library, he found his name on the Bronze Tablet for the class of 1955. The Bronze Tablet remains one of the highest honors the University bestows on undergraduates.

Lichtenberger didn’t become involved in computing until he was already a graduate student. His involvement began in the fall of 1957, and he was joined by his friend since freshman year, Donald Bitzer, who later became an ECE faculty member and who was the co-inventor of the plasma display.

ILLIAC I was truly at the infancy of computing. Invented before the integrated circuit, it used over 2,800 vacuum tubes, and had dimensions of ten feet wide, two feet deep, and eight and a half feet high. Compared to modern computers, ILLIAC I was quite primitive.

“It had no interrupts whatsoever. You had to be very, very careful how you wrote the code so that ILLIAC could respond suitably,” he said. “I remember fooling around with that for quite a while until we worked out appropriate techniques.”  He was speaking of his efforts at writing, along with Don Bitzer, the first version of the PLATO system, Illinois’ first efforts at machine-aided instruction.

Since the University Archives are housed in the Library, Lichtenberger took time to stop by the 1955 Bronze Tablet on which his name appears.
Since the University Archives are housed in the Library, Lichtenberger took time to stop by the 1955 Bronze Tablet on which his name appears.

Many programmers neglect to comment their code. However, they didn’t write code under the supervision of Jim Snyder, a physicist who was in charge of running the ILLIAC I at the time. According to Lichtenberger, any routine written for ILLIAC I had to be thoroughly documented. He also joked that being on the good side of Snyder was also key to getting your routine included in the library.

“It had to be completely documented, and then it had to be checked out to the point that it was really bulletproof,” he said. “Then if it passed all the standards and he liked the way you looked it would be put into the ILLIAC library.”

After accepting a faculty position at the University of California at Berkeley, Lichtenberger became involved in “Project Genie,” another groundbreaking computing project that allowed multiple users to connect to one computer simultaneously.

“Our thing at Berkeley was essentially a time sharing system, which effectively gave everyone, access to the machine language itself,” he said. “To do that we had to invent a number of things like protected modes and memory maps and things that hadn’t existed before.”

After leaving academia, Lichtenberger has since been in industry. He was hired as employee number 85 at Cisco Systems by company founder Leonard Bosack and has also worked for Hewlett-Packard Laboratories.  He still works for Bosack at XKL, a small company in Kirkland, WA.

Although four manuals from ILLIAC I remain at Illinois there were originally five, but one was temporarily lost after being loaned to The Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California. Recently the misplaced manual was found by the museum and is being sent to the University Archives.

”I’ll see to it that it finds its way with its brothers that are sitting there now,” Lichtenberger said.

Editor's note: media inquiries should be directed to Brad Petersen, Director of Communications, at bradp@illinois.edu or (217) 244-6376.

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