1962: Degree of distinction
June 30, 1999
by Leslie Goff
(IDG) -- A spirited, irascible salesman left IBM in 1962 to start a new kind of computer company. Thirty years later, still spirited, still irascible, he would start his own political party and run for president of the U.S.
In between, H. Ross Perot generated more publicity than you can shake a stick at. But Electronic Data Systems Corp. (EDS), the Dallas-based company he founded on his 32nd birthday -- June 27, 1962 -- with a $1,000 loan from his wife Margot, remains one of the most significant contributions by an individual to the development of the information technology industry. Only time will tell if his Reform Party will have the same impact on the two-party U.S. political system.
Before EDS, a number of computer services bureaus had cropped up, offering data processing services for monthly contracts of about $500 each.
But Perot envisioned a computer services firm that would offer a cradle-to-grave information services pact at a prearranged price, on a prearranged schedule, via a long-term operating agreement, as he explained in an article in the June 22, 1992, issue of Computerworld. He pitched the idea to his employer, IBM. When IBM declined, Perot struck out on his own.
Frito-Lay Inc. stepped up to be EDS' first customer in a $5,128 deal. EDS' next contract was nearly double the value of the first.
At about the same time in 1962, far north of Dallas in the college town of West Lafayette, Ind., something else was happening that would also have a profound effect on the IT profession. Purdue University -- three years before Stanford University and Carnegie Mellon University -- established the first computer sciences degree program. Embedded in the math department, the fledgling master's and doctorate program in computer sciences attracted two dozen students that first year, says Sam Conte, chairman of the degree program from its inception until 1979.
"Most scientists thought that using a computer was simply programming -- that it didn't involve any deep scientific thought and that anyone could learn to program. So why have a degree?" Conte says. "They thought computers were vocational vs. scientific in nature."
As with so much in the early history of computing, computer sciences degree programs were driven largely by the Cold War. Purdue followed the lead of the National Science Foundation (NSF), which in the late 1950s said the U.S. was falling behind the U.S.S.R. in science. To stimulate more research, the NSF began funding the acquisition of computers by universities. That, Conte says, was the turning point.
Felix Haas, who had just been named chairman of Purdue's mathematics department, had the then-novel idea that math should be broadened to be as much a science as an art and that the university should embrace applied math, statistics and computing. That idea drew skepticism from Haas' colleagues in the math department. But, spurred on by the potential money to be gained from the NSF, the board of trustees approved Haas' proposal to create a computing-related degree.
Haas turned to Conte to form the new program. Conte, then the head of programming at TRW Inc., brought several of the program's first crop of students with him from the West Coast. Others transferred from within Purdue's math and engineering departments. Several students also applied from outside the school.
"It was not hard to attract students because everyone knew about computers," Conte says. "But it was very hard to attract faculty because there were no 'computer scientists' at that time -- just knowledgeable people who had jobs in industry and had learned computing on their own."
Also difficult was naming the program, which stirred up quite a debate, Conte recalls. Some preferred information technology, others computer technology. Ultimately, the program was named computer sciences.
"Computer sciences sounded more weighty for the skeptics," Conte says.
Taken together, the creation of EDS and the emergence of the first formal program to study computing cemented the relationship between information technology and business.
"I remember going to a conference about that same time and listening to Ross Perot talk," Conte says. "I thought he was very eager and had a great idea in mind there with EDS. I wasn't sure he could pull it off, but he proved me wrong. He did pull it off." So did Conte and Purdue.
Goff is a frequent contributor to Computerworld. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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