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Otago students wanting to specialise in computing have a choice of two departments in which to base their studies: computer science (based in the Division of Sciences) or information science (based in the Division of Commerce). Universities around the world have varied ways of dividing their computing and information technology courses and departments. Otago’s departmental division would probably have once been seen as eccentric, but it has survived intact over many years (and many reviews!). Otago computing pioneer Brian Cox comments that courses evolved in different ways at different universities depending on local needs and existing resources and interests. For instance, in universities with engineering schools, computer science found a natural home within engineering. At Otago, commerce got in on the act at an early date.

In 1966 the university established its Computing Centre and installed an IBM 360/30. The computer was available to staff and students conducting research, and for university administration. Brian Cox, an Otago graduate who had completed a PhD at Cambridge before returning to Otago as a lecturer in the Department of Mathematics, was appointed to run the centre. He had obtained experience with early computers in the UK while working on complex calculations for his thesis. The Faculty of Commerce realised early on that students aiming at careers in the business world would benefit from learning about this quickly evolving technology, and Cox helped teach some commerce courses. Then, in 1968, the first academic computing courses were offered in the Faculty of Science, as part of the advanced applied mathematics papers.

From these 1960s beginnings, Otago has experienced the parallel development of computing as an academic subject in both science and commerce. There has been considerable cooperation, with combined first year courses, but each field has developed its own specialty. Within commerce, information science focuses on the practical application of information technology in business, while in science, computer science is more centred on the technical and scientific elements of the workings of computer technology. Students can major in either subject for both BSc and BA degrees, and information science can also be a BCom major.

For many years, computer science – which became a full major in 1978 – was taught from the Computing Centre, which had a double life serving the IT needs of the university as well as teaching.  While this ensured the best use of resources at a time when computers were very large and very expensive, it also had disadvantages. Should a computer break down, completing the payroll definitely took priority over academic needs once it was back in service! In 1984 the two functions were finally separated with the establishment of the Department of Computer Science, Cox becoming the foundation professor.

Hank Wolfe with the Department of Quantitative and Computer Studies computer - a PDP 11-34 - in 1979. Image courtesy of Hank Wolfe.

Hank Wolfe with the Department of Quantitative and Computer Studies computer – a PDP 11-34 – in 1979. Image courtesy of Hank Wolfe.

Meanwhile, over in the Faculty of Commerce, business computing was taught from the 1970s department with the rather cumbersome name of Marketing, Quantitative and Computer Studies – generally known as MQCS. In 1978 it split off from Marketing to become just Quantitative and Computer Studies, and has been Information Science since 1992. Hank Wolfe left the rat race of Washington DC to become a lecturer in the department in 1979, and is still there as an associate professor. Like other members of the department at that time, he had considerable business experience as well as an academic qualification. One of his first tasks was to teach students COBOL and FORTRAN. Things have moved on considerably from his early days, when a class of 150 or so students lined up to have the one card reader process the “mark sense” cards they had filled out, hoping they would have a good run.

I’m happy to say I was able to produce this blog post without having any idea of the workings behind my computer or its network or its software – thank goodness for all those computer science and information science experts who contribute to our technological working world! Do you have any interesting memories to share of past days in Otago’s computing departments?