Fate and the Future: Davidson’s First Programmer

A walk down memory lane on Davidson’s campus offered Chip Davis, a Davidson native and one of the first to use a computer on this campus, a unique opportunity to share his story.

A bespectacled boy of about 14 sits in a folding chair in front of the IBM 1620 computer circa 1963.

       A student working with the IBM 1620.

Chip Davis was born a year to the day that his father, William A. Davis (Class of 1950) graduated from Davidson College. His father went on to assume responsibility for the College Infirmary and growing up, Chip came to know many of the faculty as friends and neighbors.  Today, he is (mostly) retired from a career work with programmers on mainframe computer systems and then training future programs. He was first introduced to computer programming on Davidson’s campus during his teenage years.

Introducing digital technology to the Davidson curriculum

A portrait of a man in collegiate robes leans casually against his desk. His cap lies on the tabletop and he hold a bound leather book on his lap.

David Grier Martin served as the Davidson College Treasurer from 1951-1958 and as College President from 1958-1968.

In a memo to the faculty in October of 1962, College President David Grier Martin announced that the College would be renting an IBM 1620 computer on a trial basis. Davidson was going to throw its hat in the ring with a first attempt to use computers for educational and research purposes.In 1962, Dr. Locke taught an hour-long non-credit programming course. In the following years, only a few classes used the computer at all: Psychology 71: Advanced Experimental Psychology in 1963 and Applied Math 11: Introduction to Digital Computers in  1964.

Chip Davis on cutting-edge technology on Davidson’s campus in the 1960s

“One day in the winter of 1963, Dr. Bryan took me down to see the freshly installed computer in Chambers. It consisted of the 1620 Central Processing Unity and the 1622 Card Reader/Punch. The 1311 Disk Drive would come later, which meant that there was no file system on which to store programs, so you punched out a deck of cards instead.

I wrote quite a few utility routines in machine language in those early days, mostly to make things easier for the ‘real’ programmers: professors and students who were using FORTRAN to solve problems in math or physics.

An IBM 1620 Computer from the early 1960s sits atop a table. A locked shelf is in the background

The IBM 1620 Computer.

Not everything I wrote for the 1620 was serious. One program created and printed out an image of the Jolly Green Giant to give to one of my favorite teachers.

Dr. Bryan and I found a program that would play music through an AM radio, tuned off-station, on the console.  The program created programming loops that matched the frequencies of a diatonic scale. We created one that played one of his favorite harpsichord melodies, and attempted to enhanced the program to make it polyphonic. The 1620 couldn’t do it, but it sparked an interest in Fourier transforms that came in handy when I worked on an analog/digital hybrid computer in college.”

The future of tech on Davidson’s campus

Spaces for technological innovation and exploration like Chip Davis’ exists still on this campus. Studio M offers students a center to learn the new cutting edge technologies, such as 3-D printing and laser cutting. Additionally, in 2017, the Hub@Davidson was created to foster a community around technology, innovation and entrepreneurship in the Lake Norman area.

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