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Arts, Sports & Culture

Podcast explores the history of computing in Pittsburgh

In 1960, Albin Vareha was a physics major at the Carnegie Institute of Technology when he heard about a class on a new subject called “computer programming.” He gave it a try.

Katherine Barbera and David Bernabo
David Bernabo
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Katherine Barbera and David Bernabo are the podcast's hosts.

“That changed my life,” Vareha said in an interview with Carnegie Mellon University’s Oral History Program. “I fell in love with computer programming. The only reason I did not change my major was there was no major in computer science. There wasn’t even a minor in computer science back then!”

Vareha’s story of falling love with computers when programming was done, laboriously, on punch cards, is one of many told in season two of the CMU-produced podcast Cut Pathways. The six-episode series, titled “The Wild West of Computing” opens in 1956, when Pittsburgh was still very much a smoky mill town, and Carnegie Tech launched its Computation Center. It continues through 1987, when computers were of growing interest to industry, government, and the military. (Vareha, by the way, has retired after a long career in computing.)

The podcast is hosted by Katherine Barbera, the CMU archivist who created the Oral History Program, in 2016, and oral-history production assistant David Bernabo. And if you’re not a tech type yourself, don’t worry: “Our focus definitely is on the culture of computer science at CMU” rather than the ins and outs of software and hardware, said Bernabo.

Speaking of hardware, the podcast notes that early computers were not the kind you slipped into your pocket. CMU’s first was the IBM 650, a custom-made mainframe that weighed 5,000 pounds. As Vareha’s anecdote suggests, many people at what was then known as Carnegie Tech were intrigued, but no one fully knew what to make of these machines, or of the embryonic academic discipline forming around them. In those days, according to the podcast, computers were largely used not to solve complex math problems, but rather to help businesses improve shipping logistics. That left a lot of territory to be explored.

“In the ’50s, computer science was still being defined,” said Bernabo. “The field was wide open to be developed. So you see all these people trying different experiments to see how far you could push what computer science would be.”

The season’s first three episodes, all published in December, acknowledge such pioneers as the co-founders of the Computational Center, Allen Newell, Alan Perlis, and Nobel Prize-winning economist Herb Simon. The podcast draws on dozens of interviews from the oral-history archive as well as interviews with guest historian Andrew Meade McGee and CMU Curator of Special Collections Sam Lemley.

Other topics include the influence, in the ’60s, of grants from the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), the arm of the U.S. Department of Defense that funded development of a forerunner of the internet, and the fallout from Perlis’ departure from the school in the ’70s.

Cut Pathways is named for CMU’s campus green, long nicknamed “the Cut,” and for the pathways people take through their educations. The podcast’s first three “Wild West” episodes (and the podcast’s three-episode first season, “Introductions”) are available on platforms including Apple and Spotify, as well as through its own website.

Episodes 4, 5, and 6 of the current season will roll out weekly starting Jan. 5.

Episode 4 is dedicated to an interview with the late Pamela McCorduck, author of the 1979 book “Machines Who Think,” about researching artificial intelligence in the 1970s. Episode 5 is an interview with Clinton Kelly, a former executive director of the Information Science and Technology Office of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA); Kelly discusses autonomous land-vehicle testing in the 1980s. Episode 6 focuses on the 1980s and computing’s role in robotics and more.

CMU’s oral-history archives continue to grow, said Bernabo. Interviews are available on request to researchers through the program’s page on the CMU library web site, here.