Hidden History: Mary Baldwin’s Trailblazing Journey into the Computer Age

Mary Baldwin has a surprising history at the cutting edge of early computer technology.

Since the early days of computers, and along with the internet’s exponential growth since, colleges and universities have scrambled to meet the demands of interested students and a growing industry alike. Mary Baldwin is no exception; this small university, unlikely as it seems, boasts an impressive history at the forefront of computer technology.

Today’s classrooms are filled with computers — most professors need one to supplement their lessons and lectures, virtually every student carries one with them from class to class, and, of course, the handheld computers in students’ pockets are the ultimate distraction, no matter the situation.

Mary Baldwin’s current undergraduate students, now mostly born between 2003 and 2006, have only known a world dominated by computer technology. But, even with its neoclassical architecture and approaching 200-year pedigree, computers are nothing new at Mary Baldwin. 

The history of computers at MBU is a long one, with some surprises, unexpected developments, and extraordinary student outcomes.

A College Ahead of its Time

“Mary Baldwin entered the computer world in September 1968,” writes the late Professor of History Dr. Patricia Menk in her 1992 history of Mary Baldwin, To Live in Time. 

1968 – the same year that NASA was working with minimal-capacity computers to put men on the moon – Mary Baldwin entered the world of computer science. These were the halcyon days of computing, and the nascent technology was beginning to appear on college campuses nationwide. 

The University of Virginia acquired its first computer just eight years earlier, in 1960, while Virginia Tech appears to have been on a similar trajectory as Mary Baldwin, with punch-card computers available to students in the late 1960s. That a small, private, single-sex liberal arts college in Staunton, Virginia, was able to keep pace with two east-coast educational powerhouses is extraordinary.

But, while the year 1968 might seem astounding, it can also be misleading. Mary Baldwin did enter the “computer world” in 1968 by leasing three hours of computer time a day at a downtown Staunton business, but computers would not enter Mary Baldwin until 1970 with the purchase of an IBM 1130.

The IBM 1130: Mary Baldwin’s First Computer

An IBM 1130, photo courtesy of the Computer History Museum

The IBM 1130 was no small investment, retailing around $35,000 at the time of its release (not adjusted for inflation), but it unlocked a world of opportunity for the students who had the pleasure of using it. This first computer allowed the college to offer courses in computer programming and computer analysis. 

At the time, the acquisition was divisive, with some of the Mary Baldwin community wondering whether computers even belonged on a liberal arts college campus. Others, like Alfred Booth, professor of mathematics, argued that “a strong liberal arts college should include more computer courses.”

Professor Alfred Booth, from the 1976 Bluestocking Yearbook

The new computers would find a home on the ground floor of the Administration Building (now the Pamela R. Fox Leadership Hall), requiring “three rooms and a hallway,” and they were vulnerable to lightning and power outage damage.

By 1973, Mary Baldwin’s first computer was outdated and required a litany of upgrades (including the installation of brand-new 16 kilobyte memory drives). These improvements cost the school nearly $80,000 in the mid-1970s. For some context, the MBU-supplied computer used to type this article has 32 gigabytes of memory – a staggering two million-times increase at a tiny fraction of the original’s cost.

What were these early computing beasts used for?

The IBM 1130 was IBM’s cheapest model in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Initially introduced in 1965, this computer was designed specifically for use in university or scientific capacities. One of the key features of the IBM 1130 was its use of removable disk packs, which allowed for “direct access storage.”

Students using the IBM 1130 could expect to learn to program using FORTRAN, a mathematical problem-solving computing language. They would also learn to make inputs (and, conversely, read outputs) to the computer with paper tape readers and punches.

Overall, the IBM 1130 would give students the opportunity to work hands-on with what was almost certainly their very first computer, gaining  experience in programming, data storage, system operation, and computer problem-solving.

While some faculty were still leery of computers in a liberal arts institution, Mary Baldwin continued to operate on this expensive tightrope walk, upgrading computers enough to offer a competitive education without bankrupting the institution. By 1975, there were  eight courses offered in computer science.

The 1980s to the Internet Era

By 1980, more faculty had come around to the importance of computers on campus. This excerpt (and image) from the 1980 Mary Baldwin Magazine explains how “Teachers Become Students to Learn Computer Uses”:

Some Mary Baldwin faculty members have become students again. Under the direction of Dr. Robert J. Weiss, professor of mathematics, they are learning computer techniques.

A Data General Eclipse S-130 computer has been purchased by Mary Baldwin College, along with six computer terminals. This purchase was made possible through a $103,792 grant from the National Science Foundation. Since the computer’s arrival in December, eight faculty members from a number of disciplines have attended workshops in computer applications and programming.

Budgetary constraints slowed technology investment in the latter years of Dr. Virginia “Ginny” Lester’s presidency, but things would shift as the school saw the new millennium on the horizon.

In 1985, Dr. Cynthia Tyson was chosen as Mary Baldwin’s eighth president. By the time of Tyson’s presidency, the campus was home to a computer center that resembled a modern computer lab much more closely than the hulking machines of the past. Early in her tenure, the existing computer center was relocated to Wenger Hall, where one of MBU’s computer labs still exists today.

The 1990s were the next period of serious investment in technology at Mary Baldwin. According to Menk, “Dr. [Cynthia H.] Tyson saw immediately that Mary Baldwin College should have modern and effective computer access.”

The most significant piece of Tyson’s technological overhaul came through a partnership with IBM. In 1996, Mary Baldwin launched Projet EXCEL. IBM donated tech services, computer equipment, and even an executive-on-loan for 18 months. Around the same time, part of a large donor gift furnished new computer labs.

By the year 2000, Mary Baldwin hosted a respectable number of modern personal computers for student use, and most of the computer and IT education at Mary Baldwin was through the computer science (CS) minor. Some impressive students graduated from Mary Baldwin with the CS minor, including previously profiled Beth Ford ‘02. 

More recently, Katie Keegan ’22 completed Google’s Computer Science Research Mentorship Program at the age of 17 and co-published a pair of scholarly articles about a novel approach to protecting digital copyrights.

For the last 25 years, MBU’s computer facilities have been dutifully maintained by a team of full-time IT professionals spread across both campuses. The computers are regularly updated and upgraded, modern instructional technology (interactive, touch-screen projectors connected to instructional computers) occupies most of the historic campus’s classrooms, and digital security measures are constantly evolving to keep all members of the MBU community (and their data) safe.

The most impressive thing about MBU’s surprising computer history is the way it symbolizes the university’s mission. To bring the trappings of the age of information to a historic institution’s hallowed grounds. To unite our classic, liberal arts tradition with the needs of the modern world. The history of computers at Mary Baldwin is a testament to the fact that MBU provides an education that is not for time, but for eternity.

Alumni, what computer technology do you remember from your time at Mary Baldwin? Share your memories on any MBU social media platform!

If you have a tip for hidden MBU history – something buried, lost, or simply forgotten – reach out to the Office of Integrated Communications at communicate@marybaldwin.edu.