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A look back at UC Berkeley's computer evolution

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NOVEMBER 16, 2012

When Carlos Noreña entered UC Berkeley as a freshman in 1988, he, like so many university students,  “came armed with a large, boxy Apple Macintosh computer.” As students, the computer is our lifeline, our bread and butter, the indispensable utility belt to our Batman. But, for Noreña, the situation was not the glamorous lifestyle of personal laptops and instantly accessible lolcatz.

“I was one of maybe five students on my dorm floor to have my own computer,” he said, “so my room, as a result, was a hub of activity, as my floormates clamored to finish up their term papers, or, more commonly, to play what in those days qualified as awesome video games.”

It seems impossible for us now — with projectors in nearly every classroom, multiple computing facilities within reach, and bSpace — to fathom this world in which personal computers were so scarce. Visions of dystopian landscapes emerge. They are barren, barbaric landscapes where people had to walk, check out and — it pains me to say — turn pages in a book to find out what exactly was the Jugurthine War (note: an old war, apparently).

This sad scene may have been the case for other, less fortunate schools. However, when it comes to technology, UC Berkeley has nearly always been at the forefront of innovation in education.

Flush with federal funding after World War II, UC Berkeley commenced an unprecedented rush of computer science development that hasn’t ceased since. The computer mouse, digital libraries, the Apple desktop computer, course webcasts and online databases can all be traced back to UC Berkeley faculty. Finished in 1951, the California Digital Computer, or CALDIC, was one of the first inexpensive and accessible computers for its day. The only catch: it consisted of nearly a thousand vacuum tubes. But, this combination of low cost and high efficiency has been the overarching trend of Berkeley innovation.

UC Berkeley electrical engineer Douglas Engelbart worked with the men who created the CALDIC, and he did them one better in 1963 by inventing the computer mouse that has now become the staple, computer accessory.  By the time former campus electrical engineering and computer science student Steve Wozniak helped develop the Apple personal computer in the early 1980s, technology had become a full part of the average students’ lifestyle.

According to the Pew Internet Project, a 2010 survey of computer-usage among college students, 88 percent of undergraduate college students own a laptop computer. And, according to a Group Logic Inc. survey from the same year, more and more of those laptops are Macs.

It’s hardly a surprising statistic given the high visibility of laptops in classrooms. But, it’s in the classroom where the significant changes can be seen. When Noreña was a student, though, he only used that “large, boxy”  computer outside of the classroom.

“I do not recall any of (my professors) using any technology whatsoever,” he said.

This phase did not last long. In 1995, Berkeley was one of the first American universities to offer video and audio of courses online with the Berkeley Internet Broadcasting System, now known as Berkeley Webcast. A year later, the campus became one of the first sites in the United States to install SunSITE — a digital catalog of the millions of books held in UC Berkeley’s 10 plus libraries.

Now, as a campus professor of history, Noreña’s utilization of several digital outlets, such as bSpace and PowerPoint presentations to showcase the several “slideshows, maps, images, texts and key terms” that might be overwhelming without the accompanying visual element.

In addition, for his United States history survey course this fall, associate professor Brian Delay decided to participate in a nationwide e-book pilot program. For her international and area studies class, lecturer Tara Graham began using Twitter as a means to guide student discussion in class.

It’s a brave and virtual new world, with seemingly endless possibilities for enhanced interaction and communication within the academic atmosphere. Already, individual intellectuals such as Howard Rheingold, an adjunct professor in UC Berkeley’s School of Information, have founded their own online universities, complete with video lessons and online quizzes.

Whether developments like these are positive or negative, the future is unclear. But, as computer science student Aatash Parikh remarked, “The prominence of technology in our lives is always going to be increasing, so we need to be aware of the negative implications while taking advantage of all the positives.”

Contact Jessica Pena at 


NOVEMBER 18, 2012