Penn History

This exhibit was researched and written by Nicholas G. Heavens, University Archives Summer Research Fellow, 2000-2002. He is an undergraduate at the University of Chicago and has been a University Archives Summer Research Fellow for the last three years. Much of this exhibit is based on his research of the history of computing at Penn in the summer of 2000.

The first high-level languages of the late 1950s and 1960s such as FORTRAN and COBOL were both flexible and portable in that they could be used for many kinds of computer applications and they could make programs for many different kinds of computer. By the late 1980s, some computer languages had more specific purposes, but these languages were almost as flexible.

For instance in 1991, two divisions of the University of Pennsylvania were using dBase III, an advanced database programming language for two radically different tasks. The Student Health Service was using dBase III to manage student health records, requiring excellent information retrieval capability. The University Museum was creating a database of Middle Paleolithic excavation sites to determine where archeologists should dig. Both applications were written in dBase III, but the Museum’s project required the compilation and analysis of graphical and textual criteria, whereas the Student Health Service was working with large amounts of complex textual information. One language was able to create two different applications whose only common factor was a need for powerful databases.

Another Museum application, COMPASS, developed at the Museum Applied Science Center for Archeology (MASCA) relied upon a Pascal related language to map and analyze archeological sites on MacIntosh computers. This project had conceptual parallels to the application that required dBase III. Yet the two projects utilized two very different computer languages.

Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Pennsylvania, 1956