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Special Collections & Archives

The rare or unique holdings of Nimitz Library.

Digital Circuits, Fishnets, and Cyberspace – A History of Computing at USNA, 1955-2016

by Samuel Limneos on 2021-11-03T15:11:18-04:00 in Special Collections & Archives, History | Comments

Applied Science Department Professor Frederick A. Skove teaching a computer science class, ca. 1978

As one of the nation's leading public schools, the United States Naval Academy offers a rigorous science and technology curriculum utilizing the latest computer hardware. Over the last sixty-five years, academy computing technology and curricula experienced steady growth.


Laboratory work in the Weapons Department, 1959-1960

After World War II, the increased technical specialization required to operate advanced weapons systems in the fleet influenced changes to the academy’s curriculum. The first reference to computer training at the academy appears in the 1955-56 Naval Academy Catalog as practical instruction in anti-aircraft computer operation for first class midshipmen from the Department of Ordnance and Gunnery. The following year, second class midshipmen received more Ordnance and Gunnery-led instruction in elements of computer design including techniques of equation mechanization, the fire control problem including exterior ballistics and platform motion as related to the development of weapon systems. In 1959, the Weapons Department introduced elective courses for the first class: Digital Computers - described as the “study of the mathematical basis for digital computers and some computer techniques” - and Analog Computers and Nomograms - requiring the “study of analog computers using mechanical, electrical and electronic simulators.”

Computer-aided instruction highlighted in the 1969 Lucky Bag

In the early 1960s, computer instruction involved midshipmen studying the schematics various electrical components from the latest naval weapon technology and systems. In 1965, Assistant Professor Paul L. Quinn and Lieutenant Commander Richard Inman of the Science Department coauthored a manual entitled “Digital Circuits” to introduce computing and a basic course of instruction in electronics. With great foresight, Quinn and Inman wrote in the manual’s forward, “the rapid expansion in digital computer applications, both in the military and commercial fields, demands that the midshipmen become familiar with the basic principles of computers.”

The Academic Computing Center's pocket reference guide, 1969

Attuned to the changing times, the academy established the Academic Computing Center in Ward Hall on January 29, 1966, as the Yard’s first computing organization. At the same time, the Beginners’ All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code (BASIC) codesigner and author John G. Kemeny introduced the Dartmouth Time-Sharing System (DTSS) operating system to the academy.

BASIC Manual Sixth Edition, 1971

During the 1968-1969 academic year, the Weapons, Engineering, and Mathematics departments presented arguments for providing a computer science major. Cognizant that newly developing technology possessed the potential to change both education and military training, Superintendent James Calvert took interest in the debates and simultaneously studied various universities' computer studies programs. After touring some of these facilities, Calvert directed Professor Frederick A. Skove, an assistant professor in the Weapons Department, and Engineering’s Lieutenant Commander James K. Williams to establish a computer science department, create a programming course for the fourth class, and develop an appropriate major.  A group of tech-literate faculty bridged the gap in late 1968 overseeing computer instruction until Skove and Williams could establish the Computer Science Department in 1969 and join the new Mathematics and Science Division in 1970. 

Ward Hall, 1960

Department faculty presented a computer science major in late 1971, but due to a lack of funds, the Academic Dean postponed implementation. The department temporarily ceased to exist when the academy formed the Applied Science Department in 1976 by combining the Management Science Department’s management and technology major with computer science curricula.

Midshipmen with computers, May 1980

The new Applied Science Department offered a resources management major requiring coursework in resources management and operations analysis and a two-semester, one-credit computing course for the fourth class. Over the next three years, the department’s faculty grew from seven to twenty-seven.  The Applied Science Department dropped the resources management major in 1981 and began offering computer science, management, and operations analysis tracks toward a new applied science major.

Computer classroom, November 1983

During the 1983-1984 academic year, the academy abolished the applied science major and all management courses, transferred operations analysis and research courses to the Mathematics Department, and reestablished the Computer Science Department that now offered tracks in scientific computing, software design, and hardware principles toward a computer science major. After a curriculum upgrade in early 1986, the Computer Science Accreditation Board accredited the Computer Science Department’s course of instruction. During their 1986 graduation, a handful of the newly commissioned ensigns and second lieutenants received the first bachelor of science degrees in computer science.

Class of 1993 computer issue plebe company briefing, August 19, 1989

In 1991, the Computer Science Department eliminated the fourth class computer science course and assigned curricula exclusively to midshipmen electing the computer science major. The academy also prioritized cyber defense in the midshipmen’s curriculum. During the 1999-2000 academic year, the Political Science Department first offered Information Technology, National Security and International Relations, a course focusing on changed weaponry, the vulnerability of cyberspace and other aspects of the information revolution on the relations among nations.

Computer science class, November 5, 1997

By the 2010-2011 academic year, the computer science major included core courses in programming, data structures, computer organization, networks, program performance and efficiency, programming languages, as well as applications in artificial intelligence, graphics, and robotics. The academy established the Cyber Science Department in 2016. During that year, the academy also broke ground on the department’s new academic building - Hopper Hall - which was the first new academic building on the Yard since 1975 and the first building at any major service academy named after a woman.


IBM 1620 digital computer and typewriter in Chauvenet Hall, 1970

According to the 1966-1967 catalog, the Academic Computing Center supported one IBM 1620 digital computer and associated typewriter, an IBM 1130 general purpose computer system, and an IBM 1311 disk storage drive, “allowing for a full range of library and utility routines.” The catalog goes on to detail the center’s services, noting, “use of the computer ranges from the computation of an assigned classroom problem to support of special research projects by midshipmen or faculty.” The idea of remote terminals for academic departments, under study during that year, accompanied the installation of one remote teletype terminal at the center connected by telephone transmission to GE-235 computers in New York City and Washington, DC. The following year, the computing center inaugurated computer-assisted education at the academy in a special classroom housing an IBM 1500 instructional system and twelve student terminals. Simultaneously, the computing center provided each academic department at least one linked remote terminal for faculty testing and evaluation.

Computer science lessons with the IBM-1500 instructional system in Ward Hall, 1967-1968

In 1970, the center maintained the general-purpose IBM 1130 and 1620 computer systems and a Honeywell 635. Midshipmen and faculty used Formula Translator (FORTRAN) commands to compute assigned classroom problems and conduct special research projects. By September 1971, the academy housed more than 125 remote terminals throughout the various academic departments and support services. At the same time, engineering and science departments undertook various educational computer technology research projects to improve instruction.

Computer instruction, 1969

The 1980-1981 catalog boasts of an "Exemplary Institution in Academic Computing” designation by the National Science Foundation based on more than 300 remote time-shared computer terminals across the academy accessible from 8 a.m. until midnight, seven days a week through diverse computer languages such as BASIC, IPL/I, FORTRAN, ALGOL and APL. The 1984-1985 catalog mentions remote computer terminals featuring “color graphics,” along with twelve minicomputers and more than 80 microcomputers throughout the Yard available to midshipmen and faculty more than twenty hours per day, seven days a week. Shortly before the 1985 academic year, the Midshipman Store began issuing personal microcomputers to the incoming class of 1989.

Computer instruction, 1979

Demonstrating the academy’s computing edge and technology growth, the 1988-1989 catalog lists an impressive time-shared, multi-computer system comprising more than 1,500 terminals and microcomputers, classroom navy tactical wargaming instruction, and naval architecture laboratories offering computer-aided hull design. In addition to physical and academic preparation, academy admissions recommended prospective candidates seeking a competitive edge take introductory computer and typing courses, “because all midshipmen are required to use personal computers in many of the academy’s courses.”

Midshipmen at computer classroom instruction, November 1983

On the eve of the World Wide Web's launch in 1991, the Computer Services Department hosted a Gould minicomputer running the UNIX operating system and a dual processor Honeywell DPS 8/62 academic computing timeshare system mainframe capable of supporting more than 300 users simultaneouly. The department also operated its own VAX 6310 and 8350 minicomputers running the VMS operating system, two local area network-supporting MicroVAX IIs, two Sun 3 network file servers, and 40 microcomputers in two laboratory classrooms.

Class of 1993 plebes setting up computers in their Bancroft Hall room, August 19, 1989

At this time, Naval Academy Data Network (NADN) outlets in all academic and administrative areas and Bancroft Hall provided faculty, staff and midshipmen access to the Yard-wide data network, Fishnet, and the Naval Academy Time-sharing System (NATS), along with various department local area networks (LAN’s) such as Nimitz Library’s online card catalog (LIB), and 40 other network servers supporting various functions such as word processing, calendars and scheduling, and forms management.

Class of 1997 plebes setting up computers in their Bancroft Hall room, August 16, 1993

During the 1992-1993 academic year, the academy first advertised electronic mail allowing, “midshipmen to use their personal computers to communicate with other midshipmen, faculty and parents." The term “internet” first appears in the 1995-1996 catalog, and the following year’s catalog adds “midshipmen can use their personal computers to link to other computers throughout the academy, as well as to outside educational and commercial sources, via the internet.” In 1998, the Academic Computing Center updated its time-sharing computing mainframe to a Honeywell DPS 8/70 and accessioned three Data General AViiON 9500 client servers.

Class of 1999 plebes use newly-issued computers in their Bancroft Hall room, August 16, 1994

During the 2000-2001 academic year, work completed on a near-decade long project to upgrade Bancroft Hall’s wiring and network capabilities provided both phone and internet access in individual midshipman rooms. The following year's catalog noted the academy "is considered one of the most wired, advanced, and forward-looking information technology campuses in the nation, highlighted by a system of multimedia (voice, video, and data) networks."

Offering a rigorous science and technology curriculum utilizing the latest technology, the United States Naval Academy remains one of the nation's leading public schools. Computing at the academy experienced steady growth from humble beginnings in 1950s Weapons Department courses to the twenty-first century.



Naval Academy Photograph Collection, 1845-1983, RG 405, Special Collections & Archives, Nimitz Library.

Quinn, Paul L. “Digital Circuits.” Folder 31, Box 3, Series 3: Office Files, 1966-1997, Entry 201g: Records of the Department of Computer Science, 1966-1997. RG 405. Special Collections and Archives Department, Nimitz Library, United States Naval Academy.

United States Naval Academy. Entry 59d: Catalogs [1955-2001]. RG 405. Special Collections and Archives Department, Nimitz Library, United States Naval Academy.

United States Naval Academy. “History of Department of Computer Science,” in Finding Aid: Entry 201g: Records of the Department of Computer Science, 1966-1997. RG 405. Special Collections and Archives Department, Nimitz Library, United States Naval Academy.


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