The Northern Almanac Ep. 18 - 'Computing Comes to NIU'

Jun 2, 2020

Welcome to The Northern Almanac, a WNIJ living history project coinciding with NIU's 125th anniversary.

It’s hard to imagine in today’s digital world of laptops and personal devices, but NIU didn’t lease its first IBM computer until 1962. NIU’s growth in the 1960s made every organizational process more complex. Payroll, records, research, partnerships and day-to-day activities had moved beyond NIU’s ability to keep track of things by hand. 


The IBM Model 1620 Computer

The IBM model 1620 came with technicians to teach faculty and staff how to use it. The early mainframes were huge and the entire campus competed for time on one computer housed in a large, temperature-controlled room. 


In 1967, NIU upgraded to the legendary IBM 360, a room-sized collection of whirring machines with giant tapes – prominently featured on the popular TV series “Mad Men.” The 360 was heavily used by administration and the departments of Math, Computer Science, Biological Sciences, Geology and Political Science.  


By 1979, NIU needed more computing power for all facets of university operations. However, the IBM model that would have met university specifications could not be upgraded internally. Instead, Northern went with an IBM spin-off company and purchased the Amdahl 470. With its increased power, NIU improved many administrative computer functions, including those related to enrollment, grades, the Bursar’s office and Human Resources. 


NIU’s first personal computer arrived in July, 1978: a Commodore PET with a cassette tape drive, featuring 4K RAM, a seven-inch monochrome CRT, and a five-by-seven-inch keyboard. It cost $711 new, and now resides in the NIU Archives.