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Spurlock exhibits details University of Illinois’ first 150 years, and CS @ ILLINOIS’ key role in them.

12/1/2017 2:25:08 PM David Mercer, CS @ ILLINOIS

In 1962, ILLIAC II was built at the University of Illinois’ Digital Computer Laboratory, and it was a revelation.

The new supercomputer relied on transistors rather than then-standard vacuum tubes and was 100 times faster than its predecessor, ILLIAC I, which itself was the first automatic electronic digital computer built and owned entirely by an American university.

But in a progression that would become the norm in computing, within a decade ILLIAC II had been surpassed and taken apart, its parts scattered.

A chassis from ILLIAC II at the Spurlock Museum exhibit, “Knowledge at Work: The University of Illinois at 150.”
A chassis from ILLIAC II at the Spurlock Museum exhibit, “Knowledge at Work: The University of Illinois at 150.”
You can see a couple of key pieces of ILLIAC II, though, and learn more about its prominent role in the long history of University of Illinois research as part of a new exhibit at the Spurlock Museum, “Knowledge at Work: The University of Illinois at 150.”

The exhibit, which runs through December 21, 2018, covers the breadth of the university’s history, from its founding in 1867 in a single building located where the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology now stands to its current global role as a leading research university.

At the literal heart of the exhibit is technology, and CS @ ILLINOIS is a major part of that.

A display in the middle of the exhibit area includes everything from a copy of the game Operation, invented at Illinois, to a scale model of an antenna of the kind that eventually sat on top of many American homes for TV reception.

Dominating that exhibit space are several pieces of significant CS history, among them a terminal from PLATO IV, the online education network pioneered by the university, and the control panel from the ILLIAC II.

There is also an intricately wired chassis from ILLIAC II.

Looking at the organized thicket of wires and transistors for the umpteenth time, Mike VanBlaricum remains impressed. VanBlaricum, BSEE ’72, MSEE ’74, and ECE PhD ’76, is the president of the museum’s advisory board and chief scientist at Toyon Research Corporation.

“What’s fun about this to me, as an electrical engineer, is everything’s discreet -- and that puppy’s been wired by hand,” he said.

“Computer Music from the University of Illinois,” an album of the “Illiac Suite,” the first piece of music composed by an electronic computer. It is part of “Knowledge at Work: The University of Illinois at 150” at the Spurlock Museum.
“Computer Music from the University of Illinois,” an album of the “Illiac Suite,” the first piece of music composed by an electronic computer. It is part of “Knowledge at Work: The University of Illinois at 150” at the Spurlock Museum.
The exhibit also includes a copy of the 1967 album, “Computer Music from the University of Illinois.” It’s a string-quartet performance of the “Illiac Suite,” the first piece of music composed by an electronic computer, in this case the original ILLIAC.

“It’s actually quite pretty to hear,” VanBlaricum said.

Beyond the hub of technological achievements at the center of the exhibit, “Knowledge at Work” also explains why PLATO, ILLIAC and CS @ ILLINOIS as it now exists all happened on a plot of once-open prairie two hours south of Chicago.

Start 16 years before the founding of the university with a speech in 1851 in the small town of Granville, Illinois, by the scholar and activist Jonathan Baldwin Turner.

“Up to that time clergy, doctors, lawyers, and teachers were the ones who received education in the United States,” VanBlaricum said. “He felt, along with a lot of people, that you need to start educating the common man.”

A terminal from the PLATO IV system at the Spurlock Museum exhibit, “Knowledge at Work: The University of Illinois at 150.”
A terminal from the PLATO IV system at the Spurlock Museum exhibit, “Knowledge at Work: The University of Illinois at 150.”
That push was part of led to the Morrill Act of 1862 and the founding of the first land-grant universities, the University of Illinois among them.

The exhibit also highlights actions taken very early in the life of the university that would make the dynamic research and teaching environment now found at CS @ ILLINOIS possible:

  • The first university president, John Milton Gregory, insisted against resistance that the curriculum include the liberal arts, which VanBlaricum believes helped lay the groundwork for the university to become such a major research institution.
  • In the early 1900s, the College of Engineering opened the engineering experiment station to apply university-based engineering to problems of industry.

VanBlaricum and Spurlock Education and Publications Coordinator Beth Watkins point out that there are other pieces elsewhere on campus that could easily have been part of the exhibit – like the hardware from ILLIAC I and II on display in the lobby of the Thomas M. Siebel Center for Computer Science, or the some of the electronics from ILLIAC II that found their way into a still-working programmable music synthesizer in the Sousa Archives & Center for American Music.

Leaving those pieces and others where they are on campus as part of the Illinois Distributed Museum was a conscious decision, hoping they might lead people to explore the university’s history on their own, VanBlaricum and Watkins said.

“We decided not to destroy those exhibits,” VanBlaricum said. “It’s just as good to be able to send people over to Siebel to say, ‘If you want to see how these ILLIAC I vacuum tubes were used, go over to the lobby.’”


On November 14, 2017, author Brian Dear conducted a reading and signing for his book, "The Friendly Orange Glow: The Untold Story of the PLATO System and the Dawn of Cyberculture.