The advent of the IBM 1620 - Personal reminiscences
This section tells the story of how the University of Iceland came to acquire the first general-purpose computer in Iceland.
In 1960 a few Icelandic students had come into contact with electronic computers during their university studies abroad. I had actually started using the EDSAC I computer in Cambridge in England already in 1950, using machine language. At the instigation of the Icelandic Mathematical Society two engineering students in Denmark spent 3 months in 1960 working on the DASK computer at Regnecentralen, using machine language. One of them went on to work on the GIER computer using Algol a couple of years later. One student in England had begun to use the Mercury computer in 1960, using Autocode. Two students in the United States started work on IBM 650 and 704 computers around 1960, using machine language and later FORTRAN and MAD (Michigan Algorithm Decoder). These people, with different computing backgrounds, were the human resources available to initiate scientific computing in Iceland.
Thus, in the beginning of the 1960's a few scientists and engineers in Iceland had used computers in their studies abroad but no computer was available in Iceland. The possibility of acquiring a computer had been looked into, e.g. acquiring a Mercury computer, but that possibility was not realistic. An Icelandic engineer visited Regnecentralen in Copenhagen in 1959 and its director, Niels Bech, came to Iceland in the summer of 1960. He even broached the idea of setting up a branch of Regnecentralen in Reykjavík with a GIER computer, but that was not a realistic idea and the matter did not go further.
In September 1960 the representative of IBM in Iceland, Ottó A. Michelsen, wrote to the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Iceland, and to the National Research Council, offering a 60% Educational Allowance on the purchase or rent of an IBM 1620 Model I computer that had been launched in October 1959. The offer was not taken up.
In a proposal from 1961 for the establishment of a Science Institute at the University of Iceland a recommendation was made to acquire an electronic computer for the institute.
In 1963 an Icelandic electrical engineer spent several months at Regnecentralen in Denmark studying the GIER computer. The idea was to obtain components and assemble a GIER computer in Iceland. That plan did not materialise.
In October 1963 the IBM representative arranged for an IBM 1620 Model I computer, which was being shipped from Canada to Finland, to make a “stop-over “ in Iceland. Courses in Fortran programming were held with support from IBM in Denmark and people were given the opportunity to use the computer. This aroused great interest, primarily among scientists and engineers. IBM followed that up by again offering the University of Iceland a 60% Educational Allowance on the rent or purchase of an IBM 1620 computer and now the University responded positively.
The Rector of the University entrusted me, the only professor with computer experience, with the task to obtain funds to rent a computer and to set up a computing centre. This involved obtaining financial support from the Government and Parliament and possibly other sources. I discussed this matter with the Minister of Education, dr. Gylfi Þ. Gíslason, who showed an interest but stressed that the running costs of the computing centre be covered, at least partly, by income derived from the use of the computer. I approached the directors of governmental and municipal institutions and private firms and convinced most of them of the potential benefit of the use of the computer. I thus managed to obtain from several institutes “subscriptions” to 1-3 hours of computer time per month. The next step was to write a proposal to the Budget Committee of the Parliament for funds to rent the computer.
As I was writing the proposal the Minister of Education called me and asked about the purchase price of the computer. Although I had been preoccupied with the rental costs I could give the Minister an approximate price in Icelandic krónur. About ten minutes later he called me again and said that the Icelandic Development Bank had decided to donate to the University the purchase price of the computer on the occasion of its 10th anniversary! It turned out that the Minister was actually at a meeting of the Board of Directors of the bank where the directors were discussing how the bank should celebrate the anniversary. An agreement for the purchase of an IBM 1620 Model II computer, that had been announced in December 1962 and was a significant improvement on Model I, was signed in December 1963 for delivery in December 1964. That is how the University of Iceland came to acquire the first general-purpose computer in Iceland.
The University Computing Centre was set up in December 1964 with an IBM 1620 Model II computer with a memory of 40,000 binary coded decimals (BCD) and a card read/punch unit. Later two magnetic disk drives, each removable disk holding 2 million digits, were purchased with funds from the US Atomic Energy Commission and a line printer was acquired on loan from IBM. This was the equipment that was used to introduce scientific computing in Iceland
In the preparation for the setting up of the computing centre I had the invaluable assistance of Oddur Bendiktsson Ph.D. who had just returned from the United States. He later became the first professor of computer science at the University. Helgi Sigvaldason lic.tech., who was one of the Icelandic engineers at Regnecentralen in 1960 and who had wo0rked on GIER in Copenhagen from 1962 to 1964, came to the Computing Centre at the start. Both of them have contributed to this conference. The third member of the initial staff was Ragnar Ingimarsson Ph.D.. These three came from different computing backgrounds, having used Fortran, Algol and MAD respectively.
A picture of the IBM 1620-II computer in the University Computing Centre in 1964. On the picture from left: Þórhallur M. Einarsson (IBM), Ragnar Ingimarsson, Helgi Sigvaldason, Oddur Benediktsson, and Magnús Magnússon.
mm 2003 Magnús Magnússon