Lecture celebrates Vassar computer science history, APL

Pictured above is Professor Emeritus of Computer Science ’38 Winifred “Tim” Asprey, founder of Vassar’s Mathematics and Computer Science majors and mentee of States Navy rear admiral Grace Hopper. Courtesy of Vassar College Encyclopedia.

Professor Emeritus of Computer Science Winifred Asprey ’38 established Vassar’s Computer Science department in 1969, when APL was a programming language taught in the curriculum. In honor of her contribution to Vassar, women in computing, APL’s 50th anniversary and the 50th anniversary of the Mathematics/Computer Science Major, the Department of Computer Science has hosted the Winifred Asprey Lecture Series—a collection of lectures highlighting the discipline’s history and significance at Vassar.

One talk in the series, titled “Miss Asprey, Vassar Computer Science, and APL: a Historical Perspective,” focused on exposing Asprey’s personal qualities and outlining APL’s past and future. Co-lecturer Ray Polivka, a retired “IBMer” and promoter of APL worldwide who taught with Asprey at Vassar in the 1960s and 1970s, recalled some of his memories of her, while the Chief Experience Officer of Dyalog—a company specializing in modern APL applications—Morten Kromberg traced the language’s evolution. The lecture took place on Tuesday, Feb. 12 in Sanders Physics. About 20 people attended, several of whom were professors or friends of the lecturers, with students comprising the rest of the audience. According to Associate Professor of Computer Science Marc L. Smith, “Our department has a proud history in computing and women in computing, and this talk was an opportunity for our students and faculty alike to hear some of these stories.”

Polivka began the lecture with a flashback to the 1960s: IBM and its 30,000 Hudson Valley employees were pumping out computers. At the time, Asprey was head of the Mathematics department and was pushing for more computer classes at Vassar. Polivka recalled the close relationship Vassar had with IBM, from the first APL classes at Vassar which he taught with “Tim” (as Asprey is called by her peers), to the students that crossed the street each day to work at IBM. He recounted memories he shared with her, saying, “Teaching with Asprey was really a lot of fun,” and, “Her enthusiasm was contagious.” He also recalled some of her personal qualities, such as the two things nobody should say in front of her: “You never spoke badly about Vassar, and [you never said] ‘women don’t need to know much mathematics,’” which was a prevailing sentiment at the time. He also remembered Asprey as Vassar to her core: when asked by her high school counselor to write down three colleges she wanted to attend, she wrote Vassar three times. After that, he gave a brief history of APL, shorthand for “A Programming Language,” and was conceived in the 1960s. Polivka worked with IBM mathematician and researcher Ken Iverson, who wanted to revamp mathematical notation to be more accessible for even the most basic arithmeticians. Iverson’s ideas for a new system of mathematical notation eventually gave way to the language. He then introduced Kromberg, whom he said would talk about the future, rather than the past, of APL.

Kromberg introduced himself and his history with the programming language, telling the audience that he’s been using APL since age 15 and still hasn’t gotten tired of it. He stressed that APL is still modern, comparing it to other programming concepts like functional programming and object-oriented programming, which were ahead of their time at their creation and are only recently being fully utilized. He emphasized the programming language’s uniqueness in its functionality and syntax. Kromberg also talked about the work required to keep APL modern over five decades, as hardware and computer science have evolved dramatically. Although much of his talk was technical, even those in the audience with little coding experience could understand the importance of APL in the future of computing.

Student attendee Steven Park ’19 [Full Disclosure: Park is the Opinions Editor of the Misc], has done extensive research on the department’s history and discussed it in an email interview. Focusing on Asprey, he said, “She really had her ear to the ground about the developing technology at the time and knew that computers were growing into this really big deal. She pioneered the first CMPU course where she worked together with researchers from IBM to teach computation to students.” Asprey was a main force in bringing computer science to Vassar, which was a hard-won victory: “Interest in computer science kept growing and at this point, the administration was just being stubborn in refusing to bring a computer to Vassar … the administration and other faculty, particularly non-STEM faculty, tried really hard to dissuade her, but they somehow got through it with sheer force of will.” Her efforts eventually culminated in the purchase of an IBM 360 Model E computer in 1967, which ran on punch cards and took up an entire floor of the Old Laundry Building. In 1969, Asprey established the Computer Science Studies program, which was one of the first of its kind at a liberal arts college. Park added, “Honestly, if it wasn’t for Asprey, I bet that Vassar would… have been one of the last schools to teach computer science due to how stubborn her opposition was.”

Establishing Computer Science at Vassar was an uphill battle for Asprey. Park spoke about the CMPU’s fascinating history at Vassar, even characterizing it as “the underdogs of underdogs at Vassar.” “It wasn’t like it was smooth sailing after the CMPU studies were established. There were so many problems with equipment failure, funding issues, administration screw-ups, a lot of misconstrued negative press, the whole gauntlet,” Park shared. Because of the difficulties the department faced at its foundation, Park was especially moved by the personal recollections of Asprey and APL’s evolution during the lecture. He concluded, “It’s important for every CMPU major to know the history behind their department and just the immense amount of time and energy it took to make it a reality.”

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