Growth of a Department

A Personal History of Computer Science at UNC-Chapel Hill

Sociology: Buildings, Clusters, and Labs

Graduate students at Emerald Isle in 1982

Charlie Gunn, Mike Holder, Jane Gambill, Scott Hennes, Jenny Longstaff, Brian Van Duzee, Wm Leler, Teresa McBennett, and Larry Lifshitz at Emerald Isle in 1982. (Photo: © Department of Computer Science, UNC-Chapel Hill)
The Department as a social unit would make a fine laboratory for a sociologist. We began as one small, happy family. We grew through a period of being too large for one family but too small for several. At the same time, our physical spaces expanded from concentration chiefly in one location to the diversity of six buildings. As we grew, there was a tendency to become a collection of small, happy families. That tendency was never entirely successful, and in the process many of us lost sight of the enterprise as a whole. Students in a research group in one building might not even recognize students from a different building.

The move to Sitterson gave us a single physical environment in which to strive for a single social structure. Moreover, the open conference areas and large laboratory spaces tend to break down some of the barriers that existed previously. Nevertheless, the organization of Sitterson into four levels, each separated from its neighbors by 27 stair steps, has proved another impediment to fuller integration. In the immortal words of Kye Hedlund, "The stairwells in Sitterson Hall have zero bandwidth." Most faculty and many graduate students still have a substantial majority of their personal interactions within their clusters and laboratories rather than across the Department.

Incidentally, I have not found a good place to list the history of the Department's labs, so I have done so at the end of this section. I would not countenance such sloppy organization in a paper written for me in the technical writing course, but the deadline presses.

Social Life

In the Department's younger days, its social life took place mainly after hours, and involved faculty and students, but not staff. There were picnics, with students playing volleyball and baseball and with faculty children playing everything. There were occasional receptions, often in honor of a visiting dignitary. And there were the Pizer Punch Parties. Almost annually, Steve and Lyn Pizer opened their house to everyone and offered a choice of liquid refreshment, some of it potent. Two of our students rented their house for the 1973-74 year Steve spent on leave in London, and they held the party at Halloween. Among the costumes was that of Jim Sneeringer, who wore a false beard and came as--Steve Pizer. At the Fall 1979 party, according to rumor, the guest of one of our students vomited on the Steinway grand. For some reason, there was no party the next year, but after that gap the series resumed--outdoors. The series closed after approximately 17 parties.

At times, the SACM or CSA has promoted social gatherings, but it now takes pushing to do anything on departmental scale. For the past several years we have had Thanksgiving and Christmas lunches for all students, staff, and faculty who wish to participate, and we have been holding brief birthday parties each month for all those who have birthdays during the month. But much of the Department social life revolves around smaller units, such as the lab, cluster, or support unit.

Of course, there have always been student-only gatherings of all descriptions. Not being a participant, I can't relate much about them.


Any healthy organization has its humor. To me, three examples stand out. One morning there appeared on the New West bulletin board a page from the doctoral thesis of one E. Clipse, the creation of graduate students Lee Brown and Paul Clements. Dr. Clipse kept entertaining us with assorted writings, and the pen name was later adopted by some other students, as well as by Fred Brooks and Dave Parnas.

Steve Bellovin as DC Block

Steve Bellovin as D.C. Block at the 1976 Halloween party. (Photo: Mike Pique, © Department of Computer Science, UNC-Chapel Hill)
Another was the set of SACM Newsletter articles signed by D. C. Block. I should point out, for readers mercifully unfamiliar with IBM's OS/360 operating system, that one of its key features was the Data Control Block (DCB). The author of those articles was graduate student Steve Bellovin. He, Brown, and Clements have consented to become unmasked for this history. So has Dr. Clipse, whose permission was forwarded by a reliable source.

More irreverent humor was embodied in the unofficial songs of the Department, most of them introduced at two Pizer Punch Parties and at one picnic. Among the authors were graduate students Steve Bellovin, Geoff Frank, Dave Kehs, Jim Lipscomb, and Mike Pique. My panel of reviewers agrees that the Colloquium Gavotte by Kehs was the pick of the songs, even though it did sling a sharp barb at me.

All three of these manifestations of humor peaked in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Soon thereafter, under the impetus of the second review of the graduate programs, the Department started to take its research very seriously. I sometimes wonder whether it also began to take itself very seriously.


By far the oldest identifiable laboratory in the Department is the Graphics and Imaging Lab. Long known as the G-Lab, it was created initially in the late 1960s by the installation of the IBM 2250 graphics engine in borrowed space in Phillips Hall. It has continued to expand to where it and its sublaboratories occupy much of the central core area of Sitterson Hall's level 2.

The Microelectronics Design Lab (MDL) was established with MCNC assistance in 1980. Its goal was to facilitate the design of microelectronic systems, particularly the chips. Its functions have gradually migrated into the individual design teams, and the MDL was dissolved in Spring 1993.

The Microelectronic Systems Lab (MSL) provides facilities for building prototypes of a variety of microtechnology-based systems to support research in the application of information processing in a multidisciplinary context. Established in 1981, it has become an exceptional academic prototyping laboratory.

The Software Systems Lab (SoftLab) was created in August 1983 with funding from our first infrastructure grant. Its purpose was to support experimentation in software systems, rapid software prototyping, and software for experimental machine architectures. It was also responsible for "productizing" our software for distribution to other organizations. After funding ran out, it ceased operation in September 1993.

The TextLab had focused since around 1985 on natural language analysis and retrieval systems, hypertext, and studies of users' cognitive behavior and strategy. Aided by ONR and NSF funding, we had begun in Fall 1989 to build a faculty presence in distributed systems. By incorporating these new faculty, the TextLab evolved in 1990-91 into the Collaboratory, working on group collaboration and on collaboration support systems. Within the Collaboratory exists also the DIRT (DIstributed and Real Time systems) group, established in Fall 1990. It operates the Multimedia Networking Lab for the study of operating system and network support for continuous media, particularly digital audio and video.

The Vision and Human-Computer Interaction Lab, established in October 1992, provides facilities for conducting research and performing visual experiments by Department researchers and by collaborators from several other departments.

Students at 1979 July Fourth Picnic

John Colotta, Kathy Yount, Lydia Papanikolaou, Paul Clements, and Vicki Baker, among others at the 1979 Fourth of July Department picnic. (Photo: Mike Pique, © Department of Computer Science, UNC-Chapel Hill)
Next Section: "Conclusion"

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