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October 11, 2004

Thirty Years Later, Computer Scientists Who Popularized
Early PC Language Return To UCSD Pascal’s Birthplace 

By Doug Ramsey

Dozens of alumni who worked on a ground-breaking language for what would later be called the personal computer will gather at the University of California, San Diego to mark the 30th anniversary of the computer language UCSD Pascal. The UCSD Pascal Reunion Symposium will take place on Friday, October 22, from 1 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. in the Price Center Ballroom on the UCSD campus in La Jolla, CA. The symposium will feature talks by several former researchers on the project, including the project’s leader, professor emeritus Kenneth Bowles, as well as presentations by current CSE faculty. (Symposium).

Organized by UCSD’s Jacobs School of Engineering and its Computer Science and Engineering (CSE) department, the symposium is co-sponsored by the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology [Cal-(IT)²]. “UCSD Pascal became both a programming language and an operating system for some of the earliest personal computers,” recalled CSE chair Mohan Paturi. “Its development not only put computer science at UCSD on the map in a big way, but its innovations also had a major impact on developers of other languages and operating systems at Apple, Microsoft, and elsewhere.”

Pascal was originally created by Swiss scientist Niklaus Wirth in 1969 for use on mainframe computers. Starting in 1974, Bowles – who at the time directed UCSD’s computing center – began to adapt Pascal for use on so-called “microcomputers,” precursors of today’s PCs. His primary interest at the time was a programming language that would allow students to work individually on projects without waiting their turn to do batch processing on the mainframe. But Bowles also foresaw the value of portable software that would allow programmers to write something once and run it anywhere. His solution was pseudo-code – p-code for short – an intermediate language to run on each machine and serve as a uniform translator. (Even Sun Microsystems’ Java language incorporates p-code.)

Kenneth Bowles

Since most of his fellow computer-science faculty members were involved in more theoretical research, Bowles turned instead to students to fulfill his dream. He recruited one graduate student, Mark Overgaard, and a handful of undergraduates. At one point or another, more than 70 students were involved in the UCSD Pascal project, doing everything from writing code to shipping floppy disks to research centers around the world (for a token $15 royalty fee). In the early 1980's the University of California sold rights to the technology to SofTech Systems, which tried but failed to convince IBM to adopt UCSD Pascal as the core operating system of its first personal computers.(Bill Gates’ MS-DOS, of course, won the IBM contract.)

Overgaard and several other members of Bowles’ initial research team will participate in a roundtable discussion during the October 22 symposium. Some will also deliver presentations, including Richard Kaufmann, class of ’78, now a distinguished technologist at Hewlett-Packard, who will reminisce on “What the Heck Was UCSD Pascal?;” and Roger Sumner, ’77, president of Beach Software Designs, who will discuss Pascal’s far-reaching impact. The highlight of the conference is expected to be a 15-minute presentation by Ken Bowles. “Ken is the most intelligent person I have ever met in my life, and one of the kindest,” Keith Shillington, '78, told a reporter for a commemorative article in @UCSD, the university’s new alumni magazine. “He is truly a great human being.”

The UCSD Pascal Reunion Symposium is open to the public and the news media, free of charge. Attendees are asked to register online. For a history of the UCSD Pascal program, including recollections from many of the speakers who will attend the symposium, read “UCSD Pascal and the PC Revolution,” by Christine Foster, in the September 2004 issue of @UCSD.

Media Contact: Doug Ramsey, (858) 822-5825

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