There is something a bit poignant about hanging around in a University research lab after the semester is over, and classes are done. One by one people depart. Many go home to their respective families, others fly off to visit friends.

As the post-semester week progresses, the usual bustle of activity is gradually replaced by an eerie silence. This place starts to feel less like a lab and more like a very high-tech sort of spiritual retreat.

A few of us will still be around in the next week or so, and we who remain will have each other for company. A small yet hardy band of hackers.

2 thoughts on “Retreat”

  1. The description of a quiet lab reminds me of this story:

    The University of Utah was one of the original hotbeds of computer graphics research in the late 60’s and 70’s. Many industry leaders of the era were graduate students there. But by the time I arrived in ’81, the funding had run out, and there was very little activity in graphics research.

    One evening, I was discussing the school’s illustrious past with a staff member named Steve. I asked about all the equipment they must have had for their work. Back then, a frame buffer capable of displaying an image was the size of a phone booth. Now it’s a tiny corner of a tiny chip behind a screen in your pocket.

    It was late at night, and nobody was around. “C’mon, let me show you something.” Steve said. We walked down the hall. It turns out Steve had a magic key that unlocked most any door in the department. Steve opened the door to an office I’d never been to before. We went to the back of it, and he opened another door to a small office in the back. Inside, a desk was in front of yet another door. “Gimme a hand here…” Steve said, as we pushed the desk out of the way to get to the last door.

    Steve unlocked it and flicked on the lights. You stepped up onto a raised floor. And there it was, the original Utah graphics lab. There was on old mainframe computer, several racks wide. One of the first Evans & Sutherland frame buffers (maybe the one built by Jim Kajiya?) The filming station used by Ed Catmull to make one of the original computer animated movies. The adjoining room was a sound lab, perhaps the very one used by Tom Stockham to analyze the Nixon tapes to try and find voices on the mysterious erased 18 minutes.

    Normally, machine rooms then were incredibly noisy places, as fans roared to keep the equipment cool. But this was eerily quiet. A thin layer of dust covered much of the elaborate equipment.

    Of course, in a situation like that, you’d normally be snapping photos of such a historical treasure. But this was long before you always had a camera in your pocket, so I’ll have to make do with the memory.

    [Epilogue: The department got a large NSF grant a year or so later. The old lab as gutted, refinished, and new gadgets installed]

  2. Wow, what a rare privilege that must have been, to see the birthplace of modern computer graphics! Thanks for sharing that.

    Too bad the people who build the new lab didn’t have the foresight to preserve all that invaluable history.

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