after the pdp-10 at swt san marcos in the early eighties came the utaustin astronomy department vax-11/780 in the late eighties and early nineties. there were a variety of astronomy and center for space research vax machines in those years, but this was the big one, and the one running bsd unix instead of vms.

vms was fine, but with the big vax and proliferating sun workstations, the spirit of the times was unix. this was the period when vi, emacs, fortran, latex, x windows, perl, and tcsh became part of everyday life. both vi and emacs were burned into muscle-memory. only vi is still fully there and actively used thirty-five years later.

the vax was the home of email addresses, one of the most visible groups of email and usenet users at utexas. in some sense, ut astronomy was an early hub of the internet. it was possible but less preferable to have an address. there was a non-astronomer tech staff person, david, with an office around the corner from the vax room who took care of the systems and administered the user accounts.

effectively the vax played the same role the pdp-10 had a few years earlier, a kind of ‘mainframe’ role. but the vax didn’t have old-style ‘batch processing’ facilities such as a glass-walled computer room, bins for output fan-fold paper stacks, and punch-cards.

the vax room was simply a large windowless lab space. through the front double doors, several terminals lined the right wall. at the back of the room, a refrigerator sized vms vax was dedicated to specialized iraf and fits astronomical imagining work. a large door in the right wall provided access to the home of the 11/780.

there was a single light-bulb and the back corners were dark. blasting air conditioning and computer fans kept it cold and loud. the vax itself fairly filled the space. there was just room enough for changing tapes or disk packs, and these were the main reasons for visiting. users took care of tapes and disk packs themselves, no tech staff involved. if it wasn’t exactly personal computing, it was at least hands on computing.