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The last computer APSU will ever need

“Thor” lived in Huntsville, Alabama. He was an early tech savant—an expert on the VAX-11/780 computer system—who didn’t like to give out his real name. But there was a number, and in the early 1980s, staff members working in the Austin Peay State University Computer Center often tried to reach him by phone.

            “We would call for him at all hours of the day and night, as it was not unusual for him to work several days straight, and then be gone for several days straight (presumably sleeping),” Charles Wall, former director of information technology at APSU, said. “We never knew when we were going to find him.”

            Thirty years ago, this elusive “Thor” was the University’s best hope for tech support after it bought the state’s first VAX computer. The machine, which cost $225,000, arrived in April 1979 to support APSU’s new computer science degree program.

            “President (Robert) Riggs used buying that computer as an excuse for not giving faculty raises that year,” Dr. Bruce Myers, former chair of the APSU Department of Computer Science and Information Technology, said. “And he said he doubted if Austin Peay would ever need another computer.”

            Myers, then a mathematics professor, took a year off of teaching that spring to set up and manage the VAX. The beige colored computer, which moved slower and had less memory than modern iPhones, took up three large cabinets in the basement of the Browning Building. It was considered such a state-of-the-art machine that it became a sort of local celebrity. 

            One afternoon in the early 1980s, the Chamber of Commerce contacted Wall because a production company was filming a Kenny Rodgers video in town, and they needed a VAX. The company had heard that APSU owned one.

            “I told them we did and said it would be fine for them to use it,” Wall recalled. “A few hours later what they really needed was a FAX, not a VAX. My chance for credit on the video was gone.”

            At other universities, students still learned computer programming by using punch cards. For a program to work, the cards had to be inserted in a specific order into old IBM machines.

            “If you ever dropped your card deck, and they’d get out of order, you’d have a big problem,” Myers said. “The VAX was the next generation.”

            APSU was ahead of the curve in purchasing the computer, but that also created a problem; where do you go to for support when something goes wrong?

            “Our VAX was one of the early ones sold, and there weren’t many resources to call on for help,” Wall said. The closest machine was in Huntsville. “The guru there was a fellow who went by the name ‘Thor’ and worked his own schedule.”

            When they could get a hold of him, “Thor” helped keep the VAX running, and in 1982, Riggs’ decree that the University wouldn’t need another computer turned out to be a bit presumptuous. That year, APSU bought a second VAX to run the University’s business processes.

Within a few years, the University no longer needed Thor’s help. But in the early 1980s, he helped lay the foundation for one of APSU’s thriving degree programs.

            If you know of any APSU legends, either true or unconfirmed, please contact Charles Booth at boothcw@apsu.edu.