Wolfgang Neudorfer, Head of IT-Administration and longest-serving staff member of the Kolleg, remembers the beginnings of digitalization
In 1984, when I began working at the Wissenschaftskolleg, it had exactly two computers. One stood as a “typewriter” in the Rector’s office; a second was connected via data cable to the nearby Zuse Institute Berlin. I was 23 years old at the time and the proud owner of an intermediate diploma as a business teacher. My first major assignment was to retrieve information from a large survey databank for a Fellow’s social-science project. The data cable to the computer center operated painfully slowly, so I decided to peruse the data on site there. Awaiting me was a high-rise stuffed to the roof with what at the time was the most modern computer technology: countless magnetic tape readers, computer terminals that communicated via punch cards, wagonloads of printouts on stacked fanfold paper. Back then, when a user turned a computer on, all that greeted him was a black screen with an expectantly blinking cursor. Someone pressed an instruction manual as thick as a telephone book into my hand so that I could learn the programming language Fortran. It was the beginning of a great love.
At that time in the United States, BITNET had already begun its triumphal march. People began networking computers in Germany, as well. That was useful for sharing computer capacity, but also for sending data and electronic mail. As a highly modern research institute, the Wissenschaftskolleg soon acquired a computer with BITNET access. But first attempts with the brand-new e-mail technology had sobering results: delivering an electronic message, even to your neighbor in the office, took a whole day. I soon discovered the reason for this: until Germany was reunified, there was no way to connect a data cable from West Berlin to the main German BITNET hub in Braunschweig; it would have had to be threaded under the sovereign territory of communist East Germany! And so all e-mails from Berlin were collected at a central spot, saved on data tapes, and then driven in a VW beetle along the transit route through East Germany to Braunschweig. There, they were processed, saved once more to a tape, driven back to Berlin, and only then sent to the recipient. Fortunately, the VW beetle drove twice a day; otherwise, delivery would have taken twice as long.
At an advanced training course offered in 1992 by the German National Research and Education Network (DFN), an innovation called “Worldwide Web” was presented. We were shown bleak, text-heavy pages without relevant content that emerged painfully slowly. After this event, I was 100% convinced that this technology had no future. Thirty years later, I must admit that I underestimated the matter a little. As we computer scientists like to say when there are difficulties with computers: “The problem is usually sitting in front of the screen.”