A revolutionary educational project in the 1980s put the tools of computation in students’ hands — and foreshadowed even greater changes.
In October, the Institute announced the creation of the MIT Stephen A. Schwarzman College of Computing, an ambitious new enterprise that will allow students to better tailor their educational interests to their goals. But the ideas driving this exciting new effort may carry a distant echo — especially among alumni who were at MIT during the 1980s — from the time leadership launched another computing enterprise that dramatically changed how undergraduates and graduate students learned.
Project Athena was a campus-wide effort to make the tools of computing available to every discipline at the Institute and provide students with systematic access to computers. A new project that featured computer workstations and educational programming, Athena was a milestone in the history of distributed systems and inspired programs like Kerberos. It also revolutionized educational computing for the Institute and beyond, and created the computing environment that many students and faculty still work in today.
“Before we had [Athena], our students complained about the lack of computing in such a technology-centered institution,” says Joel Moses, an Institute Professor at MIT and one of the initial leaders of Project Athena. “Athena turned MIT into one of the most computer-rich institutions in the country.”
“The founders of of project Athena believed that computation should be used broadly by a lot of people for a lot of reasons,” says Daniela Rus, the Andrew and Erna Viterbi Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) and director of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.
“They set out to create an education environment to empower MIT students to do just that. Since then, the MIT faculty and students have left their fingerprints all over the biggest accomplishments in the field of computing from systems to theory to artificial intelligence,” she says.
In 1983, the year Project Athena began, it was still possible for students to receive a science or engineering degree from MIT without ever having touched a computer. That was despite digital computers having been on campus since 1947, when the Navy commissioned Whirlwind I, one of the world’s first real-time computers. (It was powered by vacuum tubes.) But at the time, computers were nearly all provided by research funds which restricted their use.
Pre-Athena, MIT students who needed to use computers could work on computing systems such as CTSS. These systems did have some drawbacks, though. For one thing, students often had to wait in line at all hours of the day to do their work. In 1969, the Institute moved from CTSS to MULTICS, which was supported primarily by research funds with limited access for educational purposes. It included a timeshare aspect which meant that if students went over their allotted time, they weren’t allowed to run any more programs until the timeshare refreshed.
“(Before Athena), there was no internet access or email, no way to share files, and no standard anything. There was no @mit.edu address,” says Earll Murman, the director of the latter half of the eight-year project. “Athena changed all of that.”
Even when personal computers first started to appear on campus in the mid to late 1980s, they were still too expensive for many students. For about $1,000 a consumer could buy a computer with a 5 MB hard drive — which today is about enough space to store an MP3 of Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” the song that topped of the charts in Athena’s first year.
The leadership at MIT knew that as a technology-centered school, MIT needed to incorporate more computing into their education. So, in May 1983, under the care of a committee of faculty from the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science — including then-EECS head Moses; Michael Dertouzos, the director of the Laboratory for Computer Science (now CSAIL); and Dean of the School of Engineering Gerald Wilson — the largest educational project ever undertaken at MIT was launched at the eventual cost of around $100 million. The project was largely paid for with funding from the Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) and IBM.
The leaders of the project named it “Project Athena” after the ancient Greek goddess of wisdom, war, and the crafts. Unlike her namesake, however, Athena did not spring fully formed and outfitted with programs from the head of her creators. When the project started, it was ambitious and a little vague. Goals spanned from creating a cohesive network of compatible computers, to establishing a knowledge base for future decisions in educational computing, to helping students share information and learn more fully across all disciplines.
To supply the system with some clarity and direction, the committee went to the faculty and asked them to develop their own software for use in their classes and for students to work on. Projects — there were 125 in total — ranged from aerospace engineering simulations to language-learning applications to biology modeling tools.
Athena took off.
“I felt that we would know Athena was successful if we were surprised by some of the applications,” Moses says. “It turned out that our surprises were largely in the humanities.”
One such surprise was the Athena Writing Project, spearheaded by MIT professors James Paradis and Ed Barrett, which aimed to create an online classroom system for teaching scientific writing. The system allowed students to edit and annotate papers, present classwork, and turn in assignments.
Of course, in order for students to be able to use all the educational programming, there had to be enough terminals for them to access the system. That’s where Professor Jerome Saltzer came in. While much of the leadership of the project was focused on overseeing the faculty proposals and research, Saltzer stepped in as the technical director of the project in 1983 and led the effort to bring the physical workstations, made by IBM, to all students.
Luckily for Saltzer and MIT, from its inception and beyond, Project Athena was on the cutting edge of distributed systems computing at the time. The Institute found a range of willing partners in industry, such as IBM and DEC, that were willing to provide MIT with funding, technology and hardware.
Project Athena formally ended in 1991. By then the project (and computing in general) had become much more pervasive and commonplace in MIT students’ lives. There were hundreds of Athena workstations located in clusters around the campus, and students were using them to measure bloodflow, design airplane wings, practice political science debates, digital revise their humanities papers, and hundreds of other things.
Athena’s wisdom today
It has now been 27 years since Project Athena ended, but the Athena computing environment is still a part of everyday life at MIT. There are Athena clusters located around campus, with many workstations hooked up to printers and available to students 24 hours a day, seven days a week (although there are fewer workstations than there once were, and they are typically used for more specialized applications).
Though Project Athena’s main goals were educational, it had long-lasting effects on a range of technologies, products, and services that the MIT community touches every day, often without even knowing it. Athena’s impact can be seen in the integration of third-party software like Matlab into education. Its use of overlapping windows — students could be watching videos in one window, chatting with friends and classmates in another, and working on homework in a third — was the start of the X Window system, which is now common on Unix displays. Athena also led to the development of the Kerberos authentication system (named, in keeping with the Greek mythology motif, after the three-headed dog which guards the Underworld) which is now used at institutions around the world.
For Drew Houston ’05, Athena was a source of inspiration.
“With Athena, you could sit down at any of the (hundreds) of workstations on campus and your whole environment followed you around — not only your files,” he says. “When I graduated, not only did I not have that anymore, but it felt like for most people they didn’t have anything like that, so I certainly saw a big opportunity to deliver that kind of experience to a much larger audience.”
The result was Dropbox, which Houston and his co-founder launched in 2008, allowing users to access their files from any synced device. “When we recruited engineers, part of our pitch was we were trying to build Athena for the rest of the world,” Houston says.
As MIT moves forward with the new college, Vice Chancellor Ian Waitz sees a parallel between the college and Project Athena. Like the new college, Athena was a way to change the structure of MIT’s education and provide a platform for students to create and problem-solve.
“One of the things that we do here is try to provide resources for people to use, and they may even use them in ways that we don’t imagine,” Waitz says. “That’s a pretty broad analogy to a lot of the stuff that we do here at MIT — we bring bright people together and give them the tools and problems to solve, and they’ll go off and do it.”
“Computers have made our daily lives easier in a million ways that people don’t even notice, from online shopping to digital cameras, from antilock brakes to electronic health records, and everything in between,” adds Rus.
“Computing helps us with all the little things and it is also vital to the really big things like traveling to the stars, sequencing the human genome, making our food, medicines, and lives safer,” she says. “Through the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing we will create the education and research environment to make computing a stronger tool and find new ways to apply it.”