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Hawaii’s World

By A.A. Smyser

Thursday, August 24, 2000

A computer network
operating at UH-Manoa

TEN years ago is a long time if you're young, a much smaller chunk of time relatively if you are soon to be 80, as I am.

So I am awed at how much has happened since I wrote a column on Aug. 30, 1990, about the furtive way a computer network had to be started on the University of Hawaii's Manoa campus.

Professor Daniel S. Watanabe had come back to his Hawaii home from a position at the University of Illinois to discover that the only computers in his Department of Information and Computer Sciences were homemade rigs "best used for boat anchors."

With leadership from a community-spirited business leader, the late Herbert C. Cornuelle, $280,000 was raised for a decent computer.

But that led to a new problem. The computer was housed two buildings away from Watanabe's office. A connection was needed and Watanabe was sure getting official permission would take forever.

Thus began a saga of furtive wire-stringing, cable-laying, hole-boring and pick-and-shovel ditch-digging. One cable section was housed in a discarded hose from a K-135 refueling aircraft.

As word leaked out about what was up, other departments in other buildings asked to be connected. The stealth work force expanded to 10 or so faculty members and graduate assistants before the university discovered it officially and then blessed it ex post facto. It asked only to be told where the cables were buried.

In preparing that 1990 column, I was awed to go to Keller Hall and see links opened simultaneously to Australia and Amsterdam. This was thanks to the genius of making much from little contributed by Torben Nielsen, a Danish computer whiz. He was drawn here by the allure of Hawaii and the $280,000 computer.

The emphasis then was entirely on academic and scientific applications. Nielsen engineered connections to UH-Hilo, the observatories atop Mauna Kea and soon the entire UH system. Hawaii became the link whereby mainland academic institutions could connect to the Pacific and Asia.

All this had been accomplished in the two years before I wrote my story. Still to come, of course, was the World Wide Web, which now brings the Bangkok Post, the New York Times and connections to the Library of Congress and the Louvre in Paris -- plus email -- even into a bedroom of our home in Waialae-Kahala.

NIELSEN, his wife, Lisa, Watanabe and I talked about this recently over lunch. The men still are at UH -- Watanabe as a professor at the Hawaii Institute of Geophysics and Planetology, Nielsen as a specialist there.

But the three of them have branched into a private business they call Apogee Solutions Ltd. It supplies relatively cheap surface connections to the 20 orbiting satellites that transmit earth science data. These have a 15-foot diameter and look like a giant bird bath when not scanning the sky.

"Relatively cheap" means $500,000 instead of $5 million. Buyers have been Tokai University in Japan, Oregon State University and the University of South Florida. Smaller equipment also is offered.

Nielsen and Watanabe believe that the great revolution in computer network building is over but that a fantastic evolution in further ingenious applications lies ahead.

New ones are being thought up almost every day. The picture telephone will be in most homes in 10 years, they believe -- plus a lot more than anyone now can predict.

A.A. Smyser is the contributing editor
and former editor of the the Star-Bulletin
His column runs Tuesday and Thursday.

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