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Winifred Asprey: Into the Future

[ photo: Winifred Asprey ]

Into the Future

In the early 1950s, a student asked mathematics professor Winifred Asprey '38 a question that changed her life. "I love math," the student said, "but what can a math major do after graduation except teach or get a job as a statistician?" Asprey replied, "Have you thought about the new field of computers?" Computers were just beginning to emerge from the shroud of wartime secrecy. Asprey had never actually seen one, but she'd been reading about them, and she knew that her former teacher and very good friend Grace Murray Hopper '28 was a member of a Naval research team working on computers. That night, she called Hopper and asked, "Grace, should Vassar be getting into computing?" Hopper replied, "Winnie, I have been waiting for you to wake up. Why don't you come down to Philadelphia for the weekend and watch me teach the monster how to do calculus?"

For the next decade, buoyed by her students' enthusiasm, Asprey literally devoted her life to the computer. She spent a year at the IBM research center on a fellowship from IBM, read everything she could get her hands on, attended professional conferences, used her sabbatical and summers to study computer architecture, made connections with the top researchers at IBM and other research centers, and constantly and with characteristic good humor lobbied the Vassar faculty and administrators to get with the program.

Under her leadership, Vassar became one of the first liberal arts colleges in the U.S. to establish a computer center and to offer courses in computer science (the first course was given in 1963) and the second college in the country to acquire an IBM System/360. In a special VQ issue on "Vassar's Newest Jewel," Asprey wrote, "On January 11, 1967, Vassar became the proud, though awed, owner of an IBM System/360, Model 30E, a high-speed electronic computer. We are pioneering."

Asprey interview, April 6, 2005
VQ Spring 1967
Photo credit: Archives and Special Collections