Utah’s Computer Innovators

In short

You’re probably reading this on a computer, maybe using the Internet. Did you know that some of the inventions that made that possible started in Utah? 

In the late 1960s, a few people in Utah had big ideas about how to make computers more usable, especially with graphics. Then in 1969, the University of Utah became the fourth node connected to ARPANET, the first version of the Internet. By the late 1970s, people in Utah County were coming up with more ideas about word processing.

Evans, Sutherland, and the University of Utah

In the 1960s, the University of Utah was just starting its Computer Science department. David C. Evans, who grew up in Salt Lake City and had been working on computer projects in California, played a big part in making that happen. Evans convinced Ivan Sutherland, a computer graphics legend, to come to Utah. They taught at the university and, in 1968, started an important company called Evans & Sutherland Computer Corporation. The two men focused on graphics and making computers more usable. An important part of their work was teaching college students, who had their own big ideas about computers.

ARPANET

At the same time, the United States Department of Defense was looking for ways to connect different computers together. The Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) wanted computers to communicate with each other, but not from a central headquarters that an enemy could easily attack. 

ARPA looked for universities with good computer science programs to be part of this effort. Because David Evans had built up the U.’s computer science reputation, the University of Utah became the fourth university to join what was called ARPANET in December 1969. The other three were the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), Stanford Research Institute (SRI), and the University of California-Santa Barbara (UCSB). Those first four nodes in ARPANET started the revolution that is the Internet.

Silicone Slopes

One of David Evans’s students was Alan C. Ashton, who grew up in Salt Lake City. As a student, Ashton had an idea for word processing software. In 1978, when he was a professor at Brigham Young University (BYU), Ashton started to work on his idea with one of his students, Bruce Bastian. The City of Orem, near BYU, asked them to create a word processing program. By 1982, their software—WordPerfect—had been released on the IBM personal computer (PC). WordPerfect was the world’s main word processing program for many years. 

In the early 1980s, a group of computer science students from BYU began developing networking technology and formed a company called Novell Inc. Because of all the energy from local universities, companies, and people, more and more tech companies started in Utah Valley. By the early 1990s, this area was called “Software Valley,” and in the 2000s it became known as “Silicon Slopes.” Utah’s computer industry draws thousands of new immigrants to the state from across the country and the world every year.