The History of Computing at Vassar

left to right: Nancy Ide, Winifred Asprey, Grace Hopper Photo wall in Asprey Lab:
Matriarchs of Computing

Central to the history of computing at Vassar College is its founder, Winifred Asprey. Ms. Asprey, or Tim as she liked to be called, graduated from Vassar in 1938, and regularly told students that she had more fun here as a student than they ever had. After teaching at a few private schools in New York City and Chicago, Asprey went on to earn a M.S. in Mathematics, and a Ph.D. in 1945 from the University of Iowa.

As an undergraduate and as a professor, Ms. Asprey formed a strong relationship with Grace Hopper, the First Lady of Computing. Hopper taught Mathematics while Asprey was an undergraduate, and Ms. Asprey fondly recalled how amazing a professor Hopper really was. In fact, Asprey lived in the house that Grace and her husband Vincent built here at Vassar.

When Asprey finally did return as a Professor to Vassar, Hopper had moved onward to Philadelphia to work on the UNIVAC project there. Asprey became interested in computing because it was a young field in Mathematics, and at the time presented a great opportunity for women to advance in the field. So Asprey called Hopper and said “You know Grace, I think that this computer thing is an area that Vassar should look into.” Hopper said “Tim, I thought you'd never wake up.”

So Grace invited Asprey down to Philadelphia to work on the UNIVAC project. It was there that Asprey learned about numerical analysis, the binary, octal and hexadecimal conversions that are the foundation of computer architecture as we know it today. She also became acquainted with many IBMers whom she subsequently invited to teach computing courses at Vassar.

Asprey secured the funds for Vassar's first computer, the IBM 360, which was purchased in 1967. At the same time, she established Computer Science Studies and set up a Mathematics and Computer Science major. She served as chair of Computer Science Studies until her retirement in 1982. As Professor Emeritus, she remained an active member of the Vassar Computer Science community until her death at the age of 90 in October, 2007.

More articles and photographs:

  • Winifred A. Asprey, '38. “Vassar's Newest Jewel: the 360.” Vassar Alumnae Magazine, April, 1967, pp. 2–6. PDF