Important Events in the History of Digital Higher Education: The Andrew Project at Carnegie Mellon University

by Heather Walker, Program Coordinator, DigiTex

“Carnegie Mellon University” by Jon Dawson is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.

In the 1970s the United States Department of Defense launched ARPANET, a network that connected government agencies and universities to allow for electronic messaging (e-mails) and file sharing (Carnegie Mellon, 2007c). This initiative was, essentially, an internet before there was an internet. Groundbreaking though it was, the communication potential that was exhibited by ARPANET was constrained by the prohibitive expense of computers as well as their relatively limited functionality at the time. It wasn’t until October 1981, when President Richard Cyert of Carnegie Mellon University created a project task force to study the future of computing at the university, that networked computing began to enter a new phase. 

Professor Allen Newell, Photo by Ben Shneiderman

Professor Allen Newell of the Carnegie Mellon Computer Science department chaired the Task Force for the Future of Computing, and under his leadership, the group was able to make its recommendation within four months: to create “an organization to develop and refine a prototype computing environment for academic use” (Carnegie Mellon, 2007d). Following on the recommendation of the task force, in October 1982 Carnegie Mellon teamed up with IBM to create the Information Technology Center (ITC), an organization that would be tasked with creating an integrated computing environment for the university (Carnegie Mellon, 2007d). A large grant from IBM funded not only the ITC but also provided equipment, a research and development center, and thirty of IBM’s computer scientists and engineers to assist with the project (Arms, 2014). 

The ITC’s vision for Carnegie Mellon’s computing future included two key requirements. Firstly, the new computing environment must serve faculty, staff, and students — beginners and experts alike — using a system that combined the best features of personal computing and time-sharing technology. Secondly, it must be founded upon a reliable network and allow for “networked information storage, multiple-application processing, and growth capability” (Carnegie Mellon, 2007d). To make this future a reality, both a data communications network and a software system that allowed campus-wide access to files and printers would be needed. With these goals in mind, the ITC embarked upon its five-year Andrew Project, named after the two founders of Carnegie Mellon University, Andrew Carnegie and Andrew Mellon (Carnegie Mellon, 2007a).

Not surprisingly, financial considerations played a key role in the execution of the Andrew Project. In 1983, computers cost roughly $3,000 per workstation, so it would not have been feasible to ask CMU’s 7,000 students to purchase their own computers. Therefore, the university opted to design cluster facilities with multiple computers at each workstation. In total, the initial network comprised 600 computers and would grow as the Project expanded (Carnegie Mellon, 2007c). 

At the time of the Project, Carnegie Mellon had an existing ethernet structure in place, and this structure was used as the foundation of the new university intranet and augmented by wiring technology from IBM. Standard internet protocols were adopted (a revolutionary approach at the time), and Unix was chosen as the standard operating system for all computers. Although this was a controversial choice, the Unix system was widely used for research among institutions of higher education in the 1980s (Carnegie Mellon, 2007c) and was, therefore, a logical choice.  

By 1987, the Andrew Project was up and running and consisted of three primary components. Andrew Message System provided both e-mail and a bulletin board system. As an e-mail client it was quite advanced for its time and supported a number of features that we see as standard today including sorting, read vs. unread messages, predictive addresses in the “To” line, attachments, date and time stamps, and so forth. As a bulletin board system it provided students, faculty, and staff with on-demand access to important announcements from the university. Andrew Toolkit, which was first known as VIRTUE (Virtue is Reached Through Unix and Emacs), was the interface that allowed users to “edit multi-media components such as fonts, graphics, spreadsheets, or sound.” Andrew File System, which was first known as VICE (Vast Integrated Computing Environment), allowed users to share files safely and effectively throughout the CMU computing environment (Carnegie Mellon, 2007e). In addition, Andrew File System controlled the “underlying network, authentication servers, and related campus-wide infrastructure” (Carnegie Mellon, 2007c). 

The completed Andrew Project was a powerful system that provided users with the ability to “exchange electronic mail and messages, call up campus bulletin-board notices, receive and complete course assignments, compose research papers, retrieve database information from files, libraries, and campus directories, and receive instruction in university courses” (Technology News, 1987). As if these achievements were not enough, the Andrew Project continued to grow and develop over the next five years until finally Andrew went wireless. In 1992 with Wireless Andrew, Carnegie Mellon became the first campus in the world to provide its faculty, staff, and students with the ability to access all of the resources of Andrew using laptops and personal digital assistants rather than computers that were hard-wired to the network (Carnegie Mellon, 2007b). 

“Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania” by Tony Webster is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

It would be difficult to overstate the importance of the Andrew Project in the history of digital higher education. President Cyert himself called it “perhaps the most significant development in higher education in the twentieth century” (Carnegie Mellon, 2007a). As the first of its kind, the Andrew Project paved the way for networked computing as we know it. The team of the Information Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon truly made history and pioneered the future! 



Arms, W. Y. (2014, June). Networks of Personal Computers: Carnegie Mellon and the Andrew Project. In The Early Years of Academic Computing. Internet First University Press.

Carnegie Mellon University. (2007a). The Andrew Project. Retrieved from

Carnegie Mellon University. (2007b). The Andrew Project: Andrew Today. Retrieved from

Carnegie Mellon University. (2007c). The Andrew Project: History (The Details). Retrieved from

Carnegie Mellon University. (2007d). The Andrew Project: History (An Overview). Retrieved from

Carnegie Mellon University. (2007e). The Andrew Project: What Is Andrew?. Retrieved from

Technology News: Advanced Computing Network Initiated at Carnegie Mellon University. (1987). Educational Technology, 27(2), 4-6. Retrieved from 

“Carnegie Mellon University” by Jon Dawson is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.

“Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania” by Tony Webster is licensed under CC BY 2.0.