Important Events in the History of Digital Higher Education: MIT’s Project Athena & Integrated Computing

“Massachusetts Institute of Technology – Building 10 and Dome (1975)” by Roger W is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

by Heather Walker, Program Coordinator, DigiTex

Imagine a college classroom stripped of technology: no instructor or student computers, no projector, no PowerPoint slides for lectures, no Blackboard or Canvas for the dissemination of assignments and tracking of grades. Pretty difficult, isn’t it? In the 25+ years since technology started to become a fixture in the classroom, we’ve grown so accustomed to having it with us that it would be difficult to imagine teaching without it. For most of us, all of our technological aids just make teaching so much easier and offer such a wide range of options to reach our students! However, those who were teaching in the early 1980s might remember a time of tremendous growth in the world of computing, prior to the advent of computers in the classroom. Universities were just beginning to recognize the tremendous academic potential of computers, which had previously been associated primarily with mathematical computations. This technological awakening spawned a number of pivotal computing projects which would shape the future of academic computing for many years to come. In a previous post we looked at the Andrew Project at Carnegie Mellon University, which created the first networked computing environment at a university. Equally important was the impressive Project Athena at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which produced the first distributed computing environment at a university and integrated computing into the school’s curriculum. 

Before beginning its program, MIT previously had approached several vendors with requests for funding in 1982. Perhaps due to a growing interest in bringing computing to college campuses, MIT received many more bids for sponsorship than it had anticipated. After vetting the candidates, the university ultimately opted for a dual partnership with IBM, then also working with Carnegie Mellon University on the Andrew Project, and with Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), who previously had bid for sponsorship of the Andrew Project and lost to IBM (Champine, 1991).

Athena, Greek goddess of wisdom

In May 1983, MIT formally announced Project Athena, a five-year program whose mission was to integrate computing into the curriculum at MIT. The name itself was suggested by the wife of MIT professor Chris Chrysostomidis, after Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom. By June of that same year, the Coherence/Technical Committee had been established. To facilitate the smooth development of the project, the Committee made several key decisions at the outset that would substantially shape the project. Firstly, they determined that the project should be coherent. While this is a packed word that can involve many different factors, it largely indicated a goal of providing a stable computing system that would consistently meet the needs of faculty, staff, and students. To achieve this goal, the Committee decided to implement a uniform software system across the campus computing environment using Unix, Emacs, Scribe, C, FORTRAN, and LISP (Champine, 1991). 

The Committee next determined that the hardware and software used by Athena should be selected with an eye to their growth potential. Thus, more complex systems and softwares were employed over simpler options (Unix over DOS, C over Basic, workstations over PCs, etc.). Additionally, to protect the coherence of the project, it was decided that Athena would manage the system, rather than handing control of the various computer workstations to the different departments at MIT. Finally, the system initially would be available only to undergraduate students, as graduate students already had greater access to computing systems than undergraduates (and, therefore, less of a need for the Athena system at the time). Once the Athena system was built out with a larger number of workstations, then usage would be extended to graduate students and researchers (Champine, 1991).

The first phase of implementation, which spanned the years 1983-1985, involved deploying a smaller time-sharing system. The idea was to get some computing technology into the hands of faculty and students as quickly as possible. The early deployment of this system also allowed users to adjust to the Unix operating system and bought time for project developers to create the infrastructure that would be needed to support the newer workstation system. Not surprisingly, the facilitators drew inspiration from the project’s name and chose to continue the use of names taken from Greek mythology, naming some of the time-sharing systems Zeus, Charon, Agamemnon, and Theseus (Champine, 1991).

During the critical first five years of the Project, funding was available to faculty members who wanted to propose educational software for the new system so that they could integrate the new computing technology into their courses. Faculty members would develop the teaching and learning methods and describe the functionality that they were looking for, and then a team, often composed of students, would do the programming of the software. A total of 125 projects were funded, with grants ranging from $5,000 to $1 million. Of these projects, “about one third resulted in software that is used regularly in courses, about one third resulted in nothing useful, and the rest fell somewhere in between.” Most requests for funding came from engineering faculty, but there were also many requests from faculty in other disciplines including Architecture, the Humanities and Social Sciences, and the Sciences (Champine, 1991). Of particular note was the Athena Writing Project, proposed by Professors James Paradis and Ed Barrett. Their goal was to create an online environment for the teaching of scientific writing. Once finished, their system allowed students to submit assignments, present to the class, and revise writing projects (Charles and Frederick, 2018). 

A grumpy fuzzball stand-in

As it got off the ground, progress on Project Athena began to pick up. The years 1985-1988 saw the installation of the workstation system, which had been the ultimate goal of the project from the start. Beginning in 1988 and onward, the program focused on improvement in the reliability and stability of the system, with the addition of more workstations throughout campus (Champine, 1991). Everyone was engaged in the project, including the students, who occasionally had some fun with the Athena system. In a more notable incident, during finals week in the Fall semester of 1989, a group of students hacked into over 200 computers, replacing the traditional Athena owl on the logon screen with a grumpy fuzzball. The students enjoyed the replacement and noted that “the fuzzball resembled a burned-out owl and thought it was a fitting revision for the final week of classes.” As Athena staffers scrambled to find the code responsible for the hack, it was determined that the hack was harmless, and it was allowed to continue. Indeed, the logon screens reverted to the original owl less than twenty-four hours later. However, this incident remains as one of the more charming and humorous stories from the project (Grumpy Fuzzball, n.d.).

While Project Athena formally ended in 1991, it created ripples in the computing world that  would be felt for many years to come. One outgrowth of the program was the X Windows system which is now commonly used in the Unix operating system. This system allows users to keep multiple windows open, in which they may perform multiple unrelated tasks, in much the same way that a web browser allows a user to visit multiple unrelated web pages simultaneously through different tabs. Another important development from the project was the Kerberos authentication system, which is named “after the three-headed dog which guards the Underworld” in Greek mythology (Charles and Frederick, 2018) and is still widely used at various institutions today. 

Even more impressive is the brainchild of Drew Houston, a 2005 graduate of MIT. After enjoying the advantages of the Athena system as a student at the university, Drew found that he missed the convenience of being able to take his work environment and files with him everywhere. Noticing that there really wasn’t an equivalent to Athena at the time, he developed the Dropbox cloud file storage program as a way of replicating the Athena experience for users outside of MIT. This service, which launched in 2008, was among the earliest cloud computing applications and is still in use today (Charles and Frederick, 2018). 

As was the Andrew Project at Carnegie Mellon University, Project Athena was a defining venture in the history of digital higher education which has forever shaped academic computing. As the first distributed computing environment, the project introduced many of the concepts and functions which we now think of as indispensable and paved the way for today’s cloud computing. It also made MIT one of the first universities to fully integrate computing technology into a curriculum. It’s not a stretch to say that pedagogy as we know it today would probably have looked very different, were it not for Project Athena.


Champine, G. A. (1991). MIT project Athena: a model for distributed campus computing. Internet Archive. Bedford, MA: Digital Press. /page/n17/mode/2up

Charles, E., & Frederick, A. (2018, November 11). Looking back at Project Athena. MIT News. 

Grumpy Fuzzball. IHTFP Hack Gallery. (n.d.).

“Massachusetts Institute of Technology – Building 10 and Dome (1975)” by Roger W is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0