Pressures and Goals
There were two major purposes in designing the Rice machine. The first was to provide a platform on which members of the Rice community could do research that would have been impossibly time-consuming without access to a computer. This was, in fact, the major reason that the project was started: Zevi Salsburg wanted a machine as powerful as Los Alamos's MANIAC II to simulate fluid flow. He did not, however, have any desire to move to Los Alamos, and therefore needed a computer to be built at Rice.
The other goal of the machine was to do research into how computers should be built. In the years following John von Neumann's death, the Atomic Energy Commission became quite interested in funding computer research: Salsburg's request came at a time when the AEC's goals could be better met by funding the development of a new system than by offering to build a copy of MANIAC II or to buy a stock IBM computer.
Towards the end of 1956, Zevi Salsburg, John Kilpatrick, and Larry Biedenharn, all Rice professors, decided they needed a computer "like the one at Los Alamos." The Atomic Energy Commission, to whom they applied for funding, told the three that, if they could procure an engineer, grant money for a computer's development would be forthcoming. Martin Graham, who had been working at Brookhaven National Laboratory and had done the transformer coupling for Los Alamos's MANIAC II, was invited down to Houston in February of 1957, and became an associate professor in the electrical engineering department at Rice University.
Graham designed the hardware of the Rice Computer, and most of his plans were implemented by Joe Bighorse, the project's head technician. "Joe Bighorse," claimed Graham, "is the best technician I ever had work for me. Anywhere." The combination of a skilled engineer and an excellent technician--as well a Rice alumnus's donation of the use of his tool and die shop for the machining of the computer--produced an extremely well-engineered machine at all levels of design. Since Rice was getting custom machining, the physical layout was designed to hardware requirements rather than having hardware made to fit off-the-shelf structural components. Construction on the machine proceeded from 1958-1961. A copy of the machine was also built at the University of Oklahoma.
Parts of the machine began functioning in 1959, and the computer finally became fully operational in 1961. While not the first computer on campus--a Litton LGP-30 shared by the Mechanical Engineering and Chemical Engineering departments was in use in 1957--it quickly became Rice's primary computer and remained in that role until supplanted by an IBM 7040, followed by a Burroughs B5500, in the late 1960's. Graham took a year-long sabbatical at the University of California at Berkeley in 1964; when he returned in 1965, he ran afoul of departmental politics and the Dean of the School of Engineering, and returned to Berkeley on a permanent basis in 1966. Sigsby Rusk assumed the leadership of the Computer Project. Most of the graduate students who had helped with the construction of the machine, such as Ted Schutz, Joel Cyprus, Phil Deck, and Dwayne Chesnut, had left by 1964, and Joe Bighorse departed shortly after Graham.
The R1 was decommissioned in 1971 when the cost of maintaining and powering it had become prohibitively expensive for the limited amount of computation it was able to provide. The R1 was initially named "The Rice Institute Computer" and then became "The Rice University Computer". It acquired the "R1" moniker when it was being used in the design of the Rice Research Computer, a tagged-architecture ECL machine modeled on John Iliffe's Basic Language Machine. Presumably "R2" was a convenient designation for the Rice Research Computer, as Rice's second machine, and "R1" was thus coined as the obvious label for Rice's first computer.
Funding For the Rice Computer
A three-year AEC grant of $250,000 was forthcoming for machine development, supplemented by a five-year Shell Oil grant for $150,000. At some point before 1964, the NSF took over control of funding the project from the AEC: SPIREL and the AP1 assembler were developed with NSF funds. By 1968, external funding for the R1 had essentially ceased