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The University Magazine

Computer-operated soda machine earns recognition

Angelo DiNardi, fifth-year software engineering student, uses one of the drink machines in Computer Science House, one of RIT's special-interest residence halls.

For a student living in RIT's Computer Science House, ordering a cold soda from the vending machine down the hall with just a keystroke is all part of day-to-day dorm life.

PC Magazine, however, has deemed this computing ingenuity, born at RIT in the early 1980s, as one of the top 10 greatest "hacks" of all time.

The Internet Coke Machine on the third floor of Nathaniel Rochester Hall came in at number three on the list of hacker brilliance, beat out only by Spacewar! video game and NASA's lifesaving hack to safely bring Apollo 13 back to earth.

Hacking, a term coined at MIT, was used to describe a clever computing solution to a difficult problem. It was considered a badge of honor to be called a hacker.

"I was surprised to hear about the PC Magazine recognition," says Adam Stein '88, '94 (computer science), a software engineer at Xerox Corp. "It's certainly a big honor to be part of an event in history."

Stein was among the students living in the Computer Science House in the early '80s. A group of his fellow floor mates discovered the Coke machine in a dumpster behind Nathaniel Rochester Hall. The compressor still worked and the necessary repairs were manageable.

RIT's contract with a soda company as the university's official vendor prohibited the students from having their own vending machine. They devised a solution to overcome this hurdle.

"It was obvious to geeks like us that if we could tie the machine in to a computer system we could avoid using it as a real vending machine that required money," says Stein. "I authored a computer application that would allow the average person to order a drink from their computer. I was also in charge of the money. Everyone would give me money and I would credit their drink accounts. The interface would recall how much money was allocated to each person and debit their account."

The first drink machine was connected to a PDP-11 minicomputer. The interface even allowed people to select a time delay, if they chose, for when the drink dropped out of the machine.

"A favorite habit for Computer Science House members during the summer months was to log in from home and randomly, without warning, drop a soda as an anonymous gift for whomever might be walking past the soda machine at that time. Members did this from as far away as Arizona," says Bob Krzaczek, systems software engineer in the Chester F. Carlson Center for Imaging Science, and house manager of Computer Science House from 1989-1990.

The original Coke machine is long gone and numerous successors have followed, with students improving upon each incarnation. Two drink machines, called Big Drink and Little Drink, along with a snack vending machine, currently reside in the Computer Science House. Students can use touch screens that display the available drinks and the student's account balance.

Kelly Downs

To view the entire list of top 10 greatest hacks of all time, visit www.pcmag.com.