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September 14, 2000

Obituary/Thomas Dwyer

A memorial service will be held for Thomas Dwyer, retired professor of computer science, at 1 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2000, at First Unitarian Church, Ellsworth and Morewood avenues.

Dwyer died July 7. He was 76.

Dwyer earned a B.S. in mathematics and physics at the University of Dayton. He taught for many years at Cathedral Latin High School in Cleveland, while earning his M.S. and Ph.D. in mathematics at Case Institute of Technology (now Case Western Reserve University).

He taught mathematics, physics, computing, numerical analysis, logical design and electronics at the University of Dayton and helped to establish the computer science department there.

He was self-taught in photography, electronics, radio, electronic organ building and audio systems and piano-playing. He also was a private pilot, holding single and twin-engine licenses and instrument and amphibious ratings, as well as an instructor's rating.

Dwyer joined the Pitt faculty as an associate professor in January 1968. But just before that he had an adventure that seems uncharacteristic to those who knew his cautious, precise approach to flying. He agreed to fly an aircraft with another pilot to Equitos at the headwaters of the Amazon River. For this they needed a custom-built extra gas tank to fly across the Gulf of Mexico. They also needed to test the valve feeding the gas ahead of time, but they didn't. They ran out of gas over the Gulf of Mexico, but they were very, very lucky. They managed to land, and then were picked up by a freighter and not only rescued, but had the aircraft retrieved by the freighter's loading cranes.

At Pitt, Dwyer became a pioneer in the use of computers in pre-college education. His first efforts extended the University's timeshared computing system to terminals in several Pittsburgh area high schools. Most people in the late 1960s thought computers in education would be an extension of programmed learning machines, a kind of interaction where short responses from the student would be positively or negatively rewarded, molding the student's behavior or ideas. Dwyer had a different vision. He believed very strongly that students and teachers should "take charge of the machine." At this time the only way to take charge of the computer was to program it yourself. Dwyer believed that people should program the computer, not the reverse.

With grants from the National Science Foundation, Dwyer carried out Project Solo, Project Soloworks and Project Solo/Net/works dedicated to the idea that using computer technology should be as exhilarating as making one's first solo flight in a airplane. Dwyer chose the computer language BASIC as the best one to get people, even non-mathematicians, to program. He also chose to use standard computing technology (which was changing rapidly), rather than try to create a customized machine for education.

To document his research, Dwyer had two 16 mm films and a multi-slide film show made, collaborating closely with local film makers Bernie Wodzinski, Phil Curry and Tara Alexander.

Dwyer used computer terminals as personal computers before PCs were invented and used multi-media to express ideas when it was just thought of as an entertainment medium. He was also among the first to use networked microcomputers for educational purposes.

Dwyer was a co-author of many books on microcomputers and BASIC programming.

Today, as we struggle to keep ahead of ever more complex and powerful software and computers, the simple joys of programming a physics calculation, a game or simulated chemistry experiment seem hard to imagine as very exciting. But the idea of empowering teachers and students is perennial. The idea of putting people in charge just takes on a different form.

Dwyer will be remembered as a gentle, caring man who used his intelligence for enjoyment and to help others.

He is survived by his brothers Paul and Gerard, both of Cleveland.

–Margot Critchfield

Editor's note: Margot Critchfield was Thomas Dwyer's assistant and co-author.

Filed under: Feature,Volume 33 Issue 2

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