The recent scandal involving Scott Thompson, former CEO of Yahoo, an accounting major who claimed to have received a degree in computer science (CS) before his college offered one, had a few of us wondering (at least at first) if he might merely be indulging in academic shorthand. Perhaps, we imagined, it was just easier to say, “I have a degree in computer science” rather than, “Back in 1979, you couldn’t get a CS degree, so I took courses that were all compsci-related in the math, engineering, physics, and accounting departments.”
As it turned out, it was just a close shave with Occam’s Razor: Thompson was lying. Still, we were curious: When exactly did “computer science” first become its own standalone, degree-granting academic department? What American university was the first to establish a Computer Science department and in what year?
Let’s start the timer…
Had enough time to guess an answer? If you thought of the usual suspects, such as MIT or Carnegie-Mellon, you may be surprised. It was Purdue, in 1962. Started by computing pioneer Samuel Conte, Purdue’s compsci major, like most early computer science programs, initially was offered at the graduate level and later was made available as an undergraduate degree.
As for Carnegie Mellon, Randal Bryant, current dean of its CS department says, “We didn’t have a formal undergraduate degree until 1988; we were behind the times. Most schools had a CS degree by the early 70s.” In Carnegie Mellon’s defense, the university was offering a CS graduate degree by 1965.
For reasons of space, I limited the question to American universities, but computer historian and former IEEE Computer Society president Michael R. Williams points out that many universities worldwide were offering CS degrees by this period. He received his own PhD in CS from the University of Glasgow in 1968. He believes Glasgow’s program dates as far back as 1957, since he was an invited speaker at its 40th anniversary in 1997.
On most university campuses, CS grew out of mathematics or engineering departments, not (ahem) from accounting or business departments, according to Williams and others. “A lot of it was identifying that there was a core subject matter that didn’t fit anywhere else,” says Bryant.
“At an academic level, it’s a very different background,” says Bobby Schnabel, Dean of the School of Informatics at Indiana University and chair of the ACM’s Education Policy Committee. “The calculus and differential equation that underlie engineering are not what underlies computer science. It’s really discrete mathematics.”
The coinage “computer science” is generally attributed to George Forsythe, who along with figures like Conte was at the forefront of establishing computer science as a stand-alone academic discipline. Forsythe founded Stanford’s department of computer science in 1965. While mathematics and engineering departments were offering courses in topics such as “numerical analysis” and “denotational semantics,” in a lecture at Brown University in 1961, cited by Donald Knuth in a tribute article, Forsythe argued that “Enough is known already of the diverse applications of computing for us to recognize the birth of a coherent body of technique, which I call computer science.”
Yet Knuth states that Forsythe didn’t invent the name, however influential he was in spreading it. He quotes a journal paper Forsythe wrote in 1961, which shows that the term was already in circulation: “The name of Computer Sciences is being attached to the discipline as it emerges.” Notably, Forsythe used the plural sciences. Like the British “maths,” it acknowledges that the field has many distinct branches, which Forsythe defined as “the theory of programming, numerical analysis, data processing, and the design of computer systems,” according to Knuth.
Considering that, it may be physicist Louis Fein who deserves the credit, as both computer science professor Gopal Gupta and science historian Nathan Ensmenger have described. In 1959, in a landmark ACM paper, Fein suggested several names, among them the now familiar (information sciences, computer science) and the mercifully forgotten, such as Fein’s own preferred neologism, “Synnoetics.”
In 1963, the University of Pennsylvania’s Saul Gorn argued for the field to be called, “Computer and Information Sciences.” To give you some idea of just how new this all was, he offers Claude Shannon’s work as a suggestion of something “that clearly belongs.”
In the proceedings of a 1964 ACM Conference in which several papers discuss the details of this new academic discipline, there are references to both computer “science” and “sciences.” Conte’s paper on Purdue’s program uses the plural. To judge by the shifts between “sciences” and science in the titles of papers, it seems somewhere between 1964 and 1965, “computer science” was adopted over the plural. Yet there is still some switching back: When Berkeley’s department was started in 1968, it was called “Computer Science.” When it later merged with engineering in 1973, it became (and remains) the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences.
By 1962, the ACM had established a curriculum committee to set out standards for the new field (a panel discussion on the topic, chaired by Forsythe, was held the previous year). In March of 1968, the ACM published the famous “Curriculum 1968,” its recommendations for computer science programs. There was some urgency to the deliberations. According to Gupta, Thomas Keenan reminded his colleagues “that over 15,000 computers were in use at the time with a production rate of 500 computers a month.” Keenan was concerned that “the ability to build computers was outstripping the ability to educate people who could make intelligent use of the machines.”
By the 1960s, at campuses in the U.S. and across the globe, the differences between computer science and older disciplines had become increasingly—even painfully—obvious at the graduate level, says Bryant, “For a PhD program, there’s always a breadth requirement. For a math PhD, you’d have to have real, hard-level math you’re not interested in.” In addition to the challenges for students, he says, it became more difficult for faculty members to decide on tenure and promotion for colleagues who were working farther and farther away from their specialties.
No less than Richard Hamming had a paper published in Science in 1965 that stated, “I hope I have shown not that mathematicians are incompetent or wrong, but why I believe that their interests, tastes, and objectives are frequently different from those of practicing numerical analysts, and why activity in numerical analysis should be evaluated by its own standards and not by those of pure mathematics.”
Even so, it was still a challenge to convince other academics that “computer science” truly was a science with both an experimental component and a theoretical underpinning, according to the account of Purdue’s history by John R. Rice and Saul Rosen: “Many science and engineering faculties knew about computing only through contact with Fortran programming, and they assumed that was all there was to computer science.”
Indeed, famously, in 1967, three of the field’s pioneers tried to answer the skeptics in a letter to Science. After giving a dead simple explanation, “Computer science is the study of computers,” they went on to detail answers to a half dozen objections by other academics.
Of course even today there are Sheldon-like snobbish mathematicians who look down on CS majors as failed math majors. However, says Bryant, most mathematicians have recognized that, “Fundamental computer science questions have proved as difficult as any question in mathematics. P=NP has gained a lot of respect from mathematicians.”