A Brief History of the CS Department

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More details can be found in the Timeline, and on the Computer Museum and Chairs pages.


Brown University's Computer Science department evolved synergistically with the larger history of the invention and wild success of the machine we call the computer. In a mere 50 years, this creation has transformed ways of working and communicating in virtually every industry and academic area as well as in our daily lives.

Brown's role in establishing the field of computer science, and the people who have participated in the department over the last 25 years, have never been officially documented. This brief history can cover only the most essential facts and cannot describe many contributions of faculty, students, and members of the administrative and technical staffs. If we've left out something you think is important or even just entertaining, please let us know!



The story of the Computer Science Department begins with the 1965 arrival in the Division of Applied Math at Brown of Andries (aka Andy) van Dam. He had just received his PhD in computer science, the second given in the US. The next year he started what is now the longest-running graphics group in the world. John Savage moved to the Division of Engineering from Bell Laboratories in 1967 as aninformation theorist bent on understanding the complexity of decoders for error-correcting codes, an interest that led him into computer science. Peter Wegner joined the Division of Applied Math in 1969 from his faculty position at Cornell as a programming languages expert.These and other faculty whose work revolved around the invention and improvement of the computer taught courses in their respective departments and began to attract students.


In 1974, Andy, John, Peter and a few other colleagues began investigating organizational frameworks for computer science. After attempting to create a Center they decided to propose the creation of the Program in Computer Science as a vehicle to give the group visibility and supervise the concentration in Computer Science, started in 1974. The Program was approved by Provost Stoltz and came into existence in1976, with Andy as its first chair.

Prior to the creation of an explicit concentration, computer science was recognized as an option in Applied Math at the undergraduate level (one of the very few such arrangements in the country) and the graduate level. Similar recognition of computer engineering existed in the Division of Engineering and continues today.

Department Status

Over the course of the next five years, repeated attempts were made to achieve department status. The challenge of defining the new field of computer science and presenting it compellingly forced the faculyt involved to consider the unique nature of their academic pursuits: no other field is so completely dependent on a technology that changes as rapidly as the computer. (And the definition of computer science continues to be a moving target.) During the 1978-79 academic year Provost Glicksman accepted the Department proposal.

Since proposals of this kind require external review, a panel of distinguished computer scientists, electrical engineers, and applied mathematicians was brought to Brown to review us and make a recommendation on our proposal. The panel consisted of Peter Elias (MIT), Juris Hartmanis (Cornell ), Dick Karp (Berkeley ), Allan Newell (Carnegie Mellon) and a Brown PhD from IBM Yorktown.The panel recommend department status and, as they say, the rest is history!

The Program in Computer Science, that is, all of the faculty in Applied Math and Engineering working in computer science (split 50/50 between the two divisions) moved into Kassar House in 1977. Kassar house was formerly a private residence, which was converted to offices and a library/meeting room. Several faculty fondly recall their offices the size of dining and living rooms. Computing was supported entirely by a VAX-11/780, purchased with funds from an NSF equipment grant and housed in the basement.

After a blow-out inaugural symposium in September of 1979, at which Donald Knuth gave the keynote (despite having his entire slide tray dumped on the floor, effectively randomizing it), the Department was official. "Balancing theory and practice" was the theme for our inaugural symposium and remains an important characteristic of the Department to this day.

The Graduate Program
The graduate program in computer science arose out of, indeed morphed imperceptibly from, those in the original departments of CS's first members, Applied Math and Engineering. We award about 20-30 MSc degrees a year. And depending on when you start counting -- 1969, when Andy graduated his first PhD student? 1975, the first graduation after the Program in CS was created? or 1980, the first graduation after CS became a department? -- we have produced 109, 105 or 92 PhDs. About 17.5% of these are women, a distressingly small percent that is nevertheless somewhat above the national average.

At some point in this impressive roster of names, the graduate students initiated the tradition of awarding a rubber chicken to the freshly minted PhD. They're dreary-looking things, these rubber chickens, that have acquired by this context a significance far exceeding their aesthetic merits.

Our PhDs are all over the world, most though not all in CS-related positions; we boast graduates at such prestigious institutions as Brandeis, Columbia, MIT, IBM Thomas J. Watson Laboratory, Purdue, Rutgers, SUNY Stony Brook, University of Maryland, University of Michigan, and University of Virginia. Congratulations, all!


Getting the Hardware

Undergraduates today often have more powerful machines than those in our labs, and virtually all faculty have machines at home and at work. Until recently, Departmental policy was to completely replace all faculty and research machines once very three-to-five years. Thus equipment purchases were large-scale decisions, requiring both political consensus and large infusions of funding.

Several grants between 1980 and 1983 (two from NSF and one from Exxon) contributed to the Department's important purchases of Apollo workstations. Workstations were just becoming a commercial reality and the Apollo Lab was a signature installation -- it was the first electronic workstation classroom and the first large group of networked Apollo workstations (60) in the world. In 1983, the latter of the two NSF grants purchased research machines for faculty and staff. Thus from the beginning of the department's history, first-year students have had access to the same equipment as the graduate students and faculty. Although today a PC is a PC, in the past, as Andy says, "when workstations cost $50K they weren't sprinkled around like candy."

In 1987 the department faced an important milestone: who should provide its next generation of workstations? There was an intensive bidding process that led to a final bake-off in 1988 between Sun, DEC, and NeXt. Sun won. After mandating a single OS, the Department was able to expend its resources on utilities and support, making its computing infrastructure one of the most stable and well supported in academia at the time and indeed to the present day. Suns remained the standard department machines until quite recently.

Major grants from DARPA also contributed to the growth of the Department, providing funds for new research efforts as well as established projects, and technical personnel to support them.

The Industrial Partners Program (IPP)

John Savage started the IPP program in 1989 to create closer connections between the Department's academics and industry. IPP members attend fall and spring symposia, give talks, recruit students, and are exposed to the research and personnel of the CS department. The program has been cited as a model effort at two CRA Snowbird meetings (the annual meeting in Snowbird, Utah of chairs of CS and CE departments) and has succeeded in creating numerous connections among industry and CS faculty and students at all levels. The income from the IPP has been a crucial source of funding for supporting many aspects of department life, including summer support for new faculty, equipment for which no other funds were available, faculty searches, and events such as the Department's town meetings.

The Center for Information Technology (CIT)

Designs for the CIT, to be built on Waterman Street between Thayer and Brook, received continuous department input. The emotional commitment influenced everyone on the project and, as John tells the story, the architect, Peter Kuttner, had tears in his eye at the inauguration of the building when John told his wife how he tried to inspire Peter and his colleagues to give us a building that would give our small group a competitive advantage. Don Knuth was awarded an honorary degree at the dedication of the CIT in 1988. van Dam notes that he "won the fight to have large windows, some of which even open, but lost the fight to have a Chinese restaurant in the basement."



The cost of workstations fell in accordance with Moore's Law and by the 1990s the main cost of computing was in hiring support people rather than purchasing hardware. The main workstation lab now has PCs running Linux and has been supplemented with a Microsoft Lab, containing PCs running Windows.

In addition to more technical staff, in the late 1990s the Department faculty grew by 50% and has added a wide range of new courses, such as "Interdisciplinary Scientific Visualization (David Laidlaw), "Mathematical Game Theory in Algorithms" (Eli Upfal), and "Computers and Human Values" (Roger Blumberg). The department is continuing to grow.

Computer science has become a respected field about which there is little controversy. The impact of computation has been felt in virtually all sciences and many other fields besides. Brown students can now take courses in Computational Biology, Computational Linguistics, and more.


The Culture

From the very beginning, department co-founders Andy van Dam and John Savage, as well as the initial faculty members, Eugene Charniak, Tom Doeppner, Steve Reiss, Robert Sedgewick, and Peter Wegner, set their eyes on a culture that would promote excellence. One of the most important tenets has been John Savage's mantra that our most important task as faculty members was to choose our successors and in so doing we should always strive to improve ourselves. Weekly faculty meetings, established early on, help ensure interchange between faculty members. The goal of hiring superior faculty has led to a second and third generation of new leaders in computer science. The integration of teaching and research has produced inspired results on the part of undergraduate TAs, paper writers, and book co-authors.

Emphasis on the use of undergraduates in teaching and research has had a very positive impact on the Department, an idea that Andy espoused and implemented when he arrived in 1965, well before other schools adopted this idea. The CS department still boasts much more intensive use of undergraduate teaching assistants than other schools.

Another key aspect of the CS department culture is that the all faculty members take a proprietary interest in the success of the Department. Everyone from newly hired faculty to those present since the Department's inception has an equal voice in all matters except for those that require decisions based on rank. In addition, senior faculty teach many of the introductory courses in the first two years so that even the youngest students have contact with senior faculty and junior faculty are freed from the demands of such large courses.



The department is now middle-aged and is not the wild and crazy place that it was during its younger years. Some sense of cohesion and "family" inevitably has been lost as the department had grown. But faculty agree that the department remains a warm and nurturing environment. We are aware of the importance of our culture and strive to maintain its positive influence as we benefit from expansion.