The History of the Computer Science Degree

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Computer Science

Computer science, though widely applied in the twentieth-century, has roots dating back to 3000 B.C.E. The abacus was the first mechanical device used by ancient Babylonia to aid calculation. Furthermore, the Greeks created similar devices to predict the movement of the stars and planets and mathematicians in the 1600s built mechanical adding machines to perform their calculations.

Modern-day computer science was birthed in 1962 as part of a graduate level program at Purdue University. Though its popularity quickly spread, it was not wholly welcomed by the industry. Proponents faced the challenge of convincing naysayers that computer science contained both an experimental and theoretical component. Mathematicians failed to see the correlation between computers and math and though the field has gained widespread acceptance, some still consider computer science graduates “failed math majors.”

Opponents failed to perceive the influence of computer science outside of their small scope of study. According to John R. Rice and Saul Rosen, in History of the Department of Computer Sciences, an account of Purdue’s early adaptation of the degree, “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.”

It wasn’t until 1967 that three industry experts, Allen Newell, Alan J. Perlis, and Herbert A. Simon, answered the skepticism in a letter to Science. In it, they explained the field and what it entails. Their explanation was simply, “Computer science is the study of computers.”

The first paragraph read:

Professors of computer science are often asked: “Is there such a thing as computer science, and if there is, what is it?” The questions have a simple answer:

Wherever there are phenomena, there can be a science to describe and explain those phenomena. Thus, the simplest (and correct) answer to “What is botany?” is, “Botany is the study of plants.” And zoology is the study of animals, astronomy the study of stars, and so on. Phenomena breed sciences.

The name “computer science” originated from George Forsyth, who is accredited as a forerunner for establishing the discipline as an academic study. In 1965, he founded the computer science department at Stanford. Though the university offered standalone courses in the discipline, Forsythe argued that the diversity of computer applications was enough to recognize and introduce a separate field of study.

In a tribute to George Forsyth entitled, George Forsyth and the Development of Computer Science, Donald E. Knuth states that Forsythe was not the first person to use the term “computer science” though he often tacked an “s” at the end (sciences) to denote that the discipline has varying academic branches. Knuth describes Forsyth’s definition of these branches as “the theory of programming, numerical analysis, data processing, and the design of computer systems.”

The name “computer science” was still being debated throughout the 1960s. In 1959, physicist Louis Fein suggested the names, “information sciences” and “computer science,” and some people actually credit Fein with the discovery. Saul Gorn of the University of Pennsylvania proposed the name, “computer and information sciences,” not a far cry from his predecessors, but a different name nonetheless. In papers published throughout the 1960s, authors mentioned the terms “computer science” and “computer sciences” interchangeably, yet by the mid 1960s the trend shifted toward the singular form. Even after many universities adopted the singular form, some stayed consistent with a unique nomenclature. Berkeley’s original program was entitled “Computer Science”, but after it was united with engineering the name changed to the “Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences.”

The next four decades saw the development of complex computer systems such as the operating system Unix, the programming languages C and Pascal, and also the rise of the personal computer, thanks to Steve Jobs. In 1981, computer viruses became a threat and the industry also introduced the portable computer. Additionally, biological computing has been influential in Len Adleman’s work on the Human Genome Project. These advances allowed schools to offer a more diverse computer science degree program applicable to many industries.

Citations:
Stanford U Departmental History
The Evolution of The Comp Sci degree

What once was an isolated course of study has currently expanded into an elite degree program enjoyed and practiced by some of the top minds of our century. Article Courtesy of SNHU.EDU Online College Degree Programs

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