A history of SCS

For an expanded history of the School of Computer Science and its predecessors at CMU, read "Institutional Memories" in the Summer 2014 issue of The Link magazine.

In 2014, the School of Computer Science celebrated its 25th year as a stand-alone college within Carnegie Mellon University. It was arguably the first college devoted solely to computer science in the United States, and a model for others that followed. But CMU’s computer science era begins much earlier—in 1956, with the arrival of an IBM 650 computer on the campus of what was then known as Carnegie Institute of Technology. The IBM 650 had magnetic-drum memory and a processing speed of approximately 60 instructions per second. Herb Simon (H’90), associate dean of the Graduate School of Industrial Administration—now known as CMU’s Tepper School of Business—established Carnegie Tech’s first Computation Center with the help of its first director, Alan Perlis (S’42).

First freshman-level computer science course

In 1956 and 1957, Simon, Allen Newell (IA’57) and Cliff Shaw of RAND designed the Logic Theorist, a computer program that could develop proofs for theorems in much the same way a human would work. They also developed linked-list data structures, the foundation of computer programming. Perlis, Simon and Newell are credited with defining the term “computer science” as “the theory and design of computers,” as well as (in Newell’s words) “the study of the phenomena arising from them.” In 1958, Perlis began teaching the first freshman-level computer programming course in the United States at Carnegie Tech.

Computer science Ph.D. program created

In 1961, the Computation Center and its newest computer, a Bendix G-20, were moved to recently completed Scaife Hall. That same year, Carnegie Tech created an interdisciplinary Ph.D. program called Systems and Communications Sciences, combining elements of computer science, mathematics, psychology, business and electrical engineering. The university’s first computer science Ph.D.s were graduates of this program.

Computer Science Department established

In 1965, Carnegie Tech established its Computer Science Department, or CSD, with a $5 million grant from the R.K. Mellon Foundation. Perlis was the first department head. There were no undergraduates; only Ph.D. students were admitted, and the department’s focus was on research, much of it funded by the federal government through the Defense Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA. In 1967, Carnegie Institute of Technology merged with the nearby Mellon Institute of Industrial Research to form Carnegie-Mellon University. The Department of Computer Science moved into the newly created Mellon Institute of Science, later renamed Mellon College of Science, or MCS. Future SCS dean Raj Reddy joined the CSD in 1969 after three years as an assistant professor at Stanford. He brought with him research in speech, language and computer vision. But in 1970 and 1971, the new Computer Science Department faced its first crisis, as half of its tenured faculty members—including department head Perlis—left for other universities. Joe Traub was recruited from Bell Labs to CMU to become the new department head.

Multi-processor machines emerge

CSD emerged from the brief crisis as a highly agile, interdisciplinary entity, with many new faculty members taking joint appointments with other CMU departments. Several large projects emerged in the Computer Science Department, including C.mmp, the first shared-memory multiprocessor computer, with 16 processing units, and Cm*, a 50-processor computer. These computers were the forerunners of today’s ubiquitous multi-core desktops and laptops.

Turing Awards and a Nobel Prize

In 1975, Simon and Newell were awarded the A.M. Turing Award for their work in artificial intelligence. (As of 2014, 12 CMU alumni or faculty have been awarded Turings, sometimes considered the Nobel Prize of computing.) Three years later, Simon received the Nobel Prize in Economics for his work on decision-making theory. As the 1970s progressed, Newell became interested in human-computer interaction, and began a long relationship with Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center, or PARC, which released the Xerox Alto in 1973. Considered a forerunner to many of the computing environments that followed, Alto featured a graphical-user interface and was among the first commercially available workstations controlled with a mouse. Inspired by Alto, Reddy launched a drive for development of CMU’s own “three-M” machine—a personal workstation with a megabyte of memory, a megapixel display and at least one million instructions per second of processing power.

Launching a Robotics Institute

In 1979, an executive at Pittsburgh’s Westinghouse Electric Corp., Tom Murrin, collaborated with Jordan and Reddy to create the Robotics Institute, with Reddy as its first director. By 1982, the Computer Science Department included more than 30 faculty members and 100 graduate students.

The best-wired campus in the world

Working with IBM in the early 1980s, the university and the Computer Science Department established another new research frontier: Development of a high-speed computer network that would reach virtually every room on campus, along with a GUI-based computing environment, and providing networked PCs or workstations for 7,000 students, faculty members and employees. Called the Andrew Project, it turned Carnegie Mellon into the best-connected, most-wired university in the world—a process Newell called “greening up the campus with computer science.” CMU also became home to a new Software Engineering Institute, funded by the Defense Department, to study computer security and develop best practices in the design of operating systems. Between 1982 and 1985, the amount of sponsored research in the Computer Science Department doubled, from $7.2 million to $15.3 million—more than the other four departments in the Mellon College of Science combined.

A “school of computer science” is proposed

Feeling that CSD’s needs were inadequately represented in MCS, CSD head A. Nico Habermann and then-CMU provost Angel Jordan in 1986 wrote a white paper proposing the creation of “a School of Computer Science.” Responding to concerns from the faculty that the change might be taking place too quickly, the university first established a free-floating Department of Computer Science. The experiment, which lasted two years, was an unqualified success. Separately, and also in 1986, the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center was created as a joint effort between CMU, the University of Pittsburgh and Westinghouse Electric Corp.

SCS is officially formed

CMU’s Faculty Senate in the fall of 1988 agreed to President Richard Cyert’s plan to elevate the Department of Computer Science to college status. In addition to the Computer Science Department, SCS also incorporated the Robotics Institute, the Center for Machine Translation, and researchers from the Information Technology Center, which had developed Andrew. On Dec. 13, 1988, Cyert (H’89) told faculty and staff that Habermann had been appointed CMU’s first Dean of Computer Science, effective Dec. 1, and that the School of Computer Science would soon begin operations. SCS made its formal debut on Dec. 22, 1988, with a reception in the Wherrett Room of Skibo Hall, CMU’s student union. The official announcement of CMU’s new “graduate School of Computer Science” was made Jan. 3, 1989.

Undergraduate degrees begin

For several years, undergraduates interested in computer science pursued an “applied math/CS” bachelor’s degree offered by the Mathematics Department. CSD professor Mary Shaw (CS’72) led CMU’s first effort to design an undergraduate curriculum solely in computer science. She and her colleagues were guided by the Carnegie Plan—guidelines established in 1938 under Carnegie Tech President Robert Doherty (A’40, E’48, H’50), outlining the principles of a sound professional education. Drawing on Shaw’s plan and also on the work of other faculty members, an undergraduate program in computer science was created during the 1989-90 academic year. Seven CS majors were admitted to the program as sophomores. Another 73 undergraduates were admitted in 1990–91. By 1995, there were 401 undergraduates in the School of Computer Science; in fall 2013, more than 600 undergraduates made up about 37 percent of student enrollment at SCS, along with more than 600 master’s degree students.

New departments, new areas of study

Along the way, the Center for Machine Translation became the Language Technologies Institute, and other new departments were formed, including the Human-Computer Interaction Institute (1993), the Institute for Software Research (1999), the Machine Learning Department (2006) and the Ray and Stephanie Lane Center for Computational Biology (2009). SCS’s seven degree-granting departments draw faculty and students from a wide variety of disciplines, including engineering, mathematics, social sciences, linguistics and design.

Committed to extending our founders’ vision

The School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University enters its second quarter century as a world-leading educational and research institution, embracing all facets of computing. Its graduate programs are consisted ranked with the best in the world by a leading U.S. magazine, while its undergraduate programs are also rated the best in the U.S. by corporate recruiters. In 2013, SCS had 284 faculty members and a total student enrollment of nearly 1,700, including undergraduate, master’s and Ph.D. students, and conducted $124 million in research. Indeed, by itself, the Robotics Institute is the largest university robotics research group in the world, with more than 500 people and more than 100 ongoing research projects. A half-century ago, Perlis, Simon and Newell outlined a vision for computer science. The School of Computer Science at CMU remains committed to continuing and extending their vision in the context of big data and connected computing in the 21st century.