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University Gazette

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Comp-Sci turns 50


Computer science icon Fred Brooks shares a light moment beside the Sitterson Hall bust created in his honor.

Computer science research conducted at Carolina has helped shape and guide technological advances, and it has played a critical role in propelling the Research Triangle region – and the state – into the Digital Age.

It all started in 1963 with a visit from computer scientist Frederick P. Brooks Jr., project manager for the revolutionary IBM System/360 family of computers.

Brooks interviewed for a job running the campus computation center but decided he wasn’t interested in the position.

But the lecture he delivered as part of the interview process – “Ten Research Problems in Computer Science” – fueled the imaginations of a handful of campus leaders, including Southern literature professor and then-graduate school Dean C. Hugh Holman.

They decided that UNC should form a department devoted to teaching and research in computer science, a field so young that scholars were still debating what it should be called.

The following year they asked Brooks back to lead the new venture. In 1964, Carolina’s Department of Information Science was born. It was the second computer science department (after Purdue University’s) in the nation.

This year, the department – since renamed the Department of Computer Science – is celebrating its 50th birthday, looking back over a half-century of high-tech changes that Holman, Brooks and others could not have imagined in the 1960s.

“You can’t think that far ahead,” said Brooks, Kenan Professor, who spent 20 years as department chair and still, in his 80s, teaches and advises graduate students. “Since I [became] interested in computers we’ve been through six technical revolutions. Who would have predicted the iPhone? Who would have predicted the Internet?”

Many university computer science departments grew out of math departments or engineering schools. But Brooks and his fledgling department began as a stand-alone enterprise.

However, Brooks wasn’t interested in being separate from other academic disciplines. Instead, he and other early faculty programmed a culture of collaboration and interdisciplinary research into the department’s human operating system.

Brooks preached that computer scientists should be judged by how successful the hardware and software tools they’ve created are in helping people solve specific problems.

Carolina faculty and alumni have helped design systems that aim radiation therapy at cancer tumors, create spellbinding special effects for films and help visually impaired children use computers, among many other examples.

Brooks’ belief in collaboration has crossed institutional lines, as well. The department has worked closely with computer science units at Duke and N.C. State, as well as other schools, over the years.

It also has played a key role in North Carolina’s efforts to move from agriculture, textiles and furniture to a more technology-centered economy.

– Excerpted with permission from Carolina Arts & Sciences magazine