SIGCSE: The Beginning
Peter J. Denning, Naval Postgraduate School
Where To From Here?
Our curriculum is not up to the challenges the world is throwing at us.
When I received my doctorate in EE from MIT in 1968, the name of the young field of computer science was just
getting settled. I was amazed at the audacity of the dreams of
the founders and pioneers. I was completely drawn in and I
developed a romance with computing that has never faded.
I have had the good fortune to witness the growth and
maturing of this field of education and research for the entirety
of SIGCSE’s fifty-year existence. My purpose here is to look at
the high points of computing and computing education over
the past fifty years. Several major forces shaped the computing
curriculum we have today. Our curriculum is not up to the
challenges the world is throwing at us.
SHAPING FORCES OF COMPUTING
Our modern age of electronic computing began in the late
1930s and spawned computing education in the late 1940s.
Computing in the sense of methods and machines to automate
calculation and logical deduction is much older—it evolved
over at least 40 centuries before our age. Prior developments
such as procedures for doing algebra, solving equations, evaluating series, Pascal’s arithmetic calculator, Napier’s logarithms,
Newton-Leibniz calculus, LLull’s logic wheels, Babbage-Love-lace analytical engine, slide rules, and human calculator teams
set the framework of computational thinking that existed when
computer science was founded in the 1940s. I will focus here
on the main historical forces that shaped our field and how we
approached our curriculum since that time.
Machinery and systems. The first electronic digital computers were built in the 1930s and early 1940s—Zuse in Germany in 1938, Atanasoff and Berry in the US in 1942, Eckert
and Mauchly at Pennsylvania in 1945. All were engineers who
believed that high speed computing would benefit science and
engineering and would automate many human computational
tasks that were prone to errors.
Their machines were great feats of engineering. They had
to work out everything—how to represent data as signals in
the machines, how to build reliable circuits that would perform logic operations on the data, how to store data, how to
get data in and out of the machines, and how to design algorithms that would control the machines. There was no theory
to guide them.
Although Alan Turing proposed his Turing machine theory
of computation in 1936, his work was initially known primarily
by a handful of mathematical logicians and was completely un-
known to the engineers who built the first electronic comput-
ers [ 6]. Turing became more known among computer builders
when he circulated his own detailed engineering design of his
ACE computer, inspired by von Neumann’s notes on the design
of the stored program computer in 1945. It was not until the
1950s, when the first academic programs were being born, that
Turing’s work offered the theoretical basis to make computer
science credible as a new department in universities. In other
words, as important as Turing’s work is, it did not inform or in-
spire the first electronic computers or the stored program con-
cept. Instead, the success of the first stored-program electronic
computers created the opening for Turing’s theoretical work to
For the first 40 years of computing, much of our energy was
focused on advancing the technology for reliable computing
and networking. Our early curricula reflected this by organizing around core technologies, such as programming languages,
operating systems, and networks. The 1989 computing report
named 9 core technologies [ 2]. The 2013 curriculum report
named 16 core technologies among its 18 main knowledge areas [ 1]. Today’s curriculum bears the imprint of the engineering
concerns that started the field.
Academic Resistance. The first computing and programming courses appeared in the late 1940s. The first CS departments were Purdue and Stanford both in 1962. By 1982, there
were about 120 departments in the US and Canada. Most of
these early departments were formed amidst resistance from
other departments in their universities, which saw computer
By 1982, there were about 120
departments in the US and Canada.
Most of these early departments
were formed amidst resistance
from other departments in their
universities, which saw computer
science as a specialty of math
or electrical engineering, but not
as a separate department.