CS Department History

By John Mak

Preston Hammer
Preston Hammer

In the 1950s, a “computer” was not the machine we know today, but a position. A computer would sit at a desk, manually inputting and tabulating data by hand, often for hours at a time. At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, our computer was a man by the name of Preston C. Hammer. This man would go on to become the father of the fastest-growing department in the University today.

Our story begins when Hammer started the Numerical Analysis Laboratory (NAL) in 1952, whose goal was to assist other departments in calculating and analyzing their data. The NAL quickly became such a core structure at UW that within the years of 1957-1960, they had completed a staggering 345 projects and were relied on heavily by other core University departments, such as Psychology, Meteorology, Chemical Engineering, and Physics, for their publications.

Ten years into the NAL, Hammer began to realize that electronic computers were the future. In 1961, Hammer got the University’s approval to transform the NAL into the Department of Numerical Analysis, thereby cementing its position as a core pillar of the University. This department would focus not on analyzing other departments’ data, as they always had, but instead focus solely on the study of computers and their myriad of applications. They also immediately began taking in doctoral candidates.

1604 Computer
1604 Computer, 1968-69

By 1964, the Department of Numerical Analysis had become so large and educationally diverse that, by popular vote, the decision was made to rename itthe Department of Computer Sciences (yes, plural). Hammer believed that there were so many fields of study that it was impossible to group them all into one science. Even today, the University of Wisconsin stands as the only university in the country to use this moniker. Along with that, the Computer Sciences building (the very same one used today by faculty and students alike, albeit smaller) was commissioned. And thus, the metamorphosis from the NAL to the Department of Computer Sciences was complete. However, that does not mean our growth was halted, or even slowed. Quite the contrary, in fact.

By the 1980s, student enrollment into the Department of Computer Sciences was exploding. We had too many students and nowhere near enough space. One in five students were placed into waitlists, making up a grand total of a thousand students. Students were lining up overnight in front of the Computer Sciences building just to enroll for their desired summer classes. Something had to give, as the department had clearly outgrown its shell. Luckily, something did. The city of Madison gave us their approval for a seven-story, $10.5 million building extension to the existing Computer Sciences building. With this new, larger building, we finally had enough space to house both students and faculty comfortably. And in this building have we stayed ever since.

The Department of Computer Sciences has a slew of achievements to its name. The first Computer Science PhD graduate in the country, Sister Mary Kenneth Keller, completed her degree in 1965, advised by none other than Hammer himself. In 1990, Stephen Kleene won the President’s National Medal of Science, and Carl de Boor followed up with a win of his own in 2003. Computer Sciences faculty and students have won hundreds of awards since the inception of our department, ranging from national associations such as the National Science Foundation and American Association for the Advancement of Science, to international groups such as the Association for Computing Machinery and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. The full list of faculty awards can be found here.

The Department of Computer Sciences started with a mere 75 students. Today, that number has risen 20-fold (for a grand total of 1565 CS Majors in 2018), and we are outgrowing our shell once again. Recently, we have joined hands with the Department of Statistics and the Information School to form the new School of Computer, Data & Information Sciences. With this union, we will soar to ever greater heights, while never losing sight of our humble roots. The future is ours to mold.

Sources:

  • Kivolowitz, Perry, “Department History and Trivia, V1.2”
  • Powers, Tom, “History of the Department of Computer Sciences at UW-Madison”

Pictures:

  • Kivolowitz, Perry, “Department History and Trivia, V1.2”