Growth of a Department

A Personal History of Computer Science at UNC-Chapel Hill

Gestation and Birth: 1962-64


Among the names suggested for the recently vacated position of Computation Center director in 1962 was that of Frederick P. Brooks, Jr., a Chapel Hill native and Duke University graduate who was then Corporate Processor Manager for IBM in Poughkeepsie, New York. Although Fred was not interested in the position, he was interested in the University, and you all know how hard it is to turn down an invitation to visit Chapel Hill in the spring. At his UNC-CH interviews in May, it quickly became clear that Fred and the position were indeed mismatched. However, his lecture, "Ten Research Problems in Computer Science," fired the imagination of several key figures at the University. A conclave of senior professors suggested the creation of a study committee, which in 1963 recommended the creation of an academic department within the College of Arts and Sciences. The conclave clearly intended that Fred should lead the new department.

The forward looking academicians who took this bold step were led by Hugh Holman, provost and professor of English. The others were Bernie Greenberg, chairman of Biostatistics (later to become dean of Public Health); Lyle Jones, professor of Psychology and director of the Psychometric Laboratory; Maurice Lee, dean of Business Administration; George Nicholson, professor and chairman of Statistics; Everett Palmatier, professor of Physics (now Physics & Astronomy); and William Whyburn, professor of Mathematics. Their departments supported the fledgling unit 100 percent.

What we now know as computer science had already been studied for more than a decade at a handful of other universities. The oldest American programs were at the Harvard Computation Laboratory (where Fred had studied under the legendary Howard Aiken), M.I.T., Princeton, and the University of Pennsylvania. All of those programs were embedded in other academic units. The first independent department would not be established until 1963, at Purdue, and there was still no standard name for the new academic discipline. At Fred's recommendation, our unit was named Department of Information Science.

The Department was born on 1 July 1964. Fred had agreed to come immediately. However, as IBM approached its April 1964 announcement of the revolutionary System/360 family of computers, it became increasingly clear that the software to support it was falling seriously behind schedule. Because Fred had played such a large role in creating the hardware, he was loath to see its success jeopardized by the delay. Fred, IBM, and the University agreed that Fred would remain another year at IBM to manage the System/360 software effort, while spending one week per month in Chapel Hill to help launch the new venture. To teach courses and provide continuity, IBM agreed to dispatch George Cramer, who became the Department's first full-time faculty member.

Next Section: "Guiding Philosophy"

Ed Britton modeling a molecule (Photo by Mike 

Ed Britton (Ph.D. 1977) modeling a molecule. (Photo: Mike Pique, © Department of Computer Science, UNC-Chapel Hill).

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