Book, archival exhibit feature nation's first computer science department at Purdue

March 23, 2015  


WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – Purdue, which in 1962 established the first computer science department in the northern hemisphere, has opened an archival exhibit to coincide with the release of a new book celebrating the department's history.

The "First in the Field: Beginnings of the Nation's First Computer Science Department" exhibit will be on display through July 24. The book, "First in the Field: Breaking Ground in Computer Science at Purdue University," was written by Robin Lea Pyle and highlights the department's beginnings and early years – from the early 1950s through late 1960s.

"Purdue recognized that the study of computers and computing had evolved from being a tool used across multiple disciplines, particularly mathematical sciences and statistics, to a discipline in and of itself," said Tim Korb, assistant department head in the Department of Computer Science.  "The creation of a computer science degree program in the early '60s, before the computer age really took off, shows the kind of forward-thinking that has set Purdue apart." 

The exhibit is located in the  Virginia Kelly Karnes Archives and Special Collections Research Center. The center is on the fourth floor of the  Humanities, Social Science and Education Library inside Stewart Center. Hours are 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Mondays through Fridays.

The exhibit, which is free and open to the public, was created by Richard Bernier, processing and public services archivist. It will include:

* How the advancements in the different computers used at Purdue in the 1950s and early 1960s increased demand for greater "computing power," which acted a catalyst for recognizing the importance of computer science to the university.

* Highlights of several individuals instrumental in the start of the department, including Duane Pyle and Richard Kenyon, two graduate students who were at the front lines of running the computing services and teaching classes when there was no computer science department and the discipline was still being defined. They were also two of the original department faculty. John W. Hicks was executive assistant to President Frederick L. Hovde and chair of the Ad Hoc Committee on Computers. The committee's recommendations to Hovde led to the establishment of the Computer Sciences Center as a separate administrative unit and the creation of a graduate program in computer science. George Hawkins, dean of the School of Engineering, was the number one champion of computing services and a computer science curriculum from one of the academic departments. And finally, Samuel Conte was the first head of Department of Computer Science in 1962.

* Papers and artifacts from the first years of the department.

* Photographs of some of Purdue's early computers, and students and prominent people using them.

Artifacts and papers from the Samuel Conte papers and David Studebaker Computer Science collections. Some items on display will include punch cards decks - one accompanied by a printout - a programming flowchart template, and early manuals and self-published "textbooks" by faculty since there were no textbooks in computer science at the time.

The book "First in the Field: Breaking Ground in Computer Science at Purdue University," gives a historical account of how the department was started and its history up to the present. Historical anecdotes through previously unpublished writings and photographs, as well as published articles and interviews, provide context of the challenges in legitimizing the new academic field and the determination of the pioneering thinkers. Author Robin Lea Pyle is the daughter of L. Duane Pyle, a charter faculty member in the department, the assistant director in Purdue's Computer Sciences Center in 1961-62 and assistant to the department head from 1965-69. Purdue University Press is the book's publisher. 

Contact: Shannon Walker, Shannon Walker, Purdue University Libraries director of strategic communication, 765-496-9610, walker81@purdue.edu  

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