The genesis of computer science
By Subrata Dasgupta
Politically, socially, and culturally, the 1960s were tumultuous times. But tucked away amidst the folds of the Cold War, civil rights activism, anti-war demonstrations, the feminist movement, revolts of students and workers, flower power, sit-ins, Marxist and Maoist revolutions — almost unnoticed — a new science was born in university campuses across North America, Britain, Europe. and even, albeit tentatively, certain non-Western parts of the world. This new science acquired a name of its own: computer science (or some variations thereof, ‘computing science’, ‘informatique’, ‘informatik’).
At the heart of this new science was the process by which symbols, representing information, could be automatically (or with minimal human intervention) transformed into other symbols (representing other kinds or new information). This process was called, variously, automatic computation, information processing, or symbol processing. The agent of this process was the artifact named, generically, computer.
The computer is an automaton. In the past, this word, ‘automation’ (coined in the 17th century) was used to mean an artifact which, largely driven by its own source of motive power, performs certain repetitive patterns of movement and action without any external influences. Often, these actions imitated those of humans and animals. Ingenious mechanical automata had been invented since antiquity, largely for the amusement of the wealthy though some were of a more utilitarian nature (such as the water clock, said to be invented in the 1st century CE by the engineer/inventor Hero of Alexandria).
So mechanical automata that carry out physical actions of one sort or another form a venerable tradition. But the automatic electronic digital computer marked the birth of a whole new genus of automata, for this artifact was designed or intended to imitate human thinking; and, indeed, to extend or even replace humans in some of their highest cognitive capacities. Such was the power and scope of this artifact, it became the fount of a socio-technological revolution now commonly referred to as the Information Revolution, and a brand new science, computer science.
But computer science is not a natural science. It is not of the same kind as, say, physics, chemistry, biology, or astronomy. The gazes of these sciences are directed toward the natural world, inorganic and organic. The domain of computer science is the artificial world, the world of made objects, of artifacts — in particular, computational artifacts. Computer science is a science of the artificial, to use a term coined by Nobel laureate polymath scientist Herbert Simon.
A fundamental difference between a natural science like physics and an artificial science such as computer science relates to the age old philosophical distinction between is and ought. The natural scientist is concerned with the world as it is; she is not in the business of deliberately changing the natural world. Thus, the astronomer peering at the cosmos does not desire to change it but to understand it; the paleontologist examining rock layers in search of fossils is doing this to learn more about the history of life on earth, not to change the earth (or life) itself. For the natural scientist, understanding the natural world is an end in itself.
The scientist of the artificial also wishes to understand, not nature but artifacts. However that desire is a means to an end, for the scientist of the artificial, ultimately, wishes to alter the world in some respect. Thus the computer scientist wants to alter some aspect of the world by creating computational artifacts as improvements on existing one, or by creating new computational artifacts that have never existed before. If the natural scientist is concerned with the world as it is, the computer scientist obsesses with the world as she thinks it ought to be. For computer scientists, like other scientists of the artificial (such as engineering scientists) their domain comprises of artifacts that are intended to serve some purpose. An astronomer does not ask what a particular galaxy or planet is for; it just is. A computer scientist, striving to understand a particular computational artifact begins with the purpose for which it was created. Artifacts are imbued with purpose, reflecting the purposes or goals imagined for them by their human creators.
So how was this science of the artificial called computer science born? Where, when, and how did it begin? Who were its creators? What kinds of purposes drove the birth of this science? What were its seminal ideas? What makes it distinct from other, more venerable, sciences of the artificial? Was the genesis of computer science evolutionary or revolutionary? A ‘big bang’ or a ‘steady state’ birth? These are the kinds of questions that interest historians of science peering into the origins of what is one of the youngest artificial sciences of the 20th century.
Subrata Dasgupta is the Computer Science Trust Fund Eminent Scholar Chair in the School of Computing & Informatics at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, where he is also a professor in the Department of History. Dasgupta has written fourteen books, most recently It Began with Babbage: The Genesis of Computer Science.
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Image Credit: A reflection of a man typing on a laptop computer. Photo by Matthew Roth. CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.