Rice’s First Computer Science Class, 1964

From what I can tell it was offered by the Department of Philosophy, Psychology, and Education. (How’s that for frugal administration?) It was taught by John Alan Robinson, a British born philosopher, mathematician, and computer scientist:

This class was an almost explosive success. It’s enrollment that fall was 37, with another 15 auditors, many of them faculty members.

Robinson earned a classics degree from Corpus Christi College at Cambridge University 1952, a master’s in philosophy from the University of Oregon in 1953, and finally a doctorate in philosophy from Princeton in 1956. He then spent several years working at DuPont, where he began work on applied mathematics and computer applications. By 1960 he decided to return to academic life and went to the University of Pittsburgh for a year as a Mellon Research Fellow. Here’s how he described his work there: “I used this year to write a paper on Hume’s theory of causation . . . and to begin my still current investigations into the proving of mathematical theorems by means of computing-machine methods.” When he arrived at Rice as an assistant professor of philosophy in 1961 this was the work he would focus on and it would result in the 1965 publication of his pathbreaking paper A Machine-Oriented Logic Based on the Resolution Principle.

By all accounts Robinson wasn’t only an academic star he was also a cheerful and helpful colleague and a really fine teacher of logic (sadly, not all that common of a skill). But almost from the moment he got here he was heavily recruited by other universities. For a few years President Pitzer managed to fend off the employment offers by means of rapid promotion, salary increases, and title changes, first to Professor of Philosophy and Computer Science and then just to Professor of Computer Science.  There was, of course, no Department of Computer Science in 1966 but notes in Pitzer’s files strongly suggest that if Rice had managed to retain Robinson a Department of Applied Mathematics and Computer Science would have been begun more or less immediately. Alas, in 1967 Robinson finally received an offer he couldn’t turn down. He spent the rest of his highly productive career at Syracuse, while the formalization of a computer science program at Rice had a good long wait in front of it.

The picture of him above with the rest of the Philosophy, Psychology, and Education Department is the only image of him we have. Or at least I thought so until this afternoon when I found this picture attached to his transcript from Princeton:

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13 Responses to Rice’s First Computer Science Class, 1964

  1. Galloway Hudson - Wiess '60 says:

    The M. E.’s in the Class of 1960 (B S. in 1961) were the last class of M. E.’s to have no exposure whatsoever to computers. The next class had a one semester course. Whether or not it could be called a “Computer Science Class” is debatable. I was not in it, but I’m sure the E. E.’s in our class did have some exposure to computers, so I hope some of my contemporaries will join in these comments.

  2. I have heard that the first computer class at Rice was a Will Rice College college course (do they do those anymore?) about programming the Burroughs.

    I’d check with Ed Feustel.

    Ah, this department history page says the first programming course was a Civ. E. course in 1960.

    https://csweb.rice.edu/department-history

    • Richard Miller, BA 1975, MEE 1976 says:

      Do you recall which Will Rice course? My understanding was that the original introduction was via ENGI240 which taught Fortran for engineering.

      I took the first MathSci/ELEC introductory course (220 was the prerequisite for further computer courses and initially used APL and PL/1. I remember myself and David Dyche were chasing Dr. Feustel as he created the modules for the first course) There was also 221 which taught computers for academics (do not recall the languages) and 222 which was for business and used COBOL.

    • Bill Harris says:

      I took ENGI240A “COMPUTOR (sic) AND SYSTEMS” in the fall of 1967. That course used Southworth & DeLeeuw’s /Digital Computation: Numerical Methods/, and we did indeed use FORTRAN II on the 1620.

      I took HANS288B “CYBERNETICS-ART.INTELLIG” in the spring of 1968. I think both classes were taught by Dr. Siebert. I recall doing my project on the R1 using Genie-L or whatever its hybrid Genie / LISP language was called (imagine the Algol-like Genie augmented with CAR, CDR, COND, and the like).

      I took HANS326B “COMPILER THEORY” in the spring of 1969. I don’t recall whether Dr. Siebert or Dr. Feustel taught that. We used Lee’s /The Anatomy of a Compiler/ and Ingerman’s /A Syntax-Oriented Translator/. That text, incidentally, cost $5.95! The far thicker Southworth and DeLeeuw cost $9.95.

      • Bill Harris says:

        Incidentally, I thought HANS288B was offered in the first year college courses were offered for credit. I don’t recall hearing of any earlier WRC credit course

        Melissa, do you have any history of the birth and evolution of these college credit courses?

      • Bill Harris says:

        After seeing the following “’Computer Science at Rice,’ 1966,” I think ENGI240A was probably taught by Dr. Holt, not Dr. Siebert.

  3. Bill Peebles, Hanszen '70 says:

    I took a Fortran II class in the fall of 1966 (I think) that used the IBM 1620 computer. At this time, it was amazing that a machine could actually do things like solve a quadratic equation. That is, after we wrote a program for it. Punch cards were the only available media.

  4. Keith Cooper says:

    Does the attempt to retain Robinson explain the distinguished external review committee (mid-1960s as I recall) ? That review made some astonishingly prescient hiring recommendations.

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