Swarthmore College Department of Computer Science

history of the cs department at swarthmore college

The Computer Science Department started as the Computer Science Program in 1984 when Professor Charles Kelemen was hired. During his first year at Swarthmore (1984-85) Professor Kelemen was a member of the Mathematics Department and taught Math 7 (Introduction to Computer Science). Before hiring Professor Kelemen, a variety of CS-related courses were taught by the Math, Engineering, and Physics departments, such as Math 7, Engineering 23 (Digital Computers I: Programming and Applications), Physics 5 (Computing From the User's End), and Math 64 (Mathematical Programming). The Computing Center (CC) had a Prime 9550 located in Beardsley Hall, which had 12MB of main memory, 1600MB of on-line disk storage, allowed programming in APL, BASIC, FORTRAN, and Pascal, and could be accessed from terminals at certain campus locations.

The CS Program was first included in the college catalog during the 1985-86 school year. A copy of the Swarthmore catalog page shows Professor Kelemen as program director and Margaret Christensen as lecturer. The courses taught in those first few semesters included:

  • Spring 1986
    • CS-15: Introduction to Computer Science
    • CS-35: Fundamental Structures of Computer Science
    • CS-46: Theory of Computation
  • Fall 1986
    • CS-15: Introduction to Computer Science
    • CS-35: Fundamental Structures of Computer Science
    • CS-41: Data Structures and Algorithms
    • CS-75: Principles of Compiler Design and Construction

The original concentration in CS, designed by Professor Kelemen and approved in 1985, consisted of six CS courses in addition to a student's chosen major course of study. These six courses were selected from eleven CS courses, two engineering courses, and three mathematics courses. Although there were joint Special Majors involving CS and another department, at this point there was no stand-alone CS Major or Minor.

In 1986, with the help of Provost Jim England, John Boccio of Physics, and the Development Office, the CS Program was able to raise $100,000 from the Charles E. Culpeper Foundation and $50,000 from the Atlantic Richfield Foundation. These funds were used to renovate parts of Sproul Observatory to include a CS lab and faculty offices. The funds were also used to buy the CS Program's first computers: a Sun 3/160 fileserver (including a 380MB disk!) and six diskless Sun 3/50 desktop monochrome workstations (each with 4MB of memory, later upgraded to 12MB). See our history of CS computers for more details on the evolution of the CS server(s) and a list of students that have helped maintain the CS systems.

From the beginning, the CS lab was intended as a place for students to experiment and learn, as explained in this quote by Charles Kelemen from one of the original grant proposals:

"The philosophy in running such a laboratory should be to encourage experimentation, even if this means an occasional system failure or loss of data."

The original system ran an early version of Sun's UNIX operating system (SunOS 4.?), and included programming languages such as C, Pascal, FORTAN77, Common Lisp, and Prolog. In addition to the six Sun workstations, access to the CS fileserver was available through four ASCII terminals in the CS lab, as well as terminals at other campus locations through a Gandalf switch. The original CS server was called swatsun, and the six Sun workstations were named after historical cities (babylon, carthage, byzantium, ilium, pompeii, and thebes). Only later, in 1992, when these computers were replaced by a SunSPARC 2 server running SunOS 4.1.2, were the current spice hostnames adopted (allspice, oregano, sage, ...).

Since the original CS lab back in 1986, students have had a large role in administering the CS systems. Every year one or two students from each class are selected to help run the CS computers. Not until 1998 was a part-time professional system administration/lab manager position created. Even today, with a full-time sysadmin, the CS department still hires a few students from each class to be student sysadmins. A full list of current and past student sysadmins is included on our computer history page.

The CS program remained and flourished in Sproul Observatory from 1986 until 2004. Honors Minors in CS were first offered in 1988, and a Special Major in Computer Science (stand-alone, not in combination with any other department) was approved in 1990. In 1994 a second tenure-track line was added, and Lisa Meeden was hired. Around 1995 the CS Program began offering a CS Honors Major. During the summer of 1998, with help from an NSF grant, the original CS lab and faculty offices were renovated to include more office space, a secure server room, and a robotics laboratory. Two more tenure-track lines were added in 1999 (Tia Newhall) and 2002 (Richard Wicentowski), and around 2001 the CS Program became the CS Department, offering regular majors. During the summer of 2004, after outgrowing the allocated space in Sproul, the CS department was moved to the new Science Center (what used to be DuPont Hall).

The following is a brief list of highlights from the CS department's history at Swarthmore College:

  • 1984: Charles Kelemen hired
  • 1985: concentration in Computer Science (CS) approved by Swarthmore faculty
  • 1986: first CS machines purchased, CS lab and faculty offices created in Sproul
  • 1986: CS15 taught using Pascal
  • 1989: Computing Center buys VAX 8810
  • 1992: CS upgrades lab to SunSPARC2 server running SunOS 4.1.2, IPC workstations with color monitors
  • 1992-93: two new courses offered -- CS10 (Great Ideas in CS, using Hypercard) and CS20 (Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs, using Scheme)
  • 1992: CS gets part-time Admin. Asst. (Joan McCaul)
  • 1992: CS starts using gcc (version 2.2.2)
  • Jun 1992: spice names replace cities, allspice =
  • 1993-94: CS35 taught using C++
  • 1994: second tenure-track line added, Lisa Meeden hired as Assistant Professor
  • 1995-96: Honors Major approved for CS
  • 1996-97: first time CS21 is offered (The Imperative Paradigm With C)
  • Aug 1996: CS upgrades server to Sun Ultra 170E running Solaris 2.5.1
  • Sep 1996: part-time lab manager/sysadmin position created for CS (Jean Griffin)
  • Spring 1998: CS35 taught using Java
  • Feb 1998: CS begins testing/using vmailer, which later becomes postfix
  • Mar 1998: Jeff Knerr hired as lab manager/sysadmin
  • Jul 1998: CS upgrades server to Sun E450 (Solaris 2.6), buys Ultra 5 and 10 workstations
  • Jul 1998: Sproul CS lab renovated, Robot Lab created
  • 1998-99: CS20 renamed to CS22
  • 1999: third tenure-track line added to CS, Tia Newhall hired
  • 2000: Lisa Meeden awarded tenure and promoted to Associate Professor
  • 2001-02: CS Program becomes CS Department, CS Major no longer "special"
  • 2001-02: CC evolves into ITS
  • 2001-02: Bridget Rothera hired as CS Administrative Assistant
  • 2002: fourth tenure-track line added, Richard Wicentowski hired
  • Jul 2003: CS department switches from Sun Solaris to Debian Linux on x86 hardware
  • Jun 2004: CS department leaves Sproul, moves to new Science Center
  • 2004-05: first-year seminar introduced (CPSC-015 Privacy and Trust in Cyberspace)
  • 2005: Tia Newhall awarded tenure and promoted to Associate Professor
  • 2005-06: CS21 switches to Java (Algorithmic Problem Solving)
  • 2006-07: Betsy Horner hired to start the Ninja Program; CS21 switches to python (Introduction to Computer Science)
  • 2008: Andrew Danner hired as tenure-track Assistant Professor
  • 2008: Lisa Meeden promoted to Full Professor of CS
  • 2008: Rich Wicentowski awarded tenure and promoted to Associate Professor
  • Jan 2012: Frances Ruiz hired as the Academic Support Coordinator
  • 2012: fifth tenure-track line added, Ameet Soni hired
  • 2013: sixth tenure-track line added, Kevin Webb hired
  • 2014: Andrew Danner awarded tenure and promoted to Associate Professor
  • 2014: Tia Newhall promoted to Full Professor
  • 2014: Joshua Brody hired as tenure-track Assistant Professor
  • Sept. 2014: Lauri Courtenay hired as the Academic Support Coordinator