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A Science Is Born

Artist's representation of Harvard Universitys Aiken Computation Lab some 50 years ago.

No information infrastructure has been more consequential than the Internet, and Harvard fingerprints are on the Internets embryo, says author Harry R. Lewis.

Credit: Mark Steele

Thirty veterans of Harvard's Aiken Computation Lab reunited on January 19, 2020, some 50 years after each of us had a role in creating today's networked, information-rich, artificially intelligent world. Rip van Winkles who had never fallen asleep, we gathered to make sense of what had evolved from our experience as undergraduates and Ph.D. candidates during the decade 1966-1975. One thing was clear: we hadn't understood how the work we were doing would change the world.

Harvard didn't even call what we were doing computer science; our degrees are mostly in applied mathematics, mathematics, or physics. The University remained blind to the future of computing for a long time. I joined the faculty in 1974, right after completing my graduate work. Four years later, as a still-junior faculty member, I tried to get my colleagues in DEAP (the Division of Engineering and Applied Physics, now SEAS, the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences) to create an undergraduate computer-science degree. A senior mechanical engineer of forbidding mien snorted surely not: Harvard had never offered a degree in automotive science, why would we create one in computer science? I waited until I had tenure before trying again (and succeeding) in 1982.

But there we were, in our teens and twenties in the Aiken lab, laying some of the foundation stones on which the field has been erected.


From Harvard Magazine
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