History of the Department

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Historical image of the Institute of Applied Mathematics
Institute of Applied Mathematics

ETH Zurich has a long and successful history of designing computer systems and developing software tools. It dates back to 1950, when the newly formed Institute for Applied Mathematics, headed by Prof. Eduard Stiefel, installed the Z4 computer built during World War II by the German engineer Konrad Zuse. With this acquisition, ETH became the first university on the European continent to house a programmable computer. The Z4 was not only instrumental in a number of important scientific and industrial computing projects, but also in developing numerical algorithms and, perhaps more importantly, spurring the development of programming languages and compilers. As early as 1951, Heinz Rutishauser, who at that time was one of Stiefel's senior assistants and in 1955 became a professor at ETH, was researching the automatic generation of programs, presaging many essential concepts of compilers. Between 1949 and 1951, Rutishauser developed an algebraic language for a hypothetical computer, inventing the "for loop" and several other language concepts that later appeared in the ALGOL programming language. Programming classes were offered to ETH students starting in 1951, covering topics like flow charts, structured programming, architecture of the Z4 computer, numerical applications and digital circuit design.

From 1955 onwards, Rutishauser collaborated with Friedrich Ludwig Bauer from TU München and other Swiss and German mathematicians in designing a universal "algorithmic language". Eventually, at an international workshop held in Zurich in May 1958 (which also included a number of American mathematicians and computer scientists), a preliminary version of the ALGOL programming language was defined. ALGOL proved to be extremely influential - it became the standard method for algorithm description used in many publications, and is the ancestor of many modern programming languages, including C, Pascal and Java.

In the meantime, ETH built its own electronic computer, the ERMETH. It was finished in 1957 and remained in full operation until 1963. Writing an ALGOL compiler for the ERMETH took less than a year. Programming language development continued with Niklaus Wirth, an ETH alumnus, who joined ETH as a professor in 1968. Wirth defined an enhanced variant of ALGOL ("ALGOL W"), which formed the basis for the Pascal programming language. Pascal was developed by Wirth mainly for educational purposes and was intended to teach students structured programming. Published in 1970, the easy-to-compile language with its simple and concise syntax nevertheless soon became widely used, both at universities, and later for commercial applications. For his outstanding work in developing Pascal and other programming languages, Niklaus Wirth received the ACM Turing Award in 1984.

Institution-wise, computer science also continued to develop at ETH: In 1968, the Institute for Applied Mathematics was reorganized, with computer science forming a separate unit, headed by Heinz Rutishauser and joined by Niklaus Wirth and Peter Läuchli. Carl August Zehnder and Jürg Nievergelt followed soon. In 1974, the unit was upgraded to an institute and eventually, in 1981, to a full department. A full-fledged computer science curriculum was introduced in 1981 with 110 first-year students and 23 third-year students enrolling for the new graduate program. The first twenty ETH computer science engineers graduated in 1984. In 1988, the department moved into its first dedicated building on the ETH campus. In the following years, the department experienced steady growth, not only in students, but also by adding new professorships and research areas, reaching the current size of 29 professors, more than 1’500 students, and covering most important computer science subjects.

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Fri Jul 28 18:15:41 CEST 2017
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