Computer Science Research at ETH

Main content

ETH Zurich played an important role in the beginnings of Swiss computer science research. In 1950, it was the first university on the European continent to house a programmable computer, Z4, which it rented for four years from the German engineer Konrad Zuse and which endured World War II with little damage. Z4 was able to perform practical numerical tasks. At the same time, the groundwork was being laid for ETH to build its own electronic computer, the ERMETH. In 1949, Eduard Stiefel sent his senior assistants Heinz Rutishauser and Ambros Speiser to the US to learn how to operate new electronic calculating machines, e.g. at Harvard. From these study trips, new research projects were launched, including the development of ETH's own computer, the "electronic calculating machine of ETH" ("elektronische Rechenmaschine der ETH"). In 1955, the ERMETH was partially operational and became completely functional in 1957. It remained in full operation until 1963.  

At the beginning, the ERMETH could only be programmed by using machine language. However, Rutishauser and his European colleagues developed "Algol", a language with a close relation to mathematics, for which Hans Rudolf Schwarz wrote the necessary compiler. Rutishauser's main interest, however, focused on the development of efficient numerical algorithms. ERMETH had already developed a range of programs and they were being used both by researchers from various ETH divisions as well as by the industry.

In 1964, the CDC-1604A, an industrially produced computer, came into operation at ETH. Computer science-based research first focused on further developing numerical program libraries. In 1968, Niklaus Wirth advanced the development of programming languages by enhancing "Algol" to "Algol W" while being assistant professor at Stanford. In 1969, Wirth created his own programming language, "Pascal".

From 1970 onwards, "numerical mathematics" as well as "databases" became independent research areas, later joined by "interactivity of computer systems". These research interests paved the way for the development of today's e-learning: Thales, a system for computer-aided instruction, was successfully designed and implemented in the late 1970s. Closely connected to this area of research were questions concerning the intuitive interaction of a man-machine interface.

The development of ETH's own computer was re-initiated after an interval of nearly two decades with "Lilith", from 1978 to 1980, under Niklaus Wirth's direction. Based on the experience gained in previous projects, Lilith came with a graphic-enabled monitor and a mouse, and thus provided the department with a five-year head-start in its daily work, as similar graphical user interfaces only became commercially available in 1984. Lilith also strongly influenced the research activities of the ensuing years and can be regarded as the nucleus of computer science research at ETH during the 1980s.

Between 1986 and 1988 the professors Niklaus Wirth and Jürg Gutknecht developed "Oberon" - the operating system as well as the object-oriented programming language. Oberon subsequently became the standard language for programming courses at ETH and well into the next millennium.

With the rapid growth of the institute and, later on, of the department, research activities steadily expanded. Like in other departments, a characteristic of late 1980 research policy was to collaborate closely with external partners and to explore new financing options.

 
 
Page URL: https://www.inf.ethz.ch/department/history/computer-science-at-eth.html
23.05.2017
© 2017 Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich