UNC Department of Computer Science celebrates 50 years

One was in the basement of Phillips Hall. The other, in Research Triangle Park, filled a room the size of a basketball court and held only a half-megabyte of data — an average iPhone can hold more than 32,000 times as much information.

This academic year, the Department of Computer Science is celebrating its 50th birthday. Founded in 1964 by Frederick Brooks, it was one of the first independent computer science programs in the nation.

“People don’t realize it was actually a big debate whether it even made sense to teach computer science,” said Department Chairman Kevin Jeffay.

Jeffay said the department has made significant progress in population, infrastructure and access to technology in the last half-century.

The department started out in a four-room, cottage-like building called West House, he said. The bathroom doubled as a copy room — and employees had a system to designate what they were using the room for. Now, the department spans across two buildings.

The technology available on campus has also grown in an unbelievable way, Jeffay said.

Now each computer science building has hundreds of computers.

“If you would have told somebody that back then, they wouldn’t believe you,” he said.

Smith said he most remembers the camaraderie between faculty and students during the department’s first years.

A half-century later, senior computer science major Winston Howes said his favorite part of the department is the same as Smith’s: the collaborative environment between professors and students.

He said as a freshman he went to his professor with an idea for a computer security startup called GoPhish. His professor mentored him on the project for the next two years.

“That instance had the biggest impact on where I am now,” he said.

“If the professor said, ‘I don’t really have time for it,’ I would’ve given up on the project. It dramatically changed how I approach computer science. It fueled a passion in me for it.”

Jeffay said he predicts computer science will, at the same time, be everywhere but also seem to disappear.

“People will focus on the fact that this is a thermostat, this is a car, this is a smart phone. A Tesla, for example, is a giant computer with an electric motor,” he said.

“The revolution that is coming is going to be ubiquity — processing and communication is just going to be everywhere.”

Jeffay said what makes UNC’s computer science department so unique is that it seems to be the University’s best-kept secret.

“We’re an engineering department on a liberal arts campus. People come to campus and have certain expectations about the research we do. But we’ve done very aggressive engineering.

“When people come here, they’re blown away by that.”

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