Collection explores history of computer science

WATERLOO, Ont. -- The historical development of computation and computer science is the focus of the J. Wesley Graham History of Computer Science Research Collection at the University of Waterloo's library.

Susan Bellingham, head of special collections, said the library is pleased to announce that it has received two unique groups of materials as the initial resources forming the Graham Research Collection.

"The first of these gifts, purchased with the assistance of Wes Graham's family, friends and colleagues, is made up of printed books ranging in date from the 17th to the 20th century while the second is comprised of the papers of UW's first director of the computing centre, the late J. Wesley Graham. Both of these collections depict, in different ways, society's developing need and use of mechanical, and finally electronic, devices to aid statistical analysis and calculation."

The Graham personal and professional papers provide important historical evidence on activities that took place at UW in its early years. Graham, who began his career at the two-year-old university in 1959, has been described as both "a Canadian pioneer in the field of computing" and as the individual "chiefly responsible for the university's international reputation in software development."

"It was as an academic that Graham recognized the wider applications of computing in education, business, industry and government," Bellingham said. "The software designed under his direction was able to locate programming errors more quickly as well as speed up response time, thus providing faster more reliable methods of computing which were adapted by many other organizations."

His papers provide a unique focus on the work of one of UW's early faculty members. Besides his academic career and his appointment as the university's first director of the computing centre, the papers cover other activities including his work with the Ministry of Education to design the first computer course for high schools and also drafts of manuscripts of the textbooks he wrote with his colleagues.

Other files reveal the growth of the emerging high-technology industries, which have now become a defining characteristic of the Kitchener-Waterloo area. The huge collection is currently being processed and will be available to researchers later in 2001.

In the collection, the earliest item, which is illustrative of the increasing interest in computation, is a fifth edition of John Graunt's Natural and Political Observations Made upon the Bills of Mortality, published in 1676. Graunt is often given the honorary title of the "father of statistics" and his analysis of the bills of mortality, including deaths from the plague, has been described as "pointing a clear line to later works on life expectancy through de Moivre to Babbage."

Several works by Babbage are in the collection. These include his A Comparative View of the Various Institutions for the Assurance of Lives (1826), which formerly belonged to and contains the stamp of the Institute of Actuaries, and On Some New Methods of Investigating the Sums of Several classes on Infinite Series (1819).

Also acquired was his later publication On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures (1846). The lengthy series of tables in this book highlight Babbage's "acute consciousness of the need for accurate calculation." Another example of increasingly complex and sophisticated types of calculation is William Farr's 600-page compilation Tables of Lifetimes, Annuities and Premiums (1864).

There are a number of works that document in part the development of actual machines for doing calculations as well as several examples of patent applications and descriptions.

One of the more interesting descriptions of a 19th century calculator, written by a woman, Mrs. I. Lovi, is entitled Directions for using the Patent Aerometrical Beads, and Sliding Rule; for Ascertaining the Specific Gravities, or Strength of Spirituous Liquors (1807).

The collection contains several pamphlets put out by Brunsviga, detailing the company's business machines to aid calculation and including an advertisement that describes them as "brains of steel."

More modern imprints include the 1955 Notes for Intensive Course for Practicing Engineers, "Digital Computers" and Data Processors presented at the University of Michigan Summer Session and a first edition of Douglas Hartree's Numerical Analysis in its original dust-wrapper from 1952.

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Contact: Susan Bellingham, (519) 888-4567, ext. 3122; sbelling@uwaterloo.ca

From John Morris, UW News Bureau, (519) 888-4435; jmorris@uwaterloo.ca

Release no. 11 -- January 23, 2001