The History of Computer Engineering & Computer Science at UCLA

Author: Gerald Estrin, late Professor Emeritus

In the late 1940s, UCLA began to make pioneering contributions to the information revolution. A creative environment nurtured research and education in computer egineering and computer science. Some highlights of the period up to formal establishment of the UCLA Computer Science Department in 1968 follow:


The Institute for Numerical Analysis was set up on the UCLA campus under sponsorship of the National Bureau of Standards and with funding from the Office of Naval Research. The primary function of INA was “to conduct research and training in the types of mathematics pertinent to the efficient exploitation and further development of high-speed automatic digital computing machinery.” INA attracted a stream of internationally recognized applied mathematicians. Harry Huskey completed the SWAC (Standards Western Automatic Computer) development project in 1950, and it became one of the very few places where modern numerical experiments could be conducted. The SWAC provided a testing ground for computer engineers, programmers and applied mathematicians. George Forsythe was a key member of INA who later joined the Stanford faculty and became a leader of the movement to establish computer science programs in the USA. C. B. Tompkins headed INA in the mid-1950s and organized support to serve the computational needs of the entire campus; SWAC was replaced by large IBM computer systems.


Dean L. M. K. Boelter came to UCLA from Berkeley to head the College of Engineering. Boelter had an educational mission which was to break down the conventional specialization categories of departments in engineering, and to design unified engineering curricula leading to BS, MS and PhD degrees in engineering. Due to the universality of simulation tools in engineering, Professor Thomas A. Rogers was able to obtain support for analog computation. Two large analog computers, a mechanical differential analyzer and a network analyzer were received from General Electric. One of the first electronic analog computers, EASE, was designed and built at UCLA. Professor Walter Karplus joined the UCLA faculty in 1955 and played a key role in developing the field of scientific computing and numerical methods for solution of differential equations in engineering. Tom Rogers led computer lab and course development and created an early numerically controlled machine tool laboratory.


At RAND Corporation in Santa Monica, a project to build a von Neumann type machine was closely tracking the ongoing development t the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton (von Neumann often came West to consult at RAND and, in fit, his plan to relocate to UCLA was aborted by his death in February 1957). Before the Princeton machine was finished, one of the original members of the IAS engineering team, Willis Ware, left to head the RAND computer project. With Montgomery Phister, Ware began to offer evening introductory courses in digital computer design at UCLA.


Dean Boelter of the College of Engineering and Prof. C. B. Tompkins, director of the Institute for Numerical Analysis, joined forces to recruit Gerald Estrin to the UCLA engineering faculty from the von Neumann Electronic Computer Project at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton.The goal was to build a computer engineering research program and to initiate a full-time academic program to spark a new computer initiative. In 1958, Estrin formed the Digital Research Laboratory, and obtained extramural support from the Office of Naval Research, energy research agencies (AEC, ERDA, and DOE), the National Science Foundation, and DARPA to build research activity probing innovative computer architectures, parallel processing, models of computation, computer instrumentation, and computer networks. As a result, by 1968 a substantial body of doctoral dissertations, master’s theses and contributions to technical literature in computer engineering already existed when the formal proposal to establish a computer science department was made. Some of the early faculty appointments, in addition to Karplus and Estrin were: A. Avizienis (1962), B. Bussell (1960), J. Carlyle (1963), L. Kleinrock (1963), M. Melkanoff (1962) and A. Svoboda (1968). Melkanoff had extensive experience with computational physics and computer programming methods and he became the sparkplug for development of a computer science curriculum and formal establishment of the Computer Science Department at UCLA. Algirdas Avizienis retained his association with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory while he advanced his seminal work on fault tolerance. Leonard Kleinrock had finished his work at MIT and intended to move into industrial research, but he was attracted to the UCLA engineering faculty in the Information Systems Division. Kleinrock’s contributions to computer communications, queuing analysis, development of the ARPANET and teaching excellence have set remarkable standards for his colleagues ever since.


These dates encompass the formal establishment of the UCLA Computer Science Department. There was a campus-wide interest in supporting a computer science program. In addition to computer engineering, those interested included faculty and research staff in biomathematics, business administration, the campus computing network, other engineering specialties, library services, mathematics, physiology, psychology and public health. By 1968, there were eleven faculty members in the School of Engineering who were involved in teaching and research in computer science related areas. In addition to the faculty mentioned above, this group included D. F. Martin, L. P. McNamee, and J. Vidal. An Information Systems Division had been established in the School of Engineering, and 70 MS and 43 PhD students were pursuing studies in system design, numerical applications and computer languages. On May 24, 1968, “A Proposal For a Program of Graduate Studies In Computer Sciencs For the MS and PhD Degrees” was submitted to the Academic Senate Graduate Council. The proposal to establish the Computer Science Department in the School of Engineering and Applied Science was approved in the 1968-1969 academic year. For historical interest, selected excerpts of that program are presented below:

Goals of the Proposed Program

  1. To provide the necessary courses, faculty and administrative structure to allow graduate students to obtain M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in computer science at UCLA.
  2. To provide necessary training, service and advanced courses in computer science to the whole student body and the faculty.
  3. To provide a focus for teaching, research and development in computer science to the campus, as a whole.

Definition of Computer Science

The role of computer science, its importance and its relationship to other fields may be described as follows:

The predictive power of the inductive sciences, such as physics and chemistry, is predicated upon the use of symbolic models, consisting of idealized objects, corresponding to real objects, whose interaction is described through a set of mathematical axioms. The application of mathematical theorems to these axioms yield theoretical prediction which may be compared with events in the real world, thus establishing the validity of the model within a certain domain. Other sciences have attempted to develop symbolic models with considerably less success, due to the complexity required for a realistic model. The advent of the digital computer has greatly facilitated the construction, utilization and verification of such models, thereby providing new predictive powers to many disciplines which hitherto were limited to qualitative modeling, leading to uncertain predictions. For this to be effective and meaningful, however, the issue of what constitutes “realizable” models must be delineated and explored. Thus, the primary aim of computer science is to enhance scholarly advance by increasing our understanding of what constitutes realizable models and to extend the scope of realizability.