Computer Science 25 Years
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We are preparing a history of the Computer Science option, from its formation in 1976 to the present. Much of our information will come from interviews -- if you know of someone who ought to be interviewed for this project -- or if you yourself would like to be interviewed, please contact An excerpt is printed below. More to come!

[from a work in progress, being prepared by Joel Grossman]

Computing power was still a relatively scarce commodity in 1974, when Harold Brown was in his fifth year as Caltech president. One of the many visitors to Caltech that year was Robert Cannon, U.S. Assistant Secretary of Transportation for Systems Development and Technology. "Harold was Secretary of the Air Force when I was chief scientist of the Air Force" in 1966-1968, says Cannon, currently the Charles Lee Powell Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics at Stanford University. "Harold invited me out to talk about an urban mass transit program," a $10 million rail project JPL was considering building. Cannon pointed out that JPL did not know how to build a railroad, and that the true cost was much higher than what the government was offering to pay. Boeing ended up taking the $10 million, and a huge loss when the true cost turned out to be $98 million. Communications were further opened up when Cannon, Brown and JPL director William Pickering had dinner together.

Surmising that Cannon's tour of duty in Washington was about up, Brown called his former chief scientist several weeks later and - speaking on behalf of a Caltech search committee - said "'Caltech was in need of a boost of strength in engineering,'" says Cannon. "I was being sought by quite a few people while I was in Washington. I decided not to be a president of a university, but I wanted to be in the middle of a top-notch university operation." Having taught at MIT and Stanford, where he was also founder of the Guidance and Control Laboratory, Cannon was attracted to the Caltech experience, and liked the idea of serving as Chairman of the Division of Engineering & Applied Science and reporting to the Provost and President. The three layers of management at Caltech were much more appealing to Cannon than the 5-7 layers of bureaucracy he faced at other schools.

Once in Pasadena, Cannon was surprised that "there was no such thing as a department," but instead informal groups with "natural-born leaders" working in particular areas such as aeronautics, environmental engineering, and applied physics. Among the first things Cannon did was study what was going on and think about where engineering needed to go in the next couple of decades. Computer science seemed to be emerging into its own. After being a branch of applied mathematics in the School of Humanities at Stanford, computer science voted to move into the School of Engineering. At the University of California, Berkeley, Tom Everhart merged electrical engineering with computer science. "It was clear to me that computer science was a very important part of engineering," says Cannon, and at Caltech computer science was happening around Carver Mead and his students in electrical engineering.

Cannon was equally focused on getting to know all of the 70 faculty in the E&AS division. Carver Mead was "a talented guy and very focused," but "kind of alone" in the applied physics group, with the word silicon in his lab name on the door because he wanted to make sure people took silicon for granted as part of computing. One by one, Cannon visited with and got to know all the people in the division and what they were doing.

In the negotiations leading up to being hired, Cannon and Brown talked about acquiring additional top faculty for the division. Once on the job, Cannon kept Brown informed of what was happening via informal 15-minute weekly meetings. "Harold is an unbelievably smart leader who astutely does those things that only he can do," says Cannon, and he leaves all the rest for others. "I shared with him one early day that computer science is one of the things that we have to strengthen."

"I met more often with Provost Bob Christie so that he was never surprised by anything," says Cannon. "It was something that I learned in Washington, the first rule of good management." One day Cannon informed Christie that he wanted to hire eight new faculty members as part of his plan to strengthen the division. Christie was more cautious, and suggested hiring two or three faculty, as eight was a pretty big jump for a division whose numbers had been relatively static in recent years.

"If you're sitting in Washington as I was before going there (Caltech), what you do to the degree Congress lets you do it, is you find and get the best people," says Cannon. So Cannon wrote Harold Brown, asking him to recall the negotiations leading up to Cannon's hiring, specifically the part about hiring more faculty. Part of the plan was that Cannon was to be free to bring in a good number of new people, "providing I can see upcoming billets and find ways to afford them." This was easily done at the time with government funding, particularly the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which continues to be a major source of computer science funding at Caltech. Harold Brown sent Cannon's note back by return mail and in pen wrote on it, "'This is exactly the way I remember it,'" says Cannon, who shared this will Bob Christie so that they could move forward together. (He also put Brown's annotated note in his safe.)

As a result, Cannon estimates he set up eight search committees which led to the hiring of 18 new faculty, including 3 in computer science, during a 5 year period, greatly benefiting all the groups in the division. It was a marvelous time, when the whole division shared a cooperative spirit, and all were looking for really good young people. It was a climate in which Cannon could bring together the division's faculty to better get to know one another. But before Cannon moved forward with a computer science group, he wanted to make sure the faculty and the trustees, as well as the administration, felt good about the idea.

"First of all, I knew Harold Brown would be behind whatever I did," says Cannon. "I believed that the trustees were very important, so I started with the trustees, getting them behind what I was doing." Rube Mettler, who was CEO of TRW at the time and is now in the Air Force Space and Missile Pioneers Hall of Fame, was the key trustee Cannon drove to see. "I went to see him in his very fine office on top of a tall building north of Century Blvd," and "he was very cordial," says Cannon. "I just focused on this one thing, that Caltech being right at the forefront of technical universities, be at the leading edge in computer science. His response instantly was, 'It is unthinkable for Caltech not to do that.'" Thus, it was set in motion that the trustees would be supportive of computer science when the time came.

Cannon organized a retreat for the faculty, because he found that they knew the people within their group, but not the people in other groups. A retreat was a way for the faculty in the different groups to interact and get to know each other and each others' work. "It was not about computer science per se. However, computer science was an important new thing out there," says Cannon, "and they would all be drawing heavily on computer science, even if they didn't know it yet," whether they were in fluid mechanics or structures or applied physics with silicon.

Fortunately, the infrastructure for a retreat had recently been put in place. An alert Caltech staff member in Fallbrook, about a hundred miles south of the campus in northern San Diego County, saw a "for sale" sign on a 15-acre citrus and avocado ranch with a 5-bedroom modern ranch house, beautifully landscaped gardens, heated swimming pool and large underground bomb shelter. The asking price was $250,000. "What a great place that would be for a Caltech retreat," he exclaimed when he realized that the seller was a Caltech alum, a B.S. in chemistry in 1918, the great film director Frank Capra. Just before Christmas in 1971, word reached one of Caltech's great benefactors, fellow chemistry major and Trustee Arnold Beckman, whose charming and well-chosen words put Capra in the gift-giving mood. By 1972, Frank Capra and his wife Lucille had donated their "secluded, beautifully situated retreat" to Caltech.

If ever there was a place for the faculty to forget their everyday concerns, relax and unwind, it was behind the gates of the Frank Capra Ranch surrounded by lemon, avocado and orange orchards. Trying to make time to meet during a hectic week on campus, forget it, just too much to do, students, research, etc. But the Capra ranch was simple and rustic, with no ringing phones or other distractions behind the barbed wire and multiflora rose fences. It was little wonder that Frank Capra retreated here for the winter when he wasn't on location making films. The two hour drive from Pasadena was do-able after work on a Friday afternoon or Saturday morning, and the winding road was pleasant enough, with its scenic rolling hills and citrus and avocado orchards adding a pastoral charm to the chaparral.

Cannon was planning the perfect weekend. He would invite representatives from each of the nine EAS groups, perhaps 20-30 people in all. Any more than that would push the comfort limits of the ranch house, whose bomb shelter sported a stove, sink, bath, half a dozen bunks hung ship-style on the walls and a dozen or so cots. Both the living room and large basement play-room had fireplaces, and comfortably accommodated 25-30 faculty members. Hans Leipmann and Frank Marble took time out from their work in the Guggenheim Laboratory to come. Herb Keller and the opinionated Brit, Gerald Whitman, came from applied mathematics. The earthquake group sent its reps (led by Paul Jennings), as did applied mechanics and each of the other EAS Division groups.

Under Cannon, the groups in the division were functioning together more harmoniously than they had in a long time, and Harold Brown was proud. "We spent our hours together at the Capra ranch going around to each group, because it was a meeting of the whole division, and one person from each group made a presentation, followed by lots of Q and A," says Cannon. "It was a chance for the groups to get to know each other," and "among other things, the idea of that kind of new department (computer science) evolved very nicely in the context of the whole division." The actual date of the retreat is a bit fuzzy, perhaps because it felt like a vacation and there was no reason to keep track of time or dates. But it was sometime in 1974 or 1975, and there was enough chill in the air to keep the logs burning in the fireplace.

Carver Mead clearly enjoyed throwing three-foot-long logs of well-seasoned (at least a year old) sawed firewood into the Capra ranch fireplace, and he kept the fire roaring all weekend. Without central heating everyone comes together around a fire, a primitive instinct that had the faculty huddling close together and bonding while they shared sparks of excitement from Carver Mead's applied physics presentation, which radically re-conceptualized computation as a physical process governed by the laws of physics. Even the applied mathematicians, who had tended to view computing in terms of mathematical reasoning and logical operations, became intrigued. "They viewed the computer itself as uninteresting, just a Turing Machine," says Mead. "So we talked about how in the world out there computer science had come to be a mathematical exercise."

"It is very Caltech to try to understand things down to a fundamental level where you can make fundamental predictions," says Mead. On the basis of the underlying physics, Mead and graduate student Bruce Hoeneisen (who later went to South America to create a Chilean "Caltech") made some scaling predictions, which were submitted to the journal "Solid-State Electronics" in 1971. They argued that in 30 years (by 2001) transistor size could shrink by a factor of 100, hundreds of millions of components would fit onto single chips and channel lengths would shrink to the electron beam masking realm of 0.15 microns (about where they are in 2001). "People considered it crazy at the time, and had all these reasons it wouldn't work," says Mead. "But it has driven the entire industry," and Moore's Law derives from scaling.

Mead could have stopped there, but he was also devising a design solution that anticipated the implications of scaling (to smaller sizes with millions of components on a chip) on integrated circuit and microprocessor (invented at Intel in 1971) design. Structured Very Large Scale Integrated (VLSI) system design enabled designers to manage the complexity of systems having hundreds of millions of tiny transistors, devices and circuits crammed onto small chips in exponentially more complex arrangements. "I had been doing VLSI, and it became obvious to me that a big exponential increase would," says Mead, lead to "increased distributed computing, decreased centralization, increased applications, communications and architecture issues...and not one person is looking at it that way, so here is an opportunity for Caltech to be at the front of the pack."

The Division faculty, in contrast to previous decades, came away from the Capra ranch retreat convinced that a computing science group was a good idea. "It was really the first time engineering was proactive about that," says Mead. "So, basically the outcome of that retreat was that everyone agreed we should try to find a way to put our good position in VLSI together with their computer science in a broader way and get something started."

Cannon promptly appointed a search committee in the field of computer science, and the committee's first selection was Ivan Sutherland, who then took part in the next two selections: Jim Kajiya and Charles Minter. Sutherland, at 38, was the most senior of the 15 new appointments to E&AS (all but three of the 15 were in their early or mid-20s). He had been a co-founder of Evans & Sutherland, and his superb technical prowess, leading the exciting new arena of virtual imaging, was a perfect compliment to Mead's in silicon magic. The two - Sutherland and Mead - were an awesome leadership team in computer science at Caltech. Awesome.

last updated 13 June, 2001