History of Computer Science at Waterloo

Although the University of Waterloo was founded in 1957, it was not until 1967 that the Faculty of Mathematics was established. Today its four departments (Pure Mathematics, Applied Mathematics, Combinatorics & Optimization, Statistics & Actuarial Science) together with the David R. Cheriton School of Computer Science form one of the largest groups of mathematical talent in the world.

Photo of Don Cowan

Don Cowan, 1st Chair of Computer Science at Waterloo

The School of Computer Science was originally called “Applied Analysis and Computer Science”. In 1967 its founding members were Professors Janos Aczel, J. Wesley Graham, H. Haruki, and Mike A. McKiernan; Associate Professors Donald D. Cowan (chair) and J. Douglas Lawson; Assistant Professors Peter C. Jennings and John C. Wilson; and Lecturers Peter C. Brillinger, Paul H. Cress, Paul H. Dirksen, Jan G. Kent, and Byron L. Ehle. By 1969 Applied Analysis and Computer Science had become the largest department in the Faculty of Mathematics. Also that year, the first two PhD degrees were awarded: to Ehle, for a thesis on numerical analysis and to Hugh Williams, for a thesis on computational number theory.

Photo of Byron Ehle
Byron Ehle
Photo of Hugh Williams
and Hugh Williams, Waterloo's first PhDs in Computer Science

Even before the department was founded, however, Waterloo was having an impact on computer science. In 1965, four third-year mathematics students (Richard Shirley, Angus German, James Mitchell, and Bob Zarnke) wrote the WATFOR compiler for the FORTRAN programming language, under the direction of lecturer Peter Shantz. "Within a year it would be adopted by computing centres in over eight countries, and the number of student users at UW increased to over 2500." (Ponzo) In 1966, two mathematics lecturers (Paul Dirksen and Paul Cress) led a team that developed WATFOR 360, for which they received the 1972 Grace Murray Hopper Award from the ACM.

Later, extensions to FORTRAN were incorporated into an immensely popular compiler known as WATFIV.

Patrick Fischer replaced Don Cowan as chair in 1972. In 1975 the term “Applied Analysis” was dropped from the name of the department, which became simply Computer Science, and J. Douglas Lawson became the new chair.

Kelly Booth joined the Computer Science Department in 1977 and John Beatty in 1978 and in 1979, they began a research group in Computer Graphics and Interaction. Together with Richard Bartels who joined the department in 1981, they formed the Computer Graphics Laboratory (CGL), one of the first in Canada. Two graduates of CGL, Rob Krieger and Paul Breslin, would go on to win Academy Awards, and Marceli Wein, adjunct professor of computer science, won an Academy Award for technical achievement in 1997 for his work in computer animation.

Photo of Davis Centre

The Davis Centre, home of Computer Science at Waterloo

In 1982, the Institute for Computer Research (ICR) was established, with Eric Manning as its first director. Its goals were “to foster computer research..., facilitate interaction with industry, and encourage advanced education in computer science and engineering.” Also that year, the Ontario government announced plans to build the Davis Centre, current home of the School of Computer Science. The groundbreaking was in April 1985 and the Davis Centre was formally dedicated on November 10, 1988.

Many of the singular events in the history of Computer Science at Waterloo involved software. To name just two, Waterloo has been heavily involved in the development of Maple and the New Oxford English Dictionary.

Maple, a symbolic algebra system, was developed starting in 1980 by Keith Geddes and Gaston Gonnet. The first commercial distribution was in 1985. Waterloo Maple Software was incorporated in April 1988.

In 1984, the Oxford University Press chose Waterloo as the home for its project to computerize the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). The OED comprised 21,000 pages defining 600,000 words. Gaston Gonnet and Frank Tompa headed Waterloo's part of the project. In January 1985, the University established the Centre for the New OED. The electronic version of the OED is now available in a variety of formats, including CD-ROM and web-based. As a spin-off from this project, the company Open Text Corporation was formed. Open Text developed one of the first web search engines.

But software was not the only research interest at Waterloo; theoretical computer science was focus of the department from its earliest days. John Brzozowski, known for his pioneering work on finite automata, regular expressions, and asychronous circuit design, joined the department in 1967. The 10th Annual Symposium on Switching and Automata Theory conference (now known as STOC) was held at Waterloo in 1969, and drew papers from future Turing award winners Al Aho and John Hopcroft. Later, theoreticians such as Karel Culik II and Ian Munro joined the department.

John Brzozowski was chair of the department from 1978 to 1983, and again from 1987 to 1989. During this period, Waterloo began a series of fruitful collaborations and exchanges with institutions in Brazil and France. Ties with industry, especially Hewlett-Packard and IBM, resulted in the donation of equipment such as computers and workstations. Also during this period, there was increased interest in majoring in computer science from undergraduates - so much so that a new admission policy, in which marks were an important factor, was instituted.

Bruce Simpson was chair from 1984 to 1987. During that time a provincial “Centre of Excellence” called the Information Technology Research Centre (ITRC) was established. Funding from ITRC enabled the teaching load for many faculty members to be decreased. In October 1997 ITRC became Communications and Information Technology Ontario (CITO).

Waterloo's youngest graduate student, Tony W. H. Lai, was admitted in January 1987, at the age of 14 years, 9 months. Tony successfully defended his PhD on September 13, 1990, at the age of 18 years, 5 months. His supervisor was Derick Wood, and his thesis was entitled “Efficient Maintenance of Binary Search Trees”.

Frank Tompa became chair in 1992, and served until 1997. During this period, the Education Program for Software Professionals (EPSP) and the Consortium for Graduate Education in Software Engineering (ConGESE) were inaugurated.

Since 1993, Waterloo has been an active participant in the ACM Programming Contest. Undergraduate teams from Waterloo have won the world championship twice, in 1994 and 1999, and have been North American champions in 1998, 2000 and 2005.

Photo of 1999 ACM programming contest winners

Viet-Trung Luu (holding cup), David Kennedy and Ondrej Lhotak (holding plaque), winners of the 1999 ACM Programming Contest

Nick Cercone was chair from 1997-2001. This was a time of growth for the department, due in part to the Ontario Government Access to Opportunities program (ATOP). Many of the research labs were renovated and re-equipped with funding from the Bell University Labs (BUL) program. Connections with departments outside the Faculty of Math were strengthened with the development of two new undergraduate plans of study: Bioinformatics which is offered jointly by Biology and Computer Science; and Software Engineering which is offered jointly by Electrical and Computer Engineering, and Computer Science.

On May 1, 2002, the Department of Computer Science officially became the School of Computer Science. On November 18, 2005, the School was renamed to the David R. Cheriton School of Computer Science in recognition of the establishment of the David R. Cheriton Endowment for Excellence in Computer Science.


Much of this page was based on Computer Science at Waterloo: A History to Celebrate 25 Years by Peter Ponzo, 1992.

Originally written by Jeffrey Shallit, March 2001.

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