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History of the Department

Birkbeck's School of Computer Science and Information Systems traces its roots back to the Computer Laboratory of Professor (then Dr) A D Booth which was founded to support J D Bernal's studies of crystal structures. Booth began building the college's first computer, using relay technology, in 1946. His first electronic computer, called SEC (Simple Electronic Computer), was completed around 1950.

Prof Booth published an algorithm for a parallel multiplier which still forms the basis of the multiplication circuits in a modern PC. He also pioneered rotating memories. Due to engineering problems he failed in the late 1940s in an attempt to build a workable disc but succeeded in building the world's first drum store which were widely used in the 1950s for both main memory and backing store.

His best known machine APE(X)C was designed in 1949. In 1951, BTM used the APE(X)C hardware as the basis of the design of their HEC1 computer which evolved directly by 1956 into HEC4 which was renamed the ICT 1201. This machine was the best selling British computer at the end of the 1950s with a total of nearly 100 machines installed. A paper, based in part on interviews with the developer of the HEC1 who became a research student of Booth, has been published.

Booth was also a pioneer in natural language translation. He was fortunate to meet Warren Weaver of the Rockefeller Foundation on a visit to the USA in 1947 who was trying to interest computer experts in the problem of natural language translation. Weaver provided funding to Booth to work in London on the problem and this enabled Booth to become a pioneer within the natural language community.

The Department initiated one of the earliest degree courses in computing when it began the M.Sc in Numerical Automation in 1957. At the same date, in order to teach the course, the Computing Laboratory was re-designated the Department of Numerical Automation and, so far as can be ascertained, was the first formally established academic computing department.

In 1962 Prof Booth left to pursue a distinguished academic career in Canada. Following his departure, the department ceased its hardware activities which were already in decline as the costs involved in maintaining a hardware laboratory escalated. The work on natural language continued together with research on numerical methods and other aspects of computer science. The department also changed its name to Department of Computer Science.

For the 50th anniversary celebration in May 2008, Dr Roger Johnson produced and presented: The School of Computer Science & Information Systems - A Short History [PDF].