Carnegie Mellon University
June 17, 2020

Students Trace History of Computing at Carnegie Mellon

By Stefanie Johndrow

Carnegie Mellon University is well-known for its work in computing technology, but how did that legacy begin? In fall 2019, an interdisciplinary class of CMU students traced the history of computing at the university, which culminated in an exhibit in the Gates and Hillman centers.

“One of the themes that emerged as students did the research and as we spoke with them is just how much of a bet Carnegie Mellon, and Carnegie Tech before that, took on computing,” said Christopher J. Phillips, an associate professor in CMU’s Department of History and one of the course instructors.

“If you look around the United States in the 1950s, it isn’t obvious that computers are going to have the central role in every element of life that they did,” Phillips said. “Part of what was really interesting about the experience at Carnegie Tech and then Carnegie Mellon, at least for the students to discover, is how much it was a chance, it was just kind of a guess that this would be an area of development in the 20th century.”

Led by CMU’s Andrew Meade McGee and Phillips, “Computing_CMU.LOG” is a collaborative project among members of Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences, Carnegie Mellon University Libraries and the School of Computer Science.

“Some students came from information systems and computer science, but others came from history or the School of Design,” Phillips said. “Having that back and forth between students who are learning about computing and computing history for the first time, but know a lot about history, and students who know a lot about history, but might not know about the mid-century American context was a very fruitful collaboration.”

To McGee, the project is “so CMU.”

“It’s a really great example of three different divisions of the university finding a shared mission around producing and disseminating knowledge with students at the core of the experience,” said McGee, a visiting assistant professor of history and a Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) postdoctoral fellow based in the University Libraries.

“It’s what Carnegie Mellon does best: students rolling up their sleeves in a cross-disciplinary basis to get an interesting job done and learn something along the way.”

After spending a few weeks researching the histories of technology, computing and science methodology, students like Mallory Page (DC 2022) and Christopher Viellot (DC 2020) sought hidden narratives in the CMU archives.

“My favorite part of the research process was researching in the archives,” said Page, a rising junior majoring in social and political history. “We would find a cool document everyday. You would never really know what to expect, and then we would dive into a box and find this gem that’s super important to the history of Carnegie Mellon. That was really exciting.”

In the archives, Viellot, who majored in global and Russian studies, looked forward to “the things that you wouldn’t expect to find.”

“Computers were brought to CMU not by physicists or engineers, but by social scientists who were curious how they could use machines to better understand human behavior,” McGee said.

According to McGee, the computer was first brought to campus in 1956 by economists associated with the business school. From there, it spread to engineers, psychologists and mathematicians to enhance the research mission of the university. 

The class archive can be found on the Computing_CMU.LOG website.