Pushing Boundaries and Creating History: 50 years of Computer Science at Duke

newspaper archives about Duke Computer Science founding featured on images of computer screens
Design by Shaun King/Trinity Communications

In 1975, when Craig Asplund became one of the first Duke students to graduate with a computer science major, the entire state of North Carolina had less computing power than the phone in your pocket today.

Jian Pei
Jian Pei, Arthur S. Pearse Distinguished Professor of Computer Science and department chair, gives the opening speech at Duke Computer Science's 50th anniversary celebration event. (Kevin Seifert)

The Department of Computer Science hasn’t grown quite that exponentially, but it sometimes seems like it. Today, it boasts 43 primary faculty spanning a wide range of sub-disciplines, from theoretical computer science to artificial intelligence and computer science education. In 2023, it graduated 423 majors, making Computer Science the largest major on campus.

“Computer science nowadays is not just one department,” said Jian Pei, Arthur S. Pearse Distinguished Professor of Computer Science and chair of the department. “It penetrates every corner of our life, and it is developing in such a way that no one department can stay away from it.”

That wasn’t the case when Asplund was a student. The degree itself didn’t even exist, but he fell in love with the language after taking an Intro to Computing Programming class. When the Chronicle announced the creation of the major, in 1972, he was the first in line to sign up. The Duke Computer Science Program was promoted to the department level a year later, in 1973.

This Fall, faculty and current graduate and undergraduate students were joined by the department’s founders, as well as many of the department’s highly successful alums — such as Asplund, who worked for spent 25 years with Nokia Bell Lab and 17 years with the American Chemical Society — to celebrate its 50th anniversary.

Powering up

Establishing the Department of Computer Science took some convincing. More specifically, it took a push from the Dean of Medicine.

black and white images of early computation center
Duke’s history in computing started in 1965 with the Triangle Universities Computation Center (TUCC). This partnership with the University of North Carolina, North Carolina State University and North Carolina Central University dissolved in 1990. (Duke Libraries)

It was only when Frank Starmer then an assistant professor in the Department of Medicine, now professor emeritus of Computer Science and one of the department’s pioneering faculty — received a competing offer from Baylor University that Computer Science at Duke began in earnest.

“The Medical Center administration was very forward thinking. They were convinced that computing would be essential in the future for medicine,” Starmer recalled. “So when the word got around that I was leaving, Bill Anlyan, who was dean, and Eugene Stead, who was the chairman of medicine, walked down to the campus to see Harold Lewis, then Dean of Arts and Sciences, and said, ‘Frank doesn't have any colleagues. And we need a computer science department today.’”

Starmer was offered an associate professor position and launched Duke’s Program in Computer Science with mathematicians Tom Gallie, Merrell Patrick and Dietolf (Dee) Ramm. Two years later, with a big financial investment from the Departments of Medicine and Surgery and the Division of Cardiology, Duke’s Department of Computer Science was officially greenlighted in 1973.

The university recruited Donald Loveland, a Carnegie Mellon professor at the time, to be the department’s first chair. He negotiated three additional faculty positions as a condition of his hire.

“The best leverage you have is when you’re coming in,” Loveland said. “I knew they wanted me.”