10 Things M.I.T. Computer Scientists Have Given the World

Celebrating 50 years of computer science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology by remembering some of the many ways its faculty, students, researchers and alums have contributed to the discipline.

Picture of a wall full of M.I.T. baseball hats for sale
Credit: Phil Johnson

This week M.I.T. officially marks 50 years of computer science at the institute with two days of celebrations. While computer research was going on at M.I.T. as early as the 1930s, this week’s celebration marks the beginning of Project MAC (Mathematics and Computation) in July 1963. Project MAC  eventually led to the founding of the Laboratory for Computer Science and the Artificial Intelligence lab (now combined into the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, CSAIL) and to the creation of an official computer science curriculum at M.I.T. In anticipation of this week’s celebration, here are 10 of the many things that M.I.T. computer science faculty, researchers, students and alums have given the world.

Picture of magnetic core memory
Core memory

M.I.T.’s famous Lincoln Laboratory was founded in 1951 with federal funds to develop a national air defense system. Existing computer systems weren’t able to process data fast enough to support collecting and analyzing information from multiple radar installations and allow real-time response. M.I.T.’s Jay Forrester, who had earlier developed the Whirlwind computer, came up with the idea of using an array of magnetic cores to store information. Magnetic core memory enabled the development of the Semi-Automatic Ground Environment (SAGE) air-defense system and became the dominant form of random access memory until the development of large-scale integration circuits in the 1970s.

Picture of a D.E.C. PDP-1 computer display playing Spacewar!
Shooter video games

In 1961, a new Digital Equipment Corporation PDP-1 mini-computer was installed at M.I.T. In order to demonstrate its full capabilities, including its cathode ray tube display, students Martin Graetz, Steve Russell, and Wayne Wiitanen created a game which simulated a battle between two spaceships. They called it Spacewar! and it enabled two users to each control a spaceship using either the keyboard or a joystick. It soon had a cult following and play at M.I.T. had to be banned during working hours. While it wasn’t the first-ever computer game, Spacewar! was the first shooter game and the first one to require quick reflexes. Today you can play Spacewar! using a browser-based PDP-1 emulator.

Picture of a D.E.C. PDP-10 computer
Networked email

In the 1960s, it was possible to send an electronic message from one user to another provided they used the same computer. In 1971, M.I.T. graduate Ray Tomlinson, then working at Bolt, Beranek and Newman (BBN, itself founded by two M.I.T. professors and one of their former students) developed a way to send email between networked computers, specifically over ARPANet, a precursor to the Internet built by BBN. The first email over a network was sent between two DEC PDP-10 computers. In the process Tomlinson introduced the use of the @ sign in email addresses to separate the username and from the computer or host name because it “made sense.”

Picture of an old Apple Mcintosh Plus computer with it's early GUI interface
Graphical user interfaces

The graphical user interfaces (GUI) that are so ubiquitous these days from your computer to your tablet to your smartphone, owe a lot to M.I.T. brainpower. In 1962, M.I.T. doctoral student Ivan Sutherland invented Sketchpad, which allowed users to draw and manipulate shapes directly on the CRT display of a Lincoln TX-2 computer. In the early 1970s, current M.I.T. professor Butler Lampson, created the Xerox Alto computer, the first personal computer to feature a graphical user interface (as well as a mouse) and a precursor to both Apple’s and Windows’ GUIs. In 1984, M.I.T.’s Bob Scheifler led the development of the X Window System, a GUI for Linux and Unix-like operating systems.

Picture of a bunch of ethernet cables

Ethernet, long the dominant technology for local area networks, was invented by M.I.T. graduate Bob Metcalfe (along with David Boggs) in 1973. Metcalfe, while working at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), was tasked with creating a high-speed network to connect all of the PARC Alto personal computers to a laser printer and to ARPANet. Metcalfe applied work he had done at M.I.T.’s Project MAC and for his PhD dissertation (at Harvard) and the result was Ethernet. Ethernet became an IEEE standard in 1985, beating out competing technologies, which enabled more consistent, reliable and faster networks and eventually became the “Internet’s plumbing.”

Photo of Ray Kurzweil and Kenneth Jernigan, Demonstrating the Kurzweil Reading Machine, Director's Conference Room, Iowa Commission for the Blind, 1977

Modern text-to-speech technology, such an important part of many people’s lives these days, traces its origins back to work done by M.I.T. graduate Ray Kurzweil. After graduating in 1970, he founded Kurzweil Computer Products and developed the first charged coupled device flatbed scanner and the first optical character recognition (OCR) software that could read any font (and not just a select few). The company combined the scanner and OCR technology with a speech synthesizer to create the Kurzweil Reading Machine in 1976, for scanning and reading books and documents aloud to the blind. Today Kurzweil continues to work on machine language recognition and machine learning as the director of engineering at Google.

Picture of Stanford’s \Internet Van\, site of the first three-way internetworked transmission

The Internet as we know it would not exist without a protocol to allow different kinds of computers on different networks to talk to each other. That protocol, or, rather, set of protocols, known as TCP/IP were developed in the early 1970’s by former M.I.T. professor Bob Kahn and Vint Cerf of Stanford. Kahn was working for DARPA and tasked with developing a new transport layer protocol for ARPANet. The result that Kahn and Cerf created was the Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) and the Internet Protocol (IP). The first message to travel across multiple networks using TCP/IP was sent in August 1976 from a van in California. By the late 1980’s TCP/IP became the dominant protocol of the Internet.

Picture of VisiCalc floppy disks
Electronic spreadsheets

Spreadsheet software is the application that first made the personal computer a useful tool for businesses. The spreadsheet program that started it all, VisiCalc, was created by M.I.T. graduates Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston in the late 1970’s. They rented time on an M.I.T. mainframe computer for $1 an hour and worked on it for two months. VisiCalc was first available for the Apple II in 1979 , quickly became that platform’s killer app and was soon ported to other popular systems of the time, such as Atari, Commodore and IBM. More than 1 million copies of VisiCalc were eventually sold, before it was discontinued in 1985 and overtaken by Lotus 1-2-3 and Microsoft Excel.

Photo of stuffed animal versions of the GNU and Linux mascots sitting side by side in the snow
Free/open-source software

In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, makers of computer software increasingly stopped sharing their source code and began imposing software licenses that restricted copying and redistribution. This didn’t sit well with Richard Stallman, a hacker and researcher at M.I.T.s Artificial Intelligence lab, so he set out to create software that people were free to copy, share and modify. He quit M.I.T. in 1984 to found what became the GNU Project, which created software and defined licenses to ensure that users of the software retained these freedoms. In 1998, the Open Software Initiative grew out of Stallman's free software movement, though Stallman strenuously maintains that open source software misses the whole point of free software.

Picture of the NeXT computer that Tim Berners-Lee used to invent the World Wide Web
The World Wide Web

Earlier this year, the World Wide Web celebrated its 25th anniversary, for it was in 1989 that Tim Berners-Lee of CERN proposed a distributed hypertext system, which he initially called “mesh,”  built on the infrastructure of the Internet. In December 1990 the world’s first website was served from a NeXT computer at CERN. Four years later Berners-Lee left CERN and joined M.I.T.’s Laboratory for Computer Science where he founded the World Wide Web Consortium, the international standards organization for the web. The web propagated so quickly that M.I.T. alum Brewster Kahle soon saw the need to to preserve all of the knowledge it encapsulates, so he founded the Internet Archive in 1996.