​Research Innovations Throughout History

Pioneering Education

Faculty in the Department of Computer Science & Engineering played a central role in bringing computers to the university in the late 1950s, making computing available to researchers and students and developing some of the first regular courses in computer programming in the mid-1960s. Our computer science faculty formed a separate department in 1974, making it one of the first independent computer science departments in the world. Later, it became one the first departments with a nationally accredited undergraduate degree program in computer science. The department was among the first to introduce software engineering classes to its curriculum and teach students how to design VLSI circuits and systems.

Early innovations in computer science research applications to medicine (1960s & 1970s)

One defining moment for the department came in the early 1960s, when the creators of the Laboratory Instrument Computer or LINC (recognized as, arguably, the first personal computer), moved to Washington University from The Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Washington University initiated pioneering research in delay insensitive circuits, which led to the development of macromodules, an innovative system for the creation of custom computers from standard modular building blocks. These were the first true dataflow computers and were used in a variety of medical research projects at Washington University. In a related development, Washington University computer scientists showed how synchronizer failures could cause computer systems to fail. They were the first to understand the fundamental nature of the problem, demonstrate it, characterize it and develop new synchronizer designs that were inherently reliable.

Also in the early 1960s, Washington University researchers built the first computer-based method to measure hearing in infants. The average evoked response has become the standard method for early confirmation of hearing problems in infants. The late 1960's saw the development of the first application of computers to radiation treatment planning for cancer patients. This major breakthrough has continued to evolve as an essential component in radiation therapies.

In the 1970s, Washington University researchers developed a special-purpose computer system for exploring molecular conformations in order to enable more systematic design of drugs. The macromodular MMSX system was the key technology driving the formation of Tripos, a local company that continues as one of the leading suppliers of drug design software to the pharmaceutical industry.

Leadership in the development of high performance networks and their applications (1980s)

In the early 1980s, Washington University researchers proposed the concept of Picture Archiving and Communications (PACS) systems for medical imaging applications and built one of the first such systems in the world. Our faculty developed one of the first ATM switching systems to support scalable multicast switching and built one of the first metropolitan ATM networks in the world, which was used to demonstrate applications in telemedicine and multimedia teleconferencing. The switching system developed in this project was later licensed to SynOptics and became their first ATM switching product. A subsequent project in the mid-1990s led to the development of switching systems with gigabit link speeds and scalable to terabit capacities. Copies of this system have been distributed to 30 universities to support advanced research in networking and distributed computing. This technology became the foundation of a successful startup company, Growth Networks, which was sold to Cisco Systems in 2000. At the same time, networking researchers have made fundamental contributions to the theory of switching systems and to the protocols, technology and algorithms that drive the Internet, including algorithms for fast IP address lookup, packet classification and efficient QoS queue scheduling.

Concurrently with its fundamental contributions to networking technology, the computer science faculty provided leadership in the development of the Washington University campus network and the midwest regional component of the NSF-net. To facilitate these developments, the university served as a regional network hub for a time, before spinning off these operations in what became a very successful Internet Service Provider (ISP).
By the early 1990s, the Washington University Archive (wuarchive) was the most visited site on the Internet, providing a rich repository of files, data, programs and images. By coordinating Washington University's participation in NSF's Very High Speed Backbone Network (vBNS) and the National Partnership for Advanced Computing Infrastructure (NPACI), computer science faculty have enabled researchers across the university to gain access to advanced computational resources needed to support a variety of demanding research activities, including projects in brain mapping, computational microscopy and DNA mapping and sequencing.

Contributions to the theory and practice of distributed computing (1980s & 1990s)

Washington University has a long track record of fundamental contributions to the theory of distributed computing. Our accomplishments include development of formal methods enabling precise reasoning about the correctness of distributed algorithms, and the application of those methods to the design of well-engineered software applications. We also led in developing the fundamental theory underlying the construction of provably correct asynchronous circuits and more generally of delay-insensitive systems of all types.

The theoretical developments have been used to drive the creation of substantial research software systems, which have in turn been used to develop real distributed applications based on the theoretical models. Formal models have also been instrumental in the development of pioneering software systems for visual languages and visualization.

In the 1990s, Washington University researchers were in the forefront of research into distributed object technology. The resulting distributed object middleware (ACE and TAO) is used by companies all over the world in a wide range of sophisticated applications, including satellite communication systems, wireless telephony and military avionics. Finally, significant inroads have been made towards the development of models and middleware supporting novel applications in mobile wireless networks.