George Forsythe, His Vision and Its Effects

by David Salisbury, Stanford News Service

Note in response to a query:

Regarding your question about the contributions that Forsythe made to the Valley and the world. I've checked around with some folks here, primarily Gio and Voy Wiederhold who were the primary movers behind the computer history exhibit.

George Forsythe's global contribution was recognizing and helping to define computer science as a broadly inclusive new field. In 1961, Forsythe said,
"Enough is known already of the diverse applications of computing for us to recognize the birth of a coherent body of technique, which I call computer science. Whether computers are used for engineering design, medical data processing, composing music or other purposes, the structure of computing is much the same...."
He acted on this vision by bringing people from diverse backgrounds and all parts of the country to the computer science department he established at Stanford in 1965: Bill Miller from high energy physics at Argonne National Labs.; Ed Feigenbaum from the UC Berkeley business school; John McCarthy from mathematics at MIT; Wiederhold from aeronautics and Niklaus Wirth, from Electrical Engineering at Berkeley, etc. Under Forsythe's direction, the department played a major role in stamping this inclusive vision on the computing field as a whole, taking it beyond its mathematical roots.

An unusual feature was that the department began exclusively as a graduate department. It wasn't until 15 years later that it began teaching undergraduates. This distinguished Stanford from other early departments that concentrated on training programmers for industry. As a result, a large proportion of the subsequent generation of professors of computer science were educated at Stanford and carried this vision throughout the country. Not only did this help define the field of computer science, it also created a broad base of talent for the industry. It grew a larger second and a third generation, namely Forsythe's grand students and great grand students, which then could multiply and have a major impact on computer science and the industry.

Moving to specifics, we can cite examples of these generations.
One of his students is Beresford Parlett at UC Berkeley who has made major contributions in the field of encryption. Another is Cleve Moler, chief scientist at Mathworks, who has established commercially viable mathematical problem solving software. David Cheriton, the co-founder of Granite Systems, Inc. is a grand student of Forsythe's: he studied under Michael Malcolm at the University of Waterloo who studied with Forsythe. One of Forsythe's recruits, Niklaus Wirth, showed that a simple programming language as his Pascal, could be quite effective, as opposed to languages like Algol-68, that were growing increasingly complicated. Pascal, and its object-oriented successor, Modula, set the stage for relatively simple programming languages like C and C++. His disciples are spread all over the world today.

SUN Microsystems was incubated in the late 1970's at Stanford by a collaboration between Stanford faculty, specifically Prof. Forest Baskett, and the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC), forming the basis for the entire workstation market.

John McCarthy, an early recruit, played a major role in the development of artificial intelligence. Although AI software suffered from early, overly optimistic expectations of what could be achieved, it motivated many important developments. Victor Scheinman, working in McCarthy's AI Lab, developed the first robot arm, and built versions that were used at General Motors and other companies developing industrial automation technologies. And Ed Feigenbaum and his graduate students in the Knowledge System Laboratory (KSL), employed AI techniques to pioneer the development of knowledge-based systems, which have found a broad range of application, and are now the foundations for half a dozen companies in the Bay Area.

Donald Knuth, recruited by Forsythe from Caltech, invented TeX, the first computer typesetting language. By demonstrating that the computer could replace the printing press, not only in function, but also in quality, he helped set the stage for the development of desktop publishing industry. The TeX design and its macro vocabulary are now the principal means for scientific publishing. They are embodied in the NeXT software and available as extensions to the world-wide-web presentation standard, HTML. The device-independent font designs developed by Knuth through his Metafont program are now visible in all the fonts we see on our screens and printouts.

The new field of bioinformatics can also be traced back to the Stanford computer scientists. Ted Shortliffe, a graduate student in the KSL laboratory and now an Associate Dean in Stanford's Medical school, went on to lead students in building and assessing interfaces to helpful computers, which are now part of Microsoft's Office 97 suite. Earlier, Wiederhold, supporting investigators at the Medical Center, developed the first interactive real time data acquisition system for medical research. This system was used by collaborators of Norman Shumway, who performed the first successful heart transplant, to determine where to cut the nerves running to the heart so that it remained under control. Several of Hewlett-Packard's early medical systems were derived from this research. Another of his students, David E. Shaw, exploited principles for rapid processing of information in Wall street, and now heads a large and modern investment banking firm, which in turn supports local technology. One of its spinoffs is the Juno free email service. Mediator technology, developed by other students of Wiederhold, is now finding a place to tie autonomous and heterogeneous software together for large-scale applications in areas as genomics and environmental restoration, leading to several startups in the valley and beyond, as Persistence, Junglee and ISX.

A concern in the rapidly growing field of bioinformatics is that industry is raiding today the academic foundations, in apposition of the vision that George Forsythe had for computer science. If we lose the human resources needed to train a second and third generation of scientists and technologists, we will experience the loss a dozen years hence, when the promise of bioinformatics must be realized on a broad base of innovation and technology.

November 26, 1997, David Salisbury and Gio Wiederhold
Minor edits due to Arthur Keller, February 1999.

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