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MIT celebrates 50 years of computing

If you’ve got a digital device on your desktop or in your pocket, somebody connected with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology played a role in putting it there. The school’s famed computer science department is throwing itself a 50th anniversary party this week to celebrate a half-century of innovation.

“When this started in 1963, the dream was to let multiple people use computers simultaneously,” said Daniela Rus, director of the university’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, or CSAIL. “Fifty years later we’re now in a world where we find computing indispensable.”

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The celebration takes place Wednesday and Thursday at MIT’s Stata Center and is timed to coincide with the end of MIT’s 2013-14 academic year.

MIT got involved with computing long before the 1960s. In the early 1930s, electrical engineer Vannevar Bush developed a mechanical computer for doing complex math. In 1938, one of Bush’s students, mathematician Claude Shannon, showed how to use electric switches to do calculations and transmit information — the basic concept behind digital computing and communications gear.

In the 1950s, the school was involved with the development of Project Whirlwind, an advanced military computer with features still in use today.

“If you were to take a microscope and go deep inside the circuits of a microprocessor, you would see the Whirlwind,” said Paul Ceruzzi, a curator at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington.

But in July 1963, the school made a deal with DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, to tackle a vexing problem: how to get a computer to work with multiple users at the same time.

“Fifty years ago, a computer took a whole floor in a building,” Rus said. “If you had a single person use that space one at a time, you can imagine how few people would have access to that system.”

MIT’s Project MAC, for Multiple Access Computer, solved the problem, and a great many others, over the next half-century. Along the way, it was established as MIT’s Laboratories for Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence, which became CSAIL in 2003.

It would be hard to underestimate the reach and influence MIT and its teachers and alumni have had on the computerized world. As a Harvard graduate student working at MAC, Robert Metcalfe helped to invent Ethernet, the global standard for connecting computers into functional networks.

Metcalfe called Project MAC “the launchpad of my career. I owe it to the excellence of the people who were there.”

Other MIT computer science veterans developed Spacewar, one of the first video games. And MIT was the birthplace of the RSA encryption technology that secures billions of Internet transactions, as well as the data routing algorithms that enable the Internet to handle massive amounts of streamed high-definition video.

Rodney Brooks, an MIT robotics professor emeritus, launched iRobot Corp., which has sold millions of robots for civilian and military use. Brooks is now leading a new company, Rethink Robotics, that is planning to build low-cost robots for use in factories.

MIT gave birth to Multics, a forerunner of the operating software that runs on Apple Inc.’s Mac computers, iPhones, and iPads. The university also helped establish the Free Software Foundation, which gave rise to the Linux operating system, which is at the heart of Google Inc.’s popular Android software. “Android is almost totally based on Linux,” said MIT professor and foundation board member Hal Abelson.

The foundation launched a radical new way of distributing software. With Android, Linux, and many other free programs, any company or individual can use, copy, and modify the code at no cost.

“You can build software without having to license it from Microsoft,” Abelson said. The result: billions of cheap smartphones and other creative digital devices.

Rus said she is looking forward to the next challenges the faculty and students will tackle: improving privacy and security on the Internet, for example, or drawing closer to the goal of truly intelligent computers.

“We like to go for our moonshots,” Rus said. “Each one of us here at CSAIL wants to do something big.”

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.
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