The history of the Department

The birth of the Department

As automatic data processing, i.e. ADP, became more common in the 1960s, the subject of computing was introduced at universities to ensure the availability of professionals for the industries. The first university to introduce computing as a subject in Finland was the University of Tampere in 1965. In 1967, the University of Helsinki followed suit in introducing the subject, though it had already offered courses in ADP under the auspices of applied mathematics and nuclear physics.

The proposal to establish a professorship in computing at the University of Helsinki was made by the steering committee of the university’s computing centre in autumn 1965. Since the government’s budget for year 1967 included the establishment of such an office, the university council decided to establish the Department of Computer Science (tietojenkäsittelyoppi) on 14 December 1966. The first courses were held in autumn 1967, and Martti Tienari, who had managed the professorship from the start, was appointed the first professor in computer science in 1969.
 

From teaching to research

During the two first years of the department’s existence, you could only study computer science as a minor subject to the extent of an Approbatur module, but as the subject’s popularity increased hugely in 1969-1970, the teaching was soon extended to the Cum Laude and Laudatur modules. At the same time, computer science became a major subject in the Faculty of Science.

Due to the teaching-centred nature of the department in its first years, the next professorships were not established until the 1980s, when Esko Ukkonen and Heikki Mannila were appointed to their offices. At that time, the scientific research at the department had found international visibility, especially propelled by the research project ”Metakääntäjät ja ohjelmointikielten semantiikka” (meta-compilers and the semantics of programming languages) started in 1975 and funded by the government’s scientific commission (the precursor to the Finnish Academy). This research project brought forth a number of Doctoral theses, though the department's first dissertation analysed rounding errors in floating-point number calculation (Seppo Linnainmaa, 1974).

 

Diversifying research

While teaching and research at the department concentrated on three main areas in the 1970s (theory of programming and systems programming, administrative data processing and systems analysis, and numerical algorithms in applied mathematics), the department diversified substantially during the 1980s and 1990s, on the strength of such things as new professorships and increasing funding channels. It is especially such areas as data communications and distributed systems, information management, and data structures and algorithms that rose to a leading position in research at the department at that time. These fields have evolved into a more application-orientated direction during the 2000s, leading to such topics as mobile computing, data analysis, and bio-informatics

.

Hard- and software

In the 1960s and 1970s, computers were still large and expensive, and they were purchased to the university in a centralised manner under the strict supervision of the Ministry of Finances and the government’s computer centre. This meant that the department did not have any computers of its own during its early years, but it used the hardware and software acquired and administered by the university’s computer centre. During those decades, the mainframe consisted of an IBM 1620, an Elliott 803, and a Burroughs B6500/B6700/B7800. A DEC VAX 8800 replaced the Burroughs at the end of the 1980s, but at that time the department already had a number of its own micro-computers; the first ones being ABC and MikroMikko computers acquired at the start of the 1980s. It also became easier to maintain external contacts in the 1980s when the network of Finnish university computers, FUNET, was connected to the Internet.

Systems software and programming languages were determined by which mainframe was used at the time. This meant that the teaching languages at the department were FORTRAN, (Extended) Algol and COBOL in the 1960s and 1970s. However, from the start, the department has developed its own software for teaching and research purposes; some typical examples being the simulator for the hypothetical MIX computer and the interpreter for its symbolic programming language, MIXAL, as well as the virtual mini-computer system MOPO. A significant change to the hardware infrastructure at the department was brought by the donation of a AT&T 3B2 computer it received in the 1980s, with its Unix operating system and C programming language. The most well-known achievement of the department when it comes to Unix is the Linux operating system developed by Linus Torvalds, a student at the department, at the beginning of the 1990s. Later, the Linux OS has risen to world-wide fame and use.

 

Location of the Department

At first, the department was housed in a cramped space shared with the Department of Zoology (Aurorankatu 16-20), but in 1968 it was already able to move into new facilities at Töölönkatu 11 together with the computer centre and applied mathematics. As it expanded, the department moved into the so-called Auratalo (Tukholmankatu 2) in 1979 with the computer centre, and then on to Vallila (Teollisuuskatu 23) in 1987. At the same time, the department could give up using the Domus Academica to house courses with a large attendance. As the Faculty of Science gradually moved to the Kumpula campus, the Department of Computer Science also moved to Kumpula in 2004, to the new Exactum building (Gustaf Hällströmin katu 2b). At the same time, the department’s long sojourn in parallel with the university’s computer centre (now the IT Department) ended, as it partially stayed in Vallila and partially relocated to the central campus. When the department moved to Kumpula its library, which it had shared with the computer centre since its establishment on Töölönkatu, also moved and became a part of the Kumpula Science Library, housed in the neighbouring building.

 

Organisation of research and teaching

In the 1990s, the Finnish system of higher education proceeded to an age of quality and evaluation, and so the Department of Computer Science has been instrumental in creating organisations to support top research and teaching. In the national graduate school programme started in 1995, the department has headed HeCSE (HeCSE (Helsinki Graduate School in Computer Science and Engineering, together with the University of Technology in Aalto University) and ComBi (Graduate School in Computational Biology, Bioinformatics, and Biometry, together with the University of Technology in Aalto University; from 2010 FIGS, Finnish Graduate School in Computational Sciences). In 2007, for its part, a multi-disciplinary international Master’s programme in bio-informatics MBI (Master’s Degree Programme in Bioinformatics) was launched. Thanks to these special programmes the selection of basic undergraduate and postgraduate courses has diversified and gained a higher standard.

In 1999, the University of Helsinki launched a joint research institute for information technology with Helsinki University of Technology, HIIT (Helsinki Institute for Information technology), and in 2002 the Basic Research Unit of HIIT was established at the department. HIIT is organised into the joint research programmes of its host universities; in 2010 they are Algorithmic Data Analysis, Algorithmic Systems, Future Internet, and Network Society. The research in HIIT has been found to keep to the highest international standards in all evaluations.
 

Quality of research and teaching

In the international assessments of the quality and standard of research at the University of Helsinki in both 1999 and 2005, the research at the department has been given the highest possible grade. The FDK unit (From Data to Knowledge) at the department has been elected an international centre of excellence in years 2002-2007, and its successor Algodan (Algorithmic Data Analysis) for years 2008-2013. As the department has also been elected a national centre of excellence in higher education both for 2007-2009 and 2010-2012, it is clear that the department is one of the few that hold the highest standard in both research and teaching. In addition, the researchers, teachers and students of the department have received numerous individual acknowledgments and awards, including the Academy professorship of Professor Esko Ukkonen (1999-2004), the Academy professorship of Professor/Research Director Heikki Mannila (2004-2009), and the Helsinki University Eino Kaila award to lecturer Heikki Lokki (2009).

The cornerstone of the department’s success has always been a good atmosphere and team spirit, including the close interaction with students and their union, TKO-äly, which was established in 1988. The team spirit is aptly illustrated by the health-and-safety award of the University of Helsinki, rewarded to the department in 2009. “The department staff has cooperated in a determined and productive way to improve the quality, safety, and comfort of its working environment.” This is a good place to continue the department’s future history.

20.04.2010 - 20:26 Webmaster
15.04.2010 - 13:45 Marina Kurtén