A short history of Computer Science at Birkbeck

The story of the contribution of one department to the life of the College, the development of computing technology and to the computer industry.

The first official reference to computing at Birkbeck can be found in the 1947-8 College Annual Report, which says: “An ambitious scheme is in progress for the construction of an Electronic Computer, which will serve the needs of crystallographic research at 21-22 Torrington Square; it will also provide a means of relieving many other fields of research in Chemistry and Physics of the almost crushing weight of arithmetic work, which they involve.”

The origins of these computing efforts at Birkbeck are inextricably linked with the names of J D Bernal, the great crystallographer, and his new assistant, Andrew Booth. Returning to Birkbeck at the end of the Second World War, Bernal started building a new research group to study crystallography. He appointed four assistants, one of whom was Booth, who was to lead on mathematical methods. Booth began by building his first electromechanical calculator, the Automatic Relay Calculator (ARC).

Kathleen Britten Xenia Sweeting and Andrew Booth working on ARC in December 1946

Kathleen Britten Xenia Sweeting and Andrew Booth working on ARC in December 1946

A highlight of Booth’s early career at Birkbeck was an extended visit to the Institute of Advanced Studies at Princeton, where he was accompanied by Kathleen Britten, who would soon become his wife. The trip allowed the pair to work with John Von Neumann, one of the most influential early computer pioneers, and convinced them that the ARC should be redesigned in accordance with what is now commonly known as a “von Neumann” architecture. Together, Andrew and Kathleen wrote a widely-circulated paper entitled “General Considerations in the Design of an All-purpose Electronic Digital Computer” which examined the options then available for building each component. The construction of their first electronic computer, called SEC (Simple Electronic Computer), was completed around 1950. Andrew wrote up the project in his MSc dissertation, which appears to make him the first computing graduate at Birkbeck and hence the Department’s earliest alumnus.

The couple’s best-known machine, APEC (All-Purpose Electronic Computer), was designed in 1949. In 1951, BTM used its hardware circuits as the basis of the design of their HEC1 computer, which evolved directly by the end of the 1950s into the bestselling British computer, with a total of nearly 100 machines installed.

Even in the days of cumbersome early machines, Andrew wrote about making computers available as widely as possible, securing a grant for a programme ofresearch on “desk calculating machines” as early as 1949. A copy of his reportevaluates the technical options for putting computers on, if not the desktop, at least the laboratory bench.

From the start, Kathleen was closely involved in the building and testing of the computers that Andrew designed. Getting these early machines to work involved a

The BTM HEC1 Prototype in store at Birmingham Museum

The BTM HEC1 Prototype in store at Birmingham Museum

combination of testing the electronics and then checking that the programmes executed correctly. In 1953, they co-authored their best-known book, Automatic Digital Calculators, which ran to three editions. As part of her software development work, Kathleen developed a very early assembly language for their computers and in 1958 she published a book on software entitled Programming for an Automatic Digital Calculator.

The first of its kind

In 1957, a Governors’ Resolution stated that Birkbeck’s Computer Laboratory was to be constituted as a separate Department under the headship of Dr Andrew Booth. As far as can be made out, the Department of Numerical Automation was the first department established to teach computing in a UK university; elsewhere the courses were still taught in Computer Laboratories.

Andrew and Kathleen Booth stayed in the Department until the summer of 1962, when they moved to Canada. Andrew continued his career in computing initially at the University of Saskatchewan and subsequently as President of Lakehead University, Ontario.

Over subsequent years, the Department crossed many milestones: adopting the name Department of Computer Science in 1963; awarding MScs to 29 students in 1968; and appointing a chair in 1970. The College Calendar for 1970-71 is the first to acknowledge “Computer Staff” as a distinct group, comprising two programmers, two operators and four computer assistants who prepared paper tape and punched cards. At this time, the College’s IT support staff reported to the Head of the Computer Science Department. This arrangement continued for many years until a separate College Computer Service was created.

At the turn of the century, Birkbeck gave its highest accolade, a College Fellowship, to two members of its community who had made distinguished contributions to the advancement of computing. Firstly, in 2002, to Dame Stephanie Shirley, who created a major UK software house, whose workforce for many years was composed principally of women working from home and who has subsequently done much to promote the responsible application of IT and other charitable activities. Secondly, in 2003, it awarded a College Fellowship to Andrew Booth in recognition of his lifetime contribution to computing.

Left to right: Dame Stephanie Shirley and Dame Judith Mayhew

Dame Stephanie Shirley (left), on the occasion of her installation as a College Fellow in 2002 with Dame Judith Mayhew, Chairman of Governors.

The Department today

The Department of Computer Science and Information Systems’ research activities have continued to expand over the past twenty years, into advanced logics, computer vision, ontologies, personalisation, web technologies, and ubiquitous computing, with the appointment of several new members of academic staff.

In 2004, the Department set up the London Knowledge Lab in collaboration with the neighbouring Institute of Education. The Birkbeck Knowledge Lab established in 2016 extends this legacy, drawing on multi and interdisciplinary perspectives and methodologies to investigate how digital technologies and digital information are transforming our learning, working and cultural lives.

The Birkbeck Institute for Data Analytics was founded in 2016 to develop

Andrew and Kathleen Booth in 2008

Andrew and Kathleen Booth in 2008

interdisciplinary research in data analytics and data science between computer scientists at the Department and members of Birkbeck’s other departments, across the sciences, social sciences, economics, law and humanities.

The Department celebrated its 60th anniversary in 2017, and the legacy of Andrew and Kathleen Booth continues to inspire generations of computer scientists. Each year, distinguished scholars and practitioners of computer science are invited to the College to deliver the Andrew and Kathleen Booth Memorial Lecture, which commemorates their pioneering work.

In 2018, Birkbeck became a founding member of the Institute of Coding, a national initiative established to address digital skill needs in industry sectors in key areas including data science, cyber security, artificial intelligence, and coding. Through our part time evening face-to-face model of delivery, Birkbeck is well placed to support those already in employment and has developed new full and part time programmes in Data Science to address the digital skills gap in this area. The Department has also established a relationship with industry through our partnership with the British Library and National Archives, where we jointly develop a PGCert in Computing for Cultural Heritage to help upskill their respective workforce and address the need for digital skills, such as programming, to manage the large volumes of digitised documents being made available for research and to the public as part of our digital economy.

The discipline of Computer Science is never dull. Rapidly evolving technology is always opening up new application areas, while new challenges from the real world drive technology developers to continually push the frontiers forward. We look forward to what the next 60 years will bring.

This article was adapted from the School of Computer Science and Information Systems: A Short History by Dr Roger Johnson, which was originally produced for the Department’s 50th birthday celebrations.

Department of Computer Science and Information Systems Timeline

1947      Andrew Booth and Kathleen Britten undertake a six-month US tour based at Princeton, where they work with early computer pioneer John Von Neumann.

Andrew Booth secures funding from the Rockerfeller Foundation for a computer to carry out natural language translation.

1948      Andrew Booth designs the Simple Electronic Computer.

1951      Andrew Booth is Birkbeck’s first computing graduate.

BTM’s HEC1, based on Andrew Booth’s Circuitry, is built.

1955       The Birkbeck Computer Laboratory gives a public demonstration of machine translation.

1957       The Department of Numerical Automation is officially established.

Andrew Booth is elected to serve on the first Council of the British Computer Society.

1958       Kathleen Booth’s book Programming for an Automatic Digital Calculator is published.

1961       International Computers and Tabulators Ltd. provide the Department with an I.C.T. Type 1400 computer, worth just under a quarter of a million pounds.

1967       The Chair in Computer Science is established.

                George Loizou (now Emeritus Professor), joins the Department as a Lecturer.

1968       29 students are awarded MScs, seven with distinction.

1971       Betty Walters is appointed Department Secretary, where she will serve for over 36 years.

1973       The Department takes part in a College Open Day, offering specialist equipment demonstrations. The then Secretary of State for Education, Margaret Thatcher, is among the attendees.

1983       Dr Roger Johnson (now Fellow of the College) joins the Department.

1987       The Department plays a major role in organizing the Very Large Data Base Conference in Brighton, which will host 700 delegates from all over the world.

1992       Dr Roger Johnson serves as President of the British Computer Society.

2002       Dame Stephanie Shirley is made a Fellow of the College in recognition of her distinguished contributions to the advancement of computing.

2003       Andrew Booth is made a Fellow of the College in recognition of his lifetime contribution to computing.

2004       The London Knowledge Lab is established in partnership with the Institute of Education.

2008       The first degree programmes are offered on Birkbeck’s Stratford campus.

2009       The School of Business, Economics and Informatics is established. The Department of Computer Science and Information Systems becomes one of four in the School.

2016       Birkbeck Institute for Data Analytics is founded.

2017       The Department celebrates its 60th anniversary.

2018       Birkbeck is a founding member of the Institute of Coding.

2020       The Department of Computer Science and Information Systems offers twelve scholarships to the PG Cert Applied Data Science for black and female candidates in order to widen representation in computing.

Further Information

 

Share
. Reply . Category: Business Economics and Informatics . Tags: , , ,

Life in London as an international student

We catch up with Yvette Shumbusho, an MSc Marketing Communications student from Rwanda, who in a December blog post talked about settling in London as an international student. As the academic year draws to a close Yvette reflects on what she enjoys most about living in the capital.

London has been home for the past ten months, and I have easily integrated into the diverse culture. This fast-paced, metropolitan city lives up to the hype for many reasons, its culture, food and entertainment, to name a few

The diversity found in London puts it at an advantage compared to many cities in the world. There are a number of food markets that I have been able to visit such as Maltby Street Market and more in various parts of London. I have eaten some of the best meals in these places, freshly made and satisfying overall.

You don’t have to worry about gaining a few pounds because there are so many gyms around the city – there are three different gyms within a radius of 0.3 miles of where I reside! This is surely motivation to keep fit but even if you’re not fond of gyms and exercise classes, walking around alone can help you get in a quick workout. I walk almost everywhere and now that it’s nice and warm (on some days), I walk a lot more than I normally would. I have come to realise that Londoners like to power walk everywhere.

Between juggling school assignments and regular everyday activities, it is a real challenge to get time off and explore, but I have managed to visit a number of places including the London Aquarium. I was a few inches away from a family of sharks, which was exciting as I had never been so close to them. I’ve also visited a number of parks, some unintentionally as I strolled to school or back home, which got me thinking how beautiful it is that London has so many green spaces; it makes walking and general living that much better.

Before I complete my course, there is still a number of places I need to visit within the city and even outside of London but all in all; my experience has been one to remember. I will surely miss this place.

Further information: 

Share
. Reply . Category: Business Economics and Informatics, Uncategorized . Tags: , , , , , ,

Overcoming mathematical anxiety with customised support

evaszatmariDo you have a fear of mathematics?  Have you always avoided percentages? Do you want to run away when you see algebraic expressions?  If you think it is time to conquer your maths demons, then Eva Szatmari can help.  Eva works for the School of Business, Economics and Informatics, and enables you to customise your learning and go at your speed through her one-to-one sessions. She tells us how she can help you solve your maths and stats knowledge and support you in your studies.

Eva, what do you do?
I help students learn mathematics and statistics, working one-to-one. When he/she comes into my office, I always start by asking what would they like to work on. In this way, I am tailoring the session to the individual student need.

I also run workshops in which I try to make sure that everyone in the class is able to follow the teaching, so no one is left behind.  I make sure I create an atmosphere where students feel safe to ask questions that they think might be too simplistic in their usual lectures. Birkbeck students have very busy lives so I have made video tutorials available online including instruction on Boolean logic, the binary number system and various scientific calculator tutorials so students can access my help wherever they are. More details of this can be found here.

Could you tell us a little bit about your role and the kind of support you offer?
Students who have maths anxiety often have previous life experiences that discourage them from ever wanting to learn maths again.  Suddenly on some degree courses, they are forced to come back to maths to ensure they complete their course.  I would like to prove to them that maths is enjoyable, rewarding, and accessible to anyone.  Therefore my challenge is forensic – to detect the right mode and language for communicating to each student.  I make sure I create an encouraging environment where students can ask even the most basic maths or statistics questions.

Why is it important to offer a customised approach to learning?
The School of BEI recognises that customised approach to learning is important and it adds to the experience a student can have at Birkbeck.  We want to give every student the necessary support to excel in their studies. This ties into Birkbeck’s central mission to offer flexible education to meet the widely varying needs of our students and to help them fulfill their potential and their ambitions.

Have you seen this approach make a practical difference?
Definitely yes!  I would like to give you two examples of students I helped.  One of them had severe maths anxiety and approached me for some extra tutorials not believing he would understand it.  He had no maths experience because of disruptive schooling.  We started with the basics, and gradually he got really to like maths and he enjoys the course he was on more because he no longer feared the relevant sessions.  He went on to pass his maths exam which was part of his course.

I am not here only for the weakest students, but to help anyone at whatever level.  In another example, a student came to see me needing a 1st Class Honours degree to get on her chosen Masters and I am happy and proud that she got accepted for Oxbridge to do what she wanted.

It has repeatedly been shown that there is a correlation between better numeracy skills, and better life chances – the higher your mathematical abilities, the higher your job prospects and your earning potential.

Why is this customised learning approach unique?
There are many initiatives out there which provide support for literacy skills, but considerably fewer that develop numeracy skills. This is particularly true at university level. This customised learning approach makes a real difference to improving the confidence and mathematical skills of students. This means they may achieve more in their courses than they would otherwise and often they surprise themselves at what they can do.

Birkbeck is in itself unique when compared to most other universities for two particular reasons. A significant proportion of students are already in full-time employment, or they are hoping to use the skills they learn at Birkbeck to change their existing careers. There is a particular need for additional numeracy support in the School of BEI, where mathematics may feature significantly in a course or module, but where many students join from a different academic discipline, or from a professional environment where they have not used formal mathematics in the same way.

Finally, how can BEI students at Birkbeck get in touch with you if they want to work with you?
They can email me on e.szatmari@bbk.ac.uk to book a one-on-one session. These normally last about an hour. They can also see the BEI Workshop Timetable on my staff web page for module specific workshops.

The sessions I run are completely confidential, and it’s important that students know there’s no need to be embarrassed about asking for assistance – it’s what I’m here for. It’s worth any student who is unsure about a particular aspect of mathematics coming, especially with exams on the horizon!

 

Share
. Reply . Category: Business Economics and Informatics . Tags: , , , , , , ,

If we want the UK-born poor to vote Remain we need to take their grievances seriously

This post was contributed by Professor Stephen Wright, of Birkbeck’s Department of Economics, Mathematics and Statistics.

drapeaux européens

I am a Remainer. As an economist the arguments for staying in the EU seem to me pretty clearly to outweigh the arguments for leaving. As a private individual I also clearly benefit from the EU. Polish carers look after my 97-year old mother (very well). I work in multiethnic and prosperous London. I have a Serbian-Dutch prospective son-in-law. I travel quite often in Europe and like the cheap flights (who doesn’t?). And the Central and Eastern Europeans who serve my coffee at the station are so polite and efficient.

But when personal incentives coincide with intellectual arguments we need to be careful. When I criticised the pro-Brexit arguments of Patrick Minford of Cardiff University in an email he responded that my arguments were a “metro-elite rant”. He had a point.

I quote from his email (my insertions in parentheses for clarity)

The problem is the balance between skilled and unskilled (migrants) and the complete lack of control that affects large swathes of the country with pressure from large numbers of
unskilled (migrant) workers: effects on housing, hospitals and schools, not to speak of wages (though evidence here is hard to get). Look, if the elite will not compensate these guys they must expect a political explosion which they have now got.

I reiterate: I am, and remain, a Remainer. But Patrick does have a point. If we Remainers do not take these arguments seriously, and – ideally – try to persuade policymakers to do something about these problems – there is a very serious risk that the Brexiteers will win the vote.

One chart, from the LSE’s John Van Reenen and co-authors (See Footnote 1) tells most of the story.

CEP 6

Source: CEP analysis of Labour Force Survey. Wadsworth et al. (2016: 7). Notes: Median wage is deflated by the CPI.

And, as with so many charts, the story that it tells depends on your perspective. From the perspective of a UK-born worker at the lower end of the distribution what they can see, without any advice from expert economists, is that the real value of their wages has fallen almost continuously (by around 10% for someone on the median wage –See Footnote 2) since the peak before the crisis. They can also see, without the aid of the chart (who cannot?) that at the same time the share of EU migrants in the population has risen steadily. And, inevitably they draw a link between the two phenomena.

Van Reenen and co-authors point out (quite correctly) that the share of EU migrants had been rising well before real wages started falling, indeed, as the chart shows, during a period in which real wages were still rising steadily. They also point to a range of evidence showing a lack of a link between EU migration and UK-born wages or unemployment. And they reiterate the arguments that Brexit would lower GDP via reduced trade, job losses, and higher prices of imported goods.

So should we just dismiss the arguments about EU migration as xenophobic scaremongering? Well of course a lot of it is pretty unpleasant, and often verges on the xenophobic. But that does not mean we can simply dismiss the arguments out of hand.

Wages and unemployment, first of all. Is the case against a link proven by the lack of a correlation? Here is one of the charts that Van Reenen and co-authors use to make their case.

Source: CEP analysis of Labour Force Survey. Wadsworth et al. (2016: 10). Notes: Each dot represents a UK local authority. The solid line is the predicted ‘best fit’ from a regression of local authority percentage change in wages on the local authority change in share of EU immigrants. These are weighted by the sample population in each area. Slope of this line is -0.08 with standard error of 0.15, statistically insignificantly different from zero.

Source: CEP analysis of Labour Force Survey. Wadsworth et al. (2016: 10).
Notes: Each dot represents a UK local authority. The solid line is the predicted ‘best fit’ from a regression of local authority percentage change in wages on the local authority change in share of EU immigrants. These are weighted by the sample population in each area. Slope of this line is -0.08 with standard error of 0.15, statistically insignificantly different from zero.

This shows that there has been essentially a zero correlation between changes in real wages in any given local authority and the increase in EU migration in the same local authority. Case proven, it seems.

But pause, just for a moment. Basic statistics courses teach that “correlation need not imply causation”. But there is a subtler version: lack of correlation need not imply lack of causation. Here’s a simple argument (which is easy to substantiate with a couple of lines of algebra).

Suppose that real wages at a regional level tend to be stronger (which in recent years typically means to fall less rapidly than the average – look at the y-axis on the chart) where the regional economy is stronger. And suppose that EU migrants know this. Where will they tend to move to in the UK? Well, to the more prosperous regions, of course. Now suppose that the Remain arguments are correct, and more EU migrants do not have any effect on wages. If that was the case, then we should expect to see a positive correlation in the scatter diagram, but we do not. Whereas if EU migrants do depress wages, this would dampen the positive relationship and possibly result in no correlation at all. Which is what we see in the chart.

Now Van Reenen and his co-authors are all excellent econometricians so they all know this kind of argument perfectly well. Which makes their arguments all the more disingenuous. I’m not claiming that this proves there has been a serious impact on wages. There has been plenty of more sophisticated research which suggests it is hard to find an impact either way (and which Minford acknowledges in the quote above). But that does not in itself prove the argument wrong.

What about hospitals and schools? Well here the Remain argument is on the face of it much stronger. Van Reenen and others have shown that EU migrants are pretty clearly net contributors to the public purse. But the only problem with this argument to the UK-born worker is that there is no direct observable impact of these higher tax receipts on hospitals and schools. We do not have labels on CT scanners or smart whiteboards saying “these facilities were paid for using the extra tax receipts from EU migrants paypackets”. All they can see is the queues and the letters assigning their child to a school two bus rides away.

And finally, of course, housing. Well here of course, all the economists agree. And the policymakers. Everyone agrees. Absolutely everyone. We must build more houses.

But we don’t. Or at least not enough. Nor have we, for decades. As a result, UK households spend more on housing, per square metre of residential land, then any other European country except Luxembourg (See Footnote 3).

Does EU migration make things worse? Well of course it must do. (Even Nigel Farage can be right once in a while.) The CEP paper documents that the number of EU migrants in the UK rose by 2.4 million between 1995 and 2015. That accounts for roughly one third of the total growth of population in the UK over that period. And meanwhile, as Bank of England governor Mark Carney pointed out back in 2014, the UK builds half as many houses each year as Canada despite having twice the population.

No one disagrees that this is crazy. Yet neither the government nor the opposition have made any move to do anything serious about it. Despite the fact that bringing down the cost of housing could be the most effective way (and possibly the only effective way) of raising living standards for UK workers in the medium to long term.

But don’t get me started on housing. It is a serious, a very serious problem, that goes way beyond arguments about Brexit. But, I reiterate, EU migration must be making it worse.

Does all of this mean that I think we should stop EU migration? (Even if we could, which is of course debatable, even post-Brexit). It does not. Despite the fact that, as I noted at the start, my personal interests coincide with my professional judgement, I stick with that judgement. The EU brings benefits. EU migrants bring benefits. To me, and people like me, especially. To the economy on average, almost certainly. But not to everyone.

Pro-Remain policymakers need to start thinking fast about acknowledging this, and how to offer something to the poor and dispossessed of this country to compensate them explicitly for the costs of EU migration. This would not be impossible: remember the last-ditch crossparty promises before the Scottish vote? Maybe these made a difference, maybe they didn’t. But it is worth a try. Very soon it will be too late.

Find out more

Courses at the Department of Economics, Mathematics and Statistics

Images sourced from Wadsworth, J., Dhingra, S., Ottaviano, G., Van Reenen, J., and Vaitilingam, R. (2016) ‘Brexit and the Impact of Immigration on the UK’. CEP BREXIT ANALYSIS NO. 5. Available online, last retrieved 13 June 2016.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of Birkbeck

Footnotes

  1. “Brexit and the Impact of Immigration on the UK”, Jonathan Wadsworth, Swati Dhingra, Gianmarco Ottaviano and John Van Reenen, CEP Brexit Analysis No. 5.
  2. The CEP document shows that the fall for those on the 10th decile has been somewhat larger, and started
    earlier.
  3. De La Porte Simonsen, L and Wright, S (2016) “Residential Land Supply in 27 EU Countries: Pigovian Controls or Nimbyism?, paper presented to Birkbeck Centre for Applied Macroeconomics Annual Workshop, May 2016.
Share
. Read all 11 comments . Category: Business Economics and Informatics, Uncategorized . Tags: , , , ,