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Wulf, a Pioneer of the Computer Industry, Elected President of NAE

From Inside UVA
April 18, 1997

By Charlotte Crystal

AT&T Professor of Computer Science William A. Wulf has seen amazing changes in the computer industry.

Wulf helped program the ILLIAC, an early digital computer at the University of Illinois that came just a few years after the ENIAC, the world's first electronic computer. Built in 1946, the ENIAC had 18,000 vacuum tubes, weighed 30 tons and filled a room the size of a squash court.

Since then, computers have grown ever smaller and their use has expanded from performing top-secret calculations needed by the military to a broad array of commercial uses. Looking back at the work that went into programming the early giants, Wulf noted: "You get the same power today in a $3 greeting card [with a thumbnail-sized chip that plays 'Happy Birthday']. Developers of the ILLIAC could never have imagined this." Indeed, there's plenty that Wulf couldn't have imagined when he began his career nearly 30 years ago, including the honor of being elected president of the National Academy of Engineering on April 15 after serving as interim president since last July.

Along with promoting excellence in the field, the National Academy of Engineering advises the federal government on issues of science and technology. Wulf plans to take a four-year leave of absence from teaching to serve as the Academy's full-time president.

One of the pioneers of the computer industry, Wulf earned U.Va.'s first doctorate in computer science in 1968. Now 57, he continues to push the frontier as an internationally recognized designer of advanced computer hardware and software, high-performance memory systems and as a researcher into issues of computer security.

Wulf has helped develop a curriculum for computer courses, which is used around the country, has published more than 40 papers and coauthored three books, and consults for a list of business clients that represent a virtual who's who of the global computer industry.

"Bill can claim many achievements, and as all of us who have had the good fortune to work with him know, he is also a modest and plain-spoken friend and colleague, always ready to lend a hand to anyone without any consideration of credit or reward," said Richard W. Miksad, dean of U.Va.'s School of Engineering and Applied Science.

After receiving his doctorate, Wulf joined the faculty at Carnegie-Mellon University, where he served until 1981. That year, he left academe with his wife Anita Jones to found Tartan Laboratories, a developer and marketer of optimizing compilers. Compilers act as an interface between the computer's central processor and the computer's memory, translating between higher-level programming languages, such as C or Fortran, and the languages used by applications software.

(Jones, also a professor of computer science at U.Va., is on leave to serve as Director of Defense Research and Engineering for the Department of Defense. She is expected to return to Grounds as a full-time faculty member in June.)

In addition to his own research, Wulf has spent a great deal of time thinking about training the next generation of computer scientists. With a $600,000 National Science Foundation grant, Wulf worked with colleagues five years ago to develop a new "closed laboratories" curriculum for college level computer science programs.

The curriculum--so-named because it requires lab work like chemistry or biology classes do, at set times, on specific assignments, which must later be written up outside the laboratory--makes a number of changes in the way in which computer science has been taught. It majors, and rearranges courses so the same topics are taught in a number of different classes, thereby reinforcing the acquisition of key concepts. It introduces a strong laboratory component to enable students to do hands-on learning, develop team skills, use expensive equipment, see the professor critique other students' projects as well as their own and learn from undergraduate teaching assistants.

Does the program work? "We get rave letters from employers," such as IBM, Intel, Silicon Graphics and Adobe Systems, Wulf said. And on a standardized test, administered after the second, third and fourth years of the program, second-year students using the new curriculum outscored fourth-year students at six other schools, he said.

Wulf said he believes information technology is creating an opportunity to rethink education. "Traditionally, undergraduate education has been about learning facts, while graduate education has been about the process of scholarship," Wulf said. "What information technology is going to do is to move the process of scholarship down to the undergraduate level. The distinction between graduate and undergraduate research is going to blur and that is a good thing."

Wulf said he has enjoyed playing a role in the computer revolution, which he believes will prove far more important to society than the Industrial Revolution.

"In the Industrial Revolution, we used physical tools to solve physical problems,

Wulf said. "This is the first time we've had the ability to attack intellectual problems. It's an infinitely more humanistic tool. And to the extent that I can help that happen, it's more fun than I can imagine."

What's in the Future for the Computer Industry? Wearable Computers and Perfect Toast

At first, Wulf declines to answer the question. "There's been a string of predictions and they've been proven wrong because they've been too conservative," he said. But he sees new trends:

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