History of Computing in England

28 September 2021

A Discussion with Faculty Director David Liben-Nowell

Enigma Machine
David Liben-Nowell

What inspired you to propose and plan the History of Computing program? What did you want to accomplish?

I first ran this program during the summer of 2019. I wanted to show Carleton students that Computer Science is, at its core, not just a study of computational systems and their underlying mechanisms, but of the relationship between humans and technology over time.

And what better place to study the history of computing than in England, the birthplace of Alan Turing’s “modern” computers? Turing’s story, as students of the History of Computing program will learn, is both inspirational and tragic. By tracing the history of computing back to WWII England, students will come to understand why the first computers were invented, and how they came to occupy a role in nearly every aspect of modern-day life.

What does a typical day look like on your program?

To answer this question briefly, there is no “typical” day on the program. Every day is different from the next. Nevertheless, I would say that roughly two-thirds of the program is spent learning in a classroom setting (or listening to local guest speakers, etc.) and exploring the city of Cambridge. The other third of the program is spent travelling to other locations in England and France.

When the program ran in Summer 2019, some of the excursions that we went on included a trip to Manchester to see the first programmable device in history (a loom!), a ferry trip across the channel to Normandy, a visit to the WWII Museum, and a trip to Bletchley Park (the headquarters of Alan Turing’s Naval Enigma Team).

What makes this program different from other similar programs?

Carleton’s History of Computing program is different from other programs in that there simply aren’t that many CS study abroad programs that encompass the true “liberal arts” experience. Rather than following a traditional/conventional CS curriculum, students in the History of Computing program will experience computing in a different light: that of computers, cryptography, and intrigue during WWII.

What are the benefits to housing students in Cambridge University?

Throughout the program, students will be housed in hotels, hostels, and rooms within one of Cambridge University’s thirty-one colleges. Living in the Cambridge University dorms is truly an unmatched experience; students can retain the traditional “college campus” feeling while also being immersed in England’s fascinating culture, history, and architecture.

Finally, what advice would you give to students to encourage them to study abroad during their Carleton career? What benefits do you see to the experience in general?

Studying abroad is a truly life-altering experience. It will change the way in which you view the world, and you will come away from your study abroad experience with an entirely new (and improved) perspective on life.

David Liben-Nowell is a Professor of Computer Science. He’s been teaching at Carleton since 2005.