David Burnett-Hall: Recollections

David Burnett-Hall became a Reader in Computation/Computer Science at the University of York in 1966. He was the first head of the Department of Computation, the forerunner to the Department of Computer Science.

David writes:

"The University of York was only three years old, when I joined the staff in 1966.  (At that point there were fewer than 1000 students; only two colleges; no Central Hall; and Biology, Chemistry, and Physics had started teaching the first science undergraduates in 1965.)  I was appointed as the head of a new Department of Computation with a brief to set up the Computing Service because an order had just been placed for the University’s first computer.  (One computer per university was the norm!)  The Elliott 4130 arrived in October 1967.

In the autumn of 1967 we announced a degree course in Mathematics with Computation (a major/minor combination).  Everyone was surprised when we received over 300 applications for the course.  The first twelve undergraduates arrived in October 1968 and graduated in 1971.  We also started combined courses with Physics in 1969, and with Biology in 1970.

Ian Wand had joined us from IBM as a lecturer in the early 1970s, and Ian Pyle was appointed as Professor of Computer Science in 1973, by which time the department had an established reputation.
In the late 1970s we were the first department in the university to introduce a sandwich course, in which students spent a year on an industrial placement as part of their course.

It took some time to convince the University that Computer Science was a suitable subject for academic study in its own right.  Lack of funding for university expansion from the Government was also a problem in the economic climate of the 1970s.  Thus we did not start to teach a single-subject course in Computer Science until 1979.

Since the proverbial cork came out of the bottle the Computer Science department has gone strength to strength, and I was delighted to be a part of it until my retirement in 1995."


David notes that he is relying on his "fallible memory" rather than written evidence for many of the dates quoted. He goes on to say:

"Two of the first students were Alan Armstrong and Catherine Logan.  I remember that a new course had to be ready to be included in the UCCA Handbook 15 months before it started, and it took the university at least 6 months before that to approve new courses (including their quotas and funding), so there was a very long lead-time.

As to the date of the first sandwich course, I know that Gary Morgan was one of the first 2 sandwich students.  You are probably still in touch with him, as he did a Ph.D in the Department and then became a lecturer."

Over the last 50 years, what one thing in computer science has had the most global impact?

Without a doubt, the way that computers can communicate with one another, which led to the creation of the Internet.  The world has changed enormously since I came to York in 1966, and rapid communication, available to all (usually for free), has been the root of these changes.

What would you say to a student embarking on a course in computer science?

Welcome to the world of computer science!  You will never be able to travel back to 1954, which is the year when I first met a computer.  At that point there were only half a dozen in the whole country!  Today you are entering a constantly developing discipline in which the future is full of exciting possibilities.  Enjoy your time in York!