Paul Penfield, Jr., The Electron and the Bit, Gateway, the MIT/LCS Newsletter, Vol. 7, no. 1, pp. 1-2; Spring/Summer/Fall 1990.

The Electron and the Bit

by Paul Penfield, Jr.
Head, Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science

As most of you know, LCS is an interdepartmental laboratory, meaning it has students and faculty from many different departments. Most numerous, however, are those from EECS. The technical areas represented by LCS most closely match those in EECS.

At MIT, computer science grew up within the Department of Electrical Engineering. Although this pattern is common at many universities, it is not universal. Indeed, in many places computer science grew out of a mathematics community, or a business school. But here at MIT, computer science blossomed within EE.

After LCS and the AI Laboratory were established, it was not long before people began to inquire whether computer science "deserved" to be a separate department. After all, this is a time-honored pattern in engineering. Mechanical engineering spawned disciplines such as aeronautics; nuclear engineering split from its roots in chemical engineering or other disciplines, and so on.

In 1974 the issue came to a head. There was a definite feeling that computer science might be better off as a separate department. However, some people believed that the fields of EE and CS were not apt to diverge much more, but instead follow each other in the future. This was based on the perception that both computer and electrical systems were limited mainly by our ability to deal with complexity, and whatever ideas worked in one domain should be tried in the other. One of the most articulate spokesmen of this attitude was our own Mike Dertouzos. As incoming Associate Department Head, I was present during the discussions and always supported the department sticking together. The pros and cons of the debate went on for a while, but finally those wanting a separate department realized they did not have broad support. To cement this consensus, Joel Moses conducted a poll of the faculty as to whether the department name should be changed to reflect the importance of computer science. The name EECS won out by a large margin, and the change in department name was made quickly and enthusiastically.

Events since 1974 have confirmed the wisdom of this decision. Other universities have taken steps to bring computer scientists and electrical engineers together, in some cases by a merger of two departments. Although this is a help, often it is not effective because of different traditions, styles, customs, and heritages. Believe me, we are the envy of many other departments because of the tight interactions between the two sides of our department. This came home to me very strongly when I attended a meeting of the National Electrical Engineering Department Heads Association earlier this year.

The wisdom of staying together is also evident in the various research groupings that reach across the railroad tracks that separate Tech Square from the rest of MIT. The VLSI program, which I was associated with for many years, is a prime example, but there are others. There is a project headed by Prof. John Wyatt to design and fabricate vision chips, with participation from the Artificial Intelligence Lab, the Research Lab of Electronics, and the Microsystems Technology Laboratories. Other examples can be cited as well.

To symbolize this continued union (or perhaps the avoidance of a divorce), in 1974 Mike Dertouzos, an avid wood-worker in his spare time, created an odd-looking wooden cane with a bit of amber and half a quarter on one end. The Greek word for amber is "electron" and, as you may know, the earliest electrical experiments involved rubbing amber to produce static electricity. So that represented the EE side of the department. The half quarter represented a bit, the "unit of currency" in computers (remember that 25 cents is "two bits"). The single staff of the cane represented the common heritage of the two sides of the department. Mike presented the cane to Prof. Wilbur Davenport, the department head at that time, and the cane has been passed down from one department head to the next ever since. Right now it is prominently displayed in my office and you are welcome to come see it at any time.


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