School of Informatics

Brief history of the School of Informatics

In 1998, the School of Informatics was created through the merger of the Department of Artificial Intelligence, Centre for Cognitive Science, Department of Computer Science, Artificial Intelligence Applications Institute, and Human Communication Research Centre.

Informatics anniversary logo

It originally formed part of the Faculty of Science and Engineering, but since major university restructuring in 2002, has been part of the College of Science and Engineering.

Sidney Michaelson

The study of Computer Science in Edinburgh, however, dates back to early 1960s when a Computer Unit was created and Sidney Michaelson was appointed its Director. In 1967 he became the first Chair of Computer Science. Initially, the Unit had no computing equipment of its own, and Professor Michaelson had to develop a service based on the use of a phone line to the Atlas computer in Manchester. In 1966, the Unit was split into the Department of Computer Science, led by Professor Michaelson, and the Edinburgh Regional Computing Centre, led by Dr Gordon 'Tommy' Thomas. That’s when the University installed its first mainframe computer, an English Electric Leo KDF9.

Donald Michie

At the same time as the Computer Unit was being established, Donald Michie, Reader in Surgical Science, formed a small research group into AI in a flat at 4 Hope Park Square. The University soon recognised Artificial Intelligence and established the Experimental Programming Unit in January 1965 with Michie as Director, which was then transformed into the Department of Machine Intelligence and Perception in October 1966.

Donald Michie was a member of Max Newman’s code-breaking group at Bletchley Park during the Second World War. While working with Alan Turing, he had been introduced to computing and had come to believe in the possibility of building machines that could think and learn.

AI achievements

Some of the seminal achievements of AI researchers in Edinburgh throughout the years include:

Freddy the Robot (or FREDERICK: Friendly Robot for Education, Discussion and Entertainment, the Retrieval of Information and the Collation of Knowledge), which was capable of assembling objects automatically from a heap of parts and is now in the National Museum on Chambers Street. Another mention should go to the POP-2 symbolic programming language designed and developed by Robin Popplestone and Rod Burstall. Other outstanding achievements in the 70s and 80s include: the design and development of the Edinburgh Prolog programming language by David Warren, Alan Bundy's demonstrations of the utility of meta-level reasoning to control the search for solutions to maths problems, and Howe's successful development of computer-based learning environments for a range of primary and secondary school subjects, working with both normal and disabled children.

In 1983, Jim Howe also established the Artificial Intelligence Applications Institute (AIAI) to expand applied AI work between academia, industry and government agencies with many successful and award-winning deployments of AI technology over the years.

In 1984, the Department combined forces with the Department of Linguistics and the Centre for Cognitive Science to launch the Centre for Speech Technology Research and by 1989, the University's reputation for research excellence in natural language computation and cognition enabled it to secure in collaboration with a number of other to establish the Human Communication Research Centre.

Relocation to the Forum

When the School of Informatics came to existence, it was dispersed over six sites: 80 South Bridge, the Appleton Tower, Buccleuch Place, Forrest Hill, the James Clerk Maxwell Building, and the Darwin Building. The 80 South Bridge building, which housed around 25% of the School was destroyed in the Old Town fire of December 2002, also resulting in the loss of a unique collection of literature in a field where Edinburgh University has been widely recognized as a leader since the 1960s. Many researchers also lost personal archives, although more recent research data was largely stored electronically.

Staff and students were temporarily relocated to Appleton Tower.

In June 2008, the Informatics Forum was opened, finally bringing all the School's departments together under one roof.

2018 thus marks the 20th anniversary of establishing the School of Informatics in its current shape and the 10th anniversary of the opening of the Informatics Forum.

Over the next year, we will be publishing historical articles and trivia about the School and the Forum. Watch this space!

Further reading

History makers: Informatics

Artificial Intelligence at Edinburgh University: A Perspective

Cowgate fire: Single spark that devastated heart of Edinburgh

About the Forum