When Bruce Arden began his career in computing 40 years ago, it wasn't a matter of marching down to the local computer store and snapping up the right machine off the shelf.
As part of his first job after college -- designing jet engines for General Motors -- Arden had to wire up and program IBM's first commercial electronic computer before he could use it. At the time computers were a long way from the ordinary worker's desk top, and the world's first mainframe computer -- a huge machine several yards long, wide and high but with a paltry "processor" compared to modern machines -- had just been built.
Entering the discipline on the ground floor afforded Arden the opportunity to become a pioneer in the field, a prospect he has not wasted, with contributions ranging over more than four decades. Arden, professor of electrical engineering and dean of the College of Engineering and Applied Science (CEAS) at the University of Rochester, has been named William F. May Professor of Engineering at the University.
Arden's interest in electronics began while he served as a radar technician in the U.S. Navy during World War II. After the war Arden earned his bachelor's degree summa cum laude in electrical engineering from Purdue University. After one year using computers to design jet engines, Arden went to the University of Michigan, where he designed computer memories and held various computer research positions while also earning his master's degree in mathematics and his doctorate in electrical engineering (and turning down a job offer from William Norris and Seymour Cray, who subsequently founded Control Data Corp. and Cray Computers, respectively).
Perhaps best known is Arden's work on the hardware and software of computer systems. In particular, Arden and colleagues at Michigan developed the first compiler (a way to translate computer languages into the elementary instructions that operate the computer hardware) to embody what is known as translation based on context-free grammars; today all compilers operate with similar processes. Such compilers, or translators, are one of the tools that enabled programmers to stop typing in long strings of binary code (as Arden and other early programmers once had to do) and thus boosted the accessibility of the machines.
Arden also had a hand in developing the IBM 360/67 computer, the first widely available mainframe with automated memory management. This machine incorporated "virtual memory," a widely used method to speed a computer up by making the computer "think" it has more primary memory than it really has.
Much of Arden's energy now is directed toward designing parallel computers with thousands of processors working together to increase computational power. It's much like coordinating thousands of small personal computers to work on one problem.
Arden, who early on was impressed with the potential of computers, says they've evolved much more rapidly than anyone thought 30 years ago.
"Computer history is filled with predictions of the future that were far too conservative," says Arden. "Even the brilliant father of electronic computing, John Von Neumann, predicted that the country would need, at most, only four or five computers, each with a memory of about 10,000 words. Now many pocket calculators exceed that. And there are millions of computers.
"Now, if a computer virus shut down the nation's computers, the whole country would stop. We are that dependent."
Arden has written two books, An Introduction to Digital Computing and Numerical Algorithms: Origins and Applications, and edited a study for the National Science Foundation, What Can be Automated?>/i> He has also supervised a number of doctoral students, served on many national committees, and is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Under Arden's leadership CEAS has built a major new research facility, the Center for Optoelectronics and Imaging, and has landed several multi-million dollar grants in such areas as superconductivity, optoelectronics, and optics manufacturing.
Before joining the University, Arden was a professor at Princeton University from 1973 to 1986. There he also served as chair of the electrical engineering and computer science department and was named the Arthur Doty Professor of Engineering. Before that he was on the faculty at the University of Michigan and was chair of its computer and communication sciences department. Earlier this year Arden was appointed to the additional post of vice provost for computing at the University.
The professorship honors William F. May, a member of the University's Board of Trustees and former chairman and chief executive officer of the American Can Company. May graduated from the University in 1937 with a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering and membership in Phi Beta Kappa. Brian Thompson, former dean of CEAS, held the professorship from 1982 to 1985, when he was appointed to his current position as provost.