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Computer theorist and pioneer, Arthur Burks, dies

by on29 May 2008


Co-designed first electronic digital computer

Arthur W. Burks, a giant in computer theory and computing education who was far ahead of his time, died earlier this week at age 92. Burks was a member of the team that designed the Eniac (Electronic Numeral Integrator and Computer) and was a frequent collaborator of John von Neumann, a brilliant mathematician and computer theorist.

Burks had a Ph.D. in Philosophy and taught at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan for forty years.  His Ph.D. was focused on symbolic logic. He viewed computing as a ‘protean science’ that could potentially influence many other disciplines and touted the importance and potential of computing decades before there were any academic studies available in this field. 

Burks worked with the government in the 1940s on a military project and helped create the Eniac to calculate the trajectory of artillery shells.  While its creation was too late for use during World War II, it became the first electronic digital computer.

In 1949 Burks founded a Logic of Computers Group and later founded a graduate program in Communication Sciences in 1957. The graduate study program consisted of computing, biology and language study as it applied to speech recognition, machine learning and adaptive systems, similar to areas that later became known as neural networks. Burks made important contributions to the theoretical side of computer science, as compared to its engineering side.

Burks and von Neumann worked on studies of designs for modern programmable and general use computers, called the “stored-program computer,” which later became known as the von Neumann architecture.

Burks’ family indicated that Burks died of complications from Alzheimer’s disease.

Last modified on 29 May 2008
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