For more than half a century, Edinburgh has been home to leading lights in the field now known as informatics.

The University of Edinburgh defines informatics as “the study of the structure, the behaviour and the interactions of natural and engineered computational systems”. Edinburgh has been at the forefront of that field of study for more than five decades, having set the pace in areas such as computer science and artificial intelligence from the beginning.

Today the School of Informatics, united under a single identity since 1998, continues to be a global leader, as the biggest research and teaching establishment of its kind in the UK, and widely regarded as being among the foremost centres of expertise in the world.

In our interactive timeline, we mark out a selection of the many historic people, creations and events that have helped establish Edinburgh’s reputation. We hope some of our milestones trigger fond memories, but we also hope you will suggest additions to our timeline, to create an ever-growing record of Informatics at Edinburgh, built with the help of alumni who witnessed history being made first hand.

HELP US BUILD
OUR TIMELINE

We’d love to receive  contributions to add to History Makers: Informatics. Tell us about the part you played in the School’s history, or about a person, creation or event that deserves a place. Please use the comments box below, and we will add your recollections to the timeline where appropriate. Please also email us any photographs to be included in the timeline entries: editor.edit@edit.ed.ac.uk

1963
Computer Science: Sidney Michaelson

Computer Science: Sidney Michaelson

The study of Computer Science begins at the University of Edinburgh with the formation of the Computer Unit. Sidney Michaelson (1925–1991) is appointed its Director, and in 1967 becomes the first Chair of Computer Science.

1963
Artificial Intelligence: Donald Michie

Artificial Intelligence: Donald Michie

At the same time as the Computer Unit is being established, Donald Michie, Reader in Surgical Science, forms a small research group at 4 Hope Park Square, which goes on to become the Department of Artificial Intelligence.

1966
First computer

First computer

The University installs its first mainframe computer, an English Electric Leo KDF9, and establishes the Edinburgh Regional Computing Centre, providing computing access nationally and internationally via a growing network.

1969-1973
Freddy and Freddy II

Freddy and Freddy II

Two groundbreaking robots, Freddy (1969–1971) and Freddy II (1973–1976), are built in the Department of Machine Intelligence. They are able to assemble wooden models given a jumbled heap of pieces, using vision to identify and locate parts.

1969
World's first artificial intelligence spin-out

World's first artificial intelligence spin-out

The first artificial intelligence spin-out company in the world, Conversational Software Ltd, is established to develop and market the POP-2 symbolic programming language.

1973
Robin Milner

Robin Milner

Robin Milner joins the University of Edinburgh, where he later co-founds the Laboratory for Foundations of Computer Science. His vision of a new science of information, broader than computer science, inspired the formation of the School of Informatics, and he chaired the international committee that recommended the School’s foundation.

1983
Artificial Intelligence Applications Institute

Artificial Intelligence Applications Institute

The Artificial Intelligence Applications Institute, a technology transfer organisation, is created. The AIAI promotes the application of artificial intelligence research for the benefit of commercial, industrial and government clients.

1989
Top of new university rankings

Top of new university rankings

The UK’s Universities Funding Council begins assessing research quality. In 1989 the University’s Computing Science unit of assessment gains the highest possible “5” rating, establishing Edinburgh as a leader in the field, a position the School of Informatics continues to hold today.

1990
Edinburgh Parallel Computing Centre

Edinburgh Parallel Computing Centre

Contributed by William Hern (BSc Computer Science 1992  and EPCC summer student  1991)

The Edinburgh Parallel Computing Centre (EPCC) was founded in 1990, building on research collaborations between the Department of Computer Science and the Department of Physics. Its blend of academic and commercial interests has since played an important role in the development of parallel computing. When founded, EPCC shared many members of staff, and premises, with the Computer Science Department.

1998
The School of Informatics

The School of Informatics

The School of Informatics is created from the former Department of Artificial Intelligence, the Centre for Cognitive Science and the Department of Computer Science. Since its formation it has consistently been ranked among the world’s biggest and best centres of expertise of its kind.

2008
Informatics Forum

Informatics Forum

In June and July 2008, the School’s research moves into its new home, the Informatics Forum. With a brief to provide a “forum for interaction”, the building was designed by architect Bennetts Associates and Reiach & Hall and engineering firm Buro Happold. It has won multiple prizes, including the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors’ Scotland Project of the Year Award and the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland Andrew Doolan Prize “Best Building in Scotland”.

2009
FanDuel

FanDuel

Tom Griffiths (MSc Informatics 2004) and Chris Stafford (MSc Artificial Intelligence 2004) are among the five co-founders of FanDuel, which goes on to become the world’s biggest daily fantasy sports service. Today FanDuel is a “unicorn” company – a rare breed of tech start-ups valued at more than $1bn.

2010
Speech Graphics

Speech Graphics

Two Informatics alumni, Michael Berger (PhD Informatics 2012) and Gregor Hofer (MSc Informatics 2004, PhD Informatics 2009), establish Speech Graphics Ltd. The company rapidly becomes a leader in lip-synced facial animation, produced automatically from audio, for the computer gaming and other sectors.

2013
Two Big Ears

Two Big Ears

Two Big Ears, which designs 3D sound software for virtual reality and other emerging technologies, is set up by Varun Nair (MSc Sound Design 2012) and Abesh Thakur (MSc Acoustic and Music Technology 2012), with support from the Edinburgh Technology Transfer Centre and the School of Informatics.

 

2014
Johanna Moore

Johanna Moore

Professor Johanna Moore is appointed Head of the School of Informatics, having joined the School as Chair in Artificial Intelligence in 1998.

September 2014
Edinburgh Centre for Robotics

Edinburgh Centre for Robotics

The Edinburgh Centre for Robotics is launched. The Centre, a collaboration with Heriot-Watt University, brings together dozens of researchers and industrial partners, with the aim to develop robots that meet real-world commercial and societal needs. The Centre also welcomes its first cohort of students to the Centre for Doctoral Training in Robotics and Autonomous Systems.

Comments on “History makers: Informatics”

    Irene Adams says:
    Author’s gravatar

    I went to Allison House with my flatmate in 1971, she was studying “computer science” as part of her general arts degree. She fed in lots of cards with holes in, and something satisfactory came out. It was her third attempt as I recall! I took Phonetics tutorials in a house next door to a department called AI. It was in Buccleugh Place I think! We always wondered what they were up to in there!
    It is incredible what has happened in the last 40 odd years….here am I, a complete inept, writing this on my IPad!!

    William Hern says:
    Author’s gravatar

    Surely something should be posted in this timeline about the EPCC – the Edinburgh Parallel Computing Centre? That organisation and its blend of academia and commercial interests has played an important role in the development of parallel computing.

    William Hern
    B.Sc Hons Computer Science 1992 (and EPCC summer student in 1991)

      Gareth Overton says:
      Author’s gravatar

      Thanks for this, William, and you’re right of course about the importance of EPCC. It doesn’t quite fit on this timeline, as formally EPCC is under the roof of the School of Physics & Astronomy, though of course its evolution is entwined with work that now sits in the School of Informatics.
      – Gareth (editor)

    William Hern says:
    Author’s gravatar

    Thanks Gareth for the response. I think the EPCC moved under the wings of Physics and Astronomy sometime in the early part of this century.

    When it was founded, back in 1990 it most definitely was part of the Computer Science department – it shared many members of staff and the organisation was co-located in JCMB with the Computer Science department. Hence I would politely suggest that it DOES belong on this timeline!

      Gareth Overton says:
      Author’s gravatar

      I stand corrected! As you rightly say, EPCC grew out of collaborative research between the Department of Computer Science and Department of Physics. Watch this space – a new entry in the timeline, our first reader-generated entry, to follow.
      – Gareth

    Austin Tate says:
    Author’s gravatar

    There is a lot of overlap and joint work between the various computing and computational modelling groups in Electrical Engineering, Physics, Architecture, Medicine, etc. and the departments and research institutes that came together to form the Division of Informatics, now the School of Informatics. There were lots of links between EPCC and parts of Informatics. My own group, AIAI, ran a Parallel Architectures Laboratory between 1986 and 1990 funded by industry and the UK government under the Alvey Programme. PAL hosted a range of systems used by academic engineers and international businesses involved in aerospace, banking, etc. to gain experience of early experimental parallel computers alongside the specialised parallel programming and microcoders in AIAI and find ways to use them effectively in their projects and operations. PAL hosted an experimental transputer-base ALICE applicative computational system front ended by an ICL 2900 and attached content addressable filestore. There was also an 8 processor Sequent Symmetry, Generic Associative Memory and parallel deduction machines, two kinds of specialised microcoded Lisp Machines, etc. Some of these were passed onto EPCC when it was created and I joined the EPCC steering board for its first few years.

    Joanne Lamb says:
    Author’s gravatar

    I joined the Computer Science Department as a post graduate student in 1967, the year that my supervisor, Sidney Michaelson, became Professor. My topic was “an Algebraic Manipulation Language”, designed to run on the Edinburgh Multi Access System (EMAS). However, at that time EMAS was EMAP- a project jointly run by the Department and English Electric. So I had to simulate the interactive part by sending punched cards to Newcastle University, and getting the result the next morning. Towards the end of my time, things improved. I became the first user of EMAS, which was running as an experimental system at lunch times and in the evenings. My recollection is that EMAS went live during the day at the same time as I handed in my thesis!

    I spent some time in Birmingham, and returned to Edinburgh in 1976, when I joined the Centre for Educational Sociology. Conducting large scale surveys, we were heavy users of the University’s computing facilities, and I eventually became chair of the Edinburgh Computer Users Committee. Finally, I had the sad privilege of becoming the last user of EMAS, turning off the system when it was finally decommissioned.

    Dr Joanne Lamb (ms Officer)

Discuss this article