Washington computing group celebrates 50 years

The Washington chapter of the Association for Computing Machinery is marking its 50th anniversary this weekend with a formal dinner in Silver Spring, Md., celebrating a half-century of contributions to computer science and education.

But the gala will also celebrate the revival of an organization that had nearly slipped out of existence in the D.C. region. In April 2007, William Fielder accepted an offer from the national ACM organization to become chairman of the local chapter, which had been inactive since 2001.

'If we had not revived the chapter last year, by July they would have shut it down,' said Fielder, whose day job is senior engineer at the American Enterprise Institute.

Nineteen months later, DC ACM has built itself back up to 170 members and has restarted its professional development program with a pair of classes on intrusion detection in September that generated a net profit of more than $7,000 for the chapter. It is planning to expand the program and use the engineering building at George Washington University during spring break next year to offer several tracks of classes.

'We're dreaming big here,' Fielder said.

Not as big as in the past, however. 'In our heyday, in the 1980s, the chapter had about 2,000 members,' he said.

Times have changed, and the organization might not ever reach that size again, but Fielder said DC ACM still has an important role to play.

'There is no other technical group in the D.C. area that focuses on general computer science,' he said. Other organizations focus on specific niches and segments of information technology. 'There is a lot of room for more cross-pollination. I would hope we provide a venue for all of the different specialists to come together.'

The Association for Computing Machinery ' a scientific society for educators, researchers and professionals ' was founded as the Eastern Association for Computing Machinery in 1947, when digital computing was in its infancy. By 1948, the word 'Eastern' was dropped from the name, and it became a national organization with local chapters.

The D.C. chapter was established a decade later, in 1958, and many of its members were involved in research and development on government projects. Members included a number of pioneers in their fields who contributed to programming languages such as Cobol and Ada. Grace Hopper, pioneer computer scientist and developer of the first compiler for a computer programming language, was a regular attendee, and founding chapter member Saul Gass worked on computer programs for NASA's Mercury manned space flight project.

The chapter held annual technical symposiums, and Izzy Feldman, founder of Government Computer News, initiated the professional development seminars in 1968. The seminars continued until 2001, but as virtual communities began to replace real-world organizations, the chapter began to fade. Although it was never dissolved, it became inactive.

In 2007, Fielder was acting as an unofficial ACM representative at a local science fair.

'I thought, 'I should get the funding and blessing from ACM to do this,'' he said. When he contacted the national organization, he learned that he needed to get permission from the local chapter. But the chapter had all but disappeared. 'They said, 'We could appoint you chair if you want to do this.' I thought I'd like to see this come alive again,' so he took the job.

The keynote speaker at the Nov. 1 gala is Bjarne Stroustrup, professor and College of Engineering chairman in computer science at Texas A&M University and creator of the C++ programming language. An ACM fellow, Stroustrup said the association still performs a needed service.

'A lot of communities have become virtual,' he said. 'But you work better with people you have met face-to-face and shared a meal with. So arranging and attending meetings still is important.'

Stroustrup's speech will present a historical sweep of computer programming languages, which he said are much better today at meeting both of the primary needs of programmers: addressing the machine and expressing the programmer's ideas.

In the 1950s, programmers were writing machine instructions for specific purposes. Using Fortran was like writing a math and engineering text, and Cobol was specific to business processes. Since then, languages have become more generalized and expressive, he said.

'You have to express ideas that are pretty far from the machine,' he said. C++ helped begin an evolution toward more general, object-oriented languages, with an abstraction mechanism to build general concepts while still handling issues close to the hardware.

'It still is the basis of most of the infrastructure we rely on today,' he said. Java virtual machines typically are written in C++.

Programming languages do not supersede one another but are developed for new needs, he said. Fortran remains dominant in math and engineering, and 'Cobol isn't dead yet.' Likewise, C++ is not disappearing any time soon, although new languages will come along to fill new niches.

'Of course, C++ will be superseded some day, but it won't happen quickly,' he said. 'It is important that the language last for decades because the systems we rely on last for decades. You don't want to be forced to rework everything. You want to do it when it's necessary, not sooner or later.'

Fielder said he hopes DC ACM will also be around for decades.

'We have gained some momentum,' he said. 'But we could easily fall apart again if we are not vigilant.'

You can register to attend Saturday's gala at the Hilton hotel in downtown Silver Spring, Md., through today at www.dcacm.org/gala.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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