Comp 280: History and Philosophy of Computing, Winter 2009


Aim of the course: This course offers a historical introduction to computing machines and the notion of computability. Part I will cover developments from the Babylonians to the late 19th century (including number systems, Leibniz's idea of an all-purpose language and associated calculus to derive conclusions, Babbage's analytical engine). Part II introduces the logical foundations of modern computers (Frege's logic, mathematical models of computation, and theoretical limitations of computability), and the third part will cover 20th century developments up to the present (e.g., analog and digital computers, programming languages, artificial intelligence, robotics, quantum computing).

This course is intended to exhibit the deep roots of computer science, revealing its rich cultural heritage and showing its emergence as a confluence of philosophy, mathematics, and engineering. Because of the historical approach of this course, it should be appealing to students from a variety of disciplines, introduce them to many fundamental concepts revolving around computing and computers, and stir their curiosity to learn more about the subject. For students in computer science this course will provide a framework to better understand the material they learn in other courses and foster a better understanding of their own discipline.
Prerequisites: None.
Textbooks: The following two textbooks are required for this course.

  • Martin Davis Engines of Logic: Mathematicians and the Origin of the Computer, W. W. Norton & Company; 2nd edition, 2001.
  • Paul E. Ceruzzi, A History of Modern Computing, MIT Press, 2nd edition, 2003.
They will be available soon at The Word Bookstore, 469 Milton Street (5 mins. from the University Street Gates).

Additional reading materials will be on course reserve, available online, or handed out in class.
Requirements & grading: Students are expected to attend and participate in class and do the assigned readings.
The final grade depends on small homework assignments (30%), a short paper (15%), a second short paper or a poster (15%), and a final paper or project (40%). Every student can take up to two "late days" for handing in the homework assignments during the semester. Otherwise, late homework will not be accepted (except in cases of documented emergencies).
Academic integrity: McGill University values academic integrity. Therefore all students must understand the meaning and consequences of cheating, plagiarism and other academic offences under the Code of Student Conduct and Disciplinary Procedures (see for more information).

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