Department of Computer Science, Heriot-Watt University


The Department of Computer Science was an independent department from 1967 (originally the Computer Unit) until 1992 when it was merged with the Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering into the Department of Computing and Electrical Engineering. In 2002, it split from Electrical Engineering to become a separate section within the School of Mathematical and Computer Sciences.

The 1960s

The age of Computers arrived at Heriot-Watt College (as it was then) on Friday 4th May 1962 at 2.30pm when a Ferranti Sirius computer was installed and commissioned under the joint control of the Departments of Mathematics and of Electrical Engineering. Following the granting of university status to Heriot-Watt, Alex Balfour and Allen McTernan, two Mathematics lecturers were moved to start a BSc degree in Computer Science in October 1966, the first in Scotland. The Sirius was replaced by an ICL4130 in 1969.

The Department of Computer Science (originally, the Computer Unit) became a separate department on 1st October 1967 under the headship of Alex Balfour. At that time, the department had three parts: the academic section, the computer service, and Computer Application Services (a consultancy to industry and commerce).

See also Alex Balfour's early memories and these photos from 37-39 Grassmarket provided by Dave Marwick via Greg Michaelson.

The 1970s

A two year part-time MSc degree in Computer Science was started in October 1970 and a BA degree in Accountancy and Computer Science was started in October 1973. Appropriate exemption from professional exams was granted by the British Computer Society for the BSc and MSc. A Burroughs 5700 system was installed in 1974, as the University started its prolongued move to the Riccarton Campus from Edinburgh city centre.

Alex Balfour, having been appointed to the first Chair in Computer Science at Heriot-Watt, left to join Burroughs in 1979. The computer service section was split off into an independent Computer Centre under the Directorship of Allen McTernan.

The 1980s

Following the appointment of Prof Howard Williams as HoD in 1980, CS's active participation in the UK 5th Generation Alvey programme led to substantial growth in research. The Department also co-hosted the Scottish HCI Centre with Strathclyde University. Research growth was further consolidated by the appointment of new staff. Independent confirmation of our improving research profile was provided by the results of the Research Assessment Exercises of 1986 and 1989. The first BCS Accreditation visit was held in December 1986.

See also Greg Michaelson's history of the Department's research from 1980 to 2003, which he wrote for Patrick O'Farrell's University history.

The 1990s

In 1992 the Department moved from 79 Grassmarket to the Riccarton campus. The 1990s were dominated by the merger with the Department of Electrical Engineering. This reduced morale significantly and led directly to the loss of several of the best staff. However, the "department" slowly recovered to improve from a 3B in the Research Assessment Exercise of 1992 to a 4B in 1996. The MSc Programme was made more flexible, with a variety of courses based around a common module matrix. By the end of the decade, with new professorial appointments, the "department" was growing in both size and strength.

The 2000s

In 2000 rationalisation of the relationship between the Edinburgh and Scottish Borders campuses led to new staff joining the Department. The total restructuring of the University into Schools in 2002 led to the abolition of the merger with Electrical Engineering and the reinstatement of the Department of Computer Science within the School of Mathematical and Computer Sciences along with the departments of Mathematics and of Actuarial Mathematics and Statistics. The foundation of a new campus led to a Computer Science presence in Dubai in 2005.

The latter part of the period was spent preparing for the Research Assessment Exercise and Restructuring of the Academic Year (moving from three terms to two semesters), with a complete review of all taught courses, followed by their delivery. Growth continued with a total of 30 academic staff, including 10 professors, in post by the end of the decade, student numbers strong and research income buoyant.

The 2010s

In 2010 the Department's home from 1974-1992 at 79 Grassmarket was demolished.
In November 2011 the total number of academic and research staff in Computer Science exceeded 70 for the first time in our history.
In January 2012 total student enrolment in the Department exceeded 1000 (studying across Europe, Africa and Asia) for the first time in our history.
In October 2013 the total number of academic and research staff in Computer Science exceeded 80 for the first time in our history; 35 academics in Edinburgh and 5 in Dubai supported by 43 research staff (total 83).
In December 2014 the Research Excellence Framework ranked the Department 3rd in Scotland for Research Power and 23rd in the UK.
In February 2015 the British Computer Society awarded its first accreditations to our programmes in Dubai.

Heads of Department

Academic Staff

Computer Support Staff

Last updated August 2015.