Computer science pioneer Samuel D. Conte dies at 85

July 1, 2002

Computer science pioneer Samuel D. Conte dies at 85

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – Samuel D. Conte, who led and helped establish the first computer science degree program in the nation at Purdue University, died at 12:10 p.m. today (Monday, 7/1). He was 85.

Conte, a professor emeritus of computer science and mathematics, came to Purdue from TRW Systems in 1962 as head of the university's fledgling Department of Computer Sciences. He led the department for 17 years and continued teaching until 1993.

"Samuel Conte was at the leading edge of one of the most important scientific developments of the 20th century," said Purdue president Martin C. Jischke. "He was one of the first to recognize the role the computer could play in teaching and research, as well as in business. His vision and leadership have had a profound impact on Purdue and our world."

Purdue's computer science program began with five faculty members and 24 students who were pursuing master's and doctoral degrees. An undergraduate program began in 1968. Today, the department is largest within Purdue's School of Science, with 32 faculty and nearly 1,000 students enrolled in fall 2001.

During the program's earliest years, Conte worked to make the case that computer science was, indeed, a science.

In a 1999 Computerworld magazine interview, Conte said: "Most scientists thought that using a computer was simply programming ‹ that it didn't involve any deep scientific thought and that anyone could learn to program. So why have a degree? They thought computers were vocational vs. scientific in nature."

In addition to teaching and heading the Department of Computer Sciences, Conte served as director of the Purdue University Computing Center from 1962-68. He was founder and co-director of the Software Engineering Research Center, which was sponsored by the National Science Foundation as a joint effort between Purdue and the University of Florida to foster cooperation between industries and universities in software engineering.

His primary research was in the areas of computational mathematics and software engineering. His work appeared in more than 50 scientific journals and six books. He co-wrote two textbooks, "Elementary Numerical Analysis" and "Software Engineering Metrics and Models."

Conte's accomplishments earned him honors from both inside and outside the university.

He was named a Sagamore of the Wabash in 1997 by Indiana Gov. Frank O'Bannon. In 1982 Purdue awarded him emeritus status as a professor of mathematics and computer science, and a university lecture series and distinguished professorship in the Department of Computer Sciences bear his name. In 1982-83 he also served as a distinguished visiting professor at the U.S. Air Force Academy.

Conte was born June 5, 1917, in Lackawanna, N.Y. He earned his bachelor's degree in education in 1939 from Buffalo State University. He served in the U.S. Army from 1943-46 in the European Theater during World War II before earning master's and doctoral degrees in mathematics from the University of Michigan in 1948 and 1950, respectively.

Before coming to Purdue, Conte was an associate professor of mathematics at Wayne State University from 1946-56. He was a manager of a TRW Systems research group from 1956-62 where he was involved in ballistic missile and satellite research.

Calling will be from 10:30-11:30 a.m. on Wednesday (7/3) at Church of the Blessed Sacrament in West Lafayette, Ind., with services to begin at 11:30 a.m.

Memorials may be made to the Samuel D. Conte Endowment Fund, Department of Computer Sciences, Purdue University, 1398 Computer Science Building, West Lafayette, Ind. 47907.

Writer: Brian Zink, (765) 494-2080, bzink@purdue.edu

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; purduenews@purdue.edu