Dick Conway, architect of computer science at Cornell, dies at 92

Richard “Dick” W. Conway ’54, Ph.D. ‘58, a trailblazing professor who was instrumental in launching Cornell’s Department of Computer Science in 1965 – one of the first of its kind – died March 19. He was 92. 

“Professor Conway and his collaborators were visionary in recognizing the potential of computer science as a field of study in its own right, and in creating Cornell’s computer science department,” said Kavita Bala, dean of the Cornell Ann S. Bowers College of Computing and Information Science and professor of computer science. “He set Cornell CS on the path to becoming one of the world leaders in computing.”

Richard “Dick” W. Conway ’54, Ph.D. ‘58

A professor at Cornell for roughly 40 years, Conway was also the founding director of the university’s IT computing group (CIT) from 1966-68. In 1983, he moved to what is now the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management (Johnson School), where he became the Emerson Electric Company Professor of Manufacturing Management 

“Dick was an icon in the field of computer science and industrial engineering and we were honored to have him bring his many contributions and talents in the area of operations research and management science to the Johnson School community,” said Andrew Karolyi, the Charles Field Knight dean of the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business and the Harold Bierman, Jr. Distinguished Professor of Management. “I’ll never forget the day, as a professor emeritus, he welcomed me as a new faculty member at Johnson in 2009. It made a big impression on me that someone of his stature took time to reach out.” 

“Conway was a quintessential engineer and influential educator,” said Lynden Archer, the Joseph Silbert Dean of Engineering and the James A. Friend Family Distinguished Professor in Engineering. “He was unconstrained by disciplinary boundaries in his scholarship, with contributions cutting across multiple fields, including industrial engineering, manufacturing, management and computer science. He was similarly visionary in his efforts to innovate what and how Cornell Engineering students were educated.” 

Conway was born Dec. 12, 1931, in Milwaukee. In 1949, he arrived as an undergraduate at Cornell, where he spent the entirety of his academic and professional career. He graduated with a bachelor of mechanical engineering degree in 1954 and, four years later, received the first Ph.D. from what is now the School of Operations Research and Information Engineering.  

After graduating, Conway taught mechanical engineering, industrial relations, and operations research and industrial engineering. 

In 1963, under the university’s direction, Conway – along with Anil Nerode, the Distinguished Professor of Arts and Sciences in Mathematics, and Bob Walker, professor of mathematics, both in the College of Arts and Sciences – began crafting the blueprint for a radical new concept at Cornell and in academia: a department of computer science. Some scoffed at the idea – the provost at the time questioned the creation of a department organized around a machine. “If computer science, why not X-ray science?” the provost reportedly said

As an emotional Conway recalled in a 2015 conversation, the department’s creation was one of the highlights of his career. 

During a contentious vote to create the graduate field of computer science – a critical step after establishing the department – Paul Olum, then chair of the Department of Mathematics, expressed his confidence in the “intellectual content” of what would become computer science. 

“That shut up the dissent immediately. They called a vote,” Conway recalled, “and we had a new field.” 

Conway gained a new academic home, too: He was among three of the first full professors in computer science and remained there for the next 19 years, during which he twice served as department chair. 

Through the 1950s and ’60s, Conway remained Cornell’s go-to expert on new computing technology arriving on campus, and developed early compilers like CORC (Cornell Computing Language) and CUPL (Cornell University Programming Language), programs that translate computer code from one language to another. The PL/C compiler was his most famous. Developed in 1970, it was used to teach Cornell students how to program and eventually became the standard instructional compiler, adopted by more than 250 other institutions. 

“Dick, with his knowledge of compiling and his innovative approach to error recovery in compilers, was a real drawing card for me,” said David Gries, professor emeritus of computer science, who joined Cornell in 1969. “Our interactions, as well as his advice to me as a younger faculty member, were so helpful. He led the way in making our department a wonderful social and intellectual home. I cherish the time I was able to spend with him” 

After moving to the Johnson School in 1983, Conway launched its innovative Semester in Manufacturing immersion courses. The course combined interactive visits to manufacturing facilities and workers’ unions with lectures, discussions and team-based projects. An innovative approach to teaching, it became a model for subsequent immersion courses. 

Conway retired in 1999 and became a professor emeritus. 

His time in computer science coincided with some of his most impactful work with programming languages and compilers. In 1967, Conway and co-authors Bill Maxwell and Louis Miller published the classic text, “Theory of Scheduling.” His 1973 book, “Introduction to Programming: A Structured Approach Using PL/I and PL/C,” co-authored with Gries was the first programming textbook to take correctness issues seriously. Conway wrote several other textbooks on computer programming. 

He was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 1992.  

“We were very grateful for Dick’s determination to introduce the first full-semester ‘immersion’ course, because it led to an unmatched curricular legacy at the Johnson School. Immersions were soon introduced in many other areas, and to this day they set us apart from other business schools,” said Joe Thomas, the Anne and Elmer Lindseth Dean Emeritus. “When Dick proposed the ‘Semester in Manufacturing’ immersion course, there was pushback from some faculty, but he didn’t give up and thankfully stuck to his mission. He was proud to see how meaningful the immersions are for so many of our students.” 

Today, the Department of Computer Science’s Conway-Walker Lecture Series is co-named in his honor. 

In 1953, Conway married Edythe Davies Conway ’54, MEd ’56, Ph.D. ’79, later a faculty member at the New York State College of Home Economics at Cornell. They had three children, all of whom earned degrees from Cornell; Edythe died in 2022. 

Plans for memorial services will be announced at a later date. 

Louis DiPietro is a writer for the Cornell Ann S. Bowers College of Computing and Information Science.

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Becka Bowyer