Arthur Walter Burks
1915 – 2008
Arthur Walter Burks, professor of philosophy and computer science, died on May 14, 2008 at the age of 92. Burks, a member of the Michigan faculty from 1946 to 1986, is best known for his work on the logic of computer programming in the late 1940’s, which helped launch the digital age. He also made seminal contributions to the philosophy of science, semiotics and the history of computing. Art was also one of the world’s leading scholars of Charles Sanders Peirce.
Born Oct. 13, 1915, in Duluth, Minnesota, Professor Burks received a B.S. in mathematics from DePauw University in 1936, and then earned a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Michigan in 1941, with a dissertation entitled The Logical Foundations of the Philosophy of Charles Sanders Peirce. During World War II Art served as a principal architect for the first programmable electronic digital computer, the ENIAC. During this period he worked closely with the great mathematician John von Neumann and the computer scientist Herman Goldstine. Their jointly-authored 1946 paper "Preliminary Discussion of the Logical Design of an Electronic Computing Instrument," ranks among the most famous in the history of computer science. It described the design for the programmable computer, and is credited with containing the first discussion of computer programming. In further collaboration with von Neumann, Burks completed and edited an essay, “Theory of Self-Reproducing Automata,” which contains the first descriptions of processes by with non-living things might reproduce themselves.
Professor Burks joined the Philosophy Department in 1946, and in 1949 founded the Logic of Computers Group, the first organization on campus dedicated to the study of computing. He helped start the graduate program in communication sciences in 1957 and the Department of Computer and Communication Sciences (CCS) in 1967. He served as its first chair in 1967-68. The CCS program blended computing, the study of language, machine learning, and complex systems. In 1984 he joined the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.
Though he was perhaps best known for his contributions to the development of the theory of computing, Professor Burks also made wide-ranging contributions to philosophy. He did ground-breaking work in the philosophy of science, making significant contributions to our understanding of causality, the character of laws of nature, inductive logic and of the role of probability in rational decision making. His Chance, Cause and Reason (Chicago, 1977) remains influential some thirty years after its publication. Burks also served as president of the Charles S. Peirce Society in 1954-1955, and edited two volumes of Peirce’s colleted papers.
He was the recipient of many awards and honors including the Henry Russell Lectureship in 1978 – one of the highest honors the University of Michigan confers on a senior faculty member. After retiring, Art co-authored many articles with his wife, Alice R. Burks, on the history of the computer, and one book: The First Electronic Computer: the Atanasoff Story (Michigan, 1989)
We mourn the loss of our colleague, a kind and generous man, and extend condolences to his wife of 65 years, Alice W. Burks, and to their three children, Nancy, Edward and Douglas.
-- James M. Joyce, Chair, Department of Philosophy