Joseph Traub

Joseph F. Traub was the Edwin Howard Armstrong Professor of Computer Science at Columbia University and External Professor at the Santa Fe Institute. Dr. Traub has held positions at Bell Laboratories, Carnegie Mellon, and Columbia, as well as sabbatical positions at the University of Washington, Stanford, Berkeley, California Institute of Technology, and the Technical University, Munich. He has been involved in the building of two major Departments of Computer Science and is the author or editor of ten books and some 120 papers. In 1959 he began his pioneering work in what is now called information-based complexity. His current research focus is on quantum computing. Both his research and administrative work have had a major impact on the field of computer science. 
Joseph Traub was born in Karlsruhe, Germany in 1932. He and his family barely escaped the Holocaust by immigrating to the United States in 1939. Traub attended the Bronx High School of Science and City College of New York, majoring in physics with a minor in mathematics. He received his Ph.D. in applied mathematics from Columbia in 1959. 
In a series of interviews conducted by William Aspray for the Babbage Institute in the 1980s, Traub described his discovery of computers as a fortuitous accident. In 1955, on the advice of a fellow student, Traub visited IBM's Watson Laboratory at Columbia. At the time, Watson Lab was one of the few places in the country doing computer research. Traub found that his proficiency for algorithmic thinking matched perfectly with computers and he did not return to his pursuit of physics. In 1957, Traub became a Watson Fellow through Columbia, and throughout his thesis research he had unlimited access to the IBM 650. His thesis was on computational quantum mechanics. 
In 1959, Traub began working at Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, New Jersey in their Mathematics Research Center. He transferred to the Computer Science Research Center when that was created. In 1966, he spent a sabbatical semester at Stanford University as a visiting Associate Professor of Computer Science. 
In 1971 he began conversations with Alan Perlis, head of the Carnegie Mellon University Computer Science Department, regarding the department's search for a new leader. Traub visited Carnegie Mellon and was offered the position. The department at the time was quite small, including Gordon Bell, Nico Habermann, Allen Newell, Raj Reddy, Herb Simon (who, through an agreement with Newell, was more affiliated with the psychology department), and William Wulf. Just prior to1971, many faculty members had left the department to take positions elsewhere. Those professors who remained formed a core of world-class scientists recognized as leaders of the discipline. 
Upon joining Carnegie Mellon, Traub worked with other faculty to recruit new faculty and to diversify research funding. In his first year, the Computer Science Department recruited such people as Samuel Fuller and Daniel Sieworiek. A student-faculty committee did a major revision of the Ph.D. program. By 1978 the department had grown to some 50 teaching and research faculty. 
In 1978, he took a sabbatical from Carnegie Mellon and spent the year at the University of California, Berkeley. While at Berkeley, he met Peter Likins who was then Dean of Engineering at Columbia. Their conversations, over a period of several months, led to Traub leaving Carnegie Mellon in 1979 to establish the Computer Science Department at Columbia University and to become its founding chairman, a position he held until 1989. 
He served as founding chair of the Computer Science and Telecommunications Board, National Academies. He started the Journal of Complexity in 1985. 
Traub received numerous honors including election to the National Academy of Engineering in 1985, the Emanuel R. Piore Gold Medal from IEEE, and the 1992 Distinguished Service Award, Computer Research Association. He was a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Association of Computing Machinery, and the New York Academy of Sciences. He has been Sherman Fairchild Distinguished Scholar at the California Institute of Technology, and received a Distinguished Senior Scientist Award from the Alexander Van Humboldt Foundation. He was selected by the Academia Nazionale dei Lincei in Rome to present the 1993 Lezione Lincei. Traub received the 1999 Mayor's Award for Excellence in Science and Technology. The Award was presented by Mayor Rudy Giuliani at a ceremony in New York City. In 2001 he received an honorary Doctorate of Science from the University of Central Florida. 
Traub passed away in 2015. His wife, noted author Pamela McCorduck, whose books include Machines Who Think, The Fifth Generation, The Universal Machine, Aaron's Code, and The Futures of Women, passed away in 2021. They had two daughters, Claudia Traub-Cooper and Hillary Spector.  


The Joseph Traub Collection has been arranged in 8 series: Early Career, Carnegie Mellon University, Columbia University, Research, Professional Activities, Publications, Reference Materials,  and Miscellaneous.


Early Career 

The Early Career series contains Traub's handwritten notes which he collected into blue three-ring binders as well as other materials pre-dating his appointment at Carnegie Mellon University. The binders contain drafts of untitled memorandums, general research or ideas, notes on articles Traub had studied, and many equations and formulas.  

Carnegie Mellon University 

The Carnegie Mellon University series contains materials relating to Traub's activities as Head of the Computer Science Department. Three sub-series have been designated: Administrative materials, Computer Science Research Reviews, and Course Materials. 


Columbia University 

The Columbia University series contains correspondence, reports, notes, administrative materials, and articles relating to Traub's activities as the first Head of the Computer Science Department. Records about conferences, speeches, and symposia organized by Traub during his time at Columbia University can be found in the "Professional Activities" series.  



The Research series contains notes, papers, and correspondence. Together, the Early Career series and the Research series cover the duration of Traub's research career. General notes taken during Traub's early work in the Bell Telephone Laboratories (1960-1971) can be found in the Early Career series. This series also includes general research files which Traub labeled "Research Ideas" and which contain handwritten notes about possible future research. 
The bulk of this series is made up of research files that have been created for each of Traub's research partners. Published papers and research done by Dr. Traub alone can be found under "Traub." This series contains materials that support his research and publications. They include numerous notes, correspondence with publishers and research partners, handwritten or proof-read drafts of papers, and a few articles connected with his research. 


Professional Activities 

The Professional Activities series contains correspondence, notes, publications, newspaper articles, grant proposals, conference proceedings, and graphic materials. Correspondence, notes, and publications documenting Traub's involvement with numerous professional organizations (particularly meetings and conferences) and various government projects comprise the majority of this series. Notes or graphic material from Traub's presentations at these meetings are included in many instances. (Traub's presentations and lectures that were typed and published in proceeding books or pamphlets can be found in the Publication series). In the Professional Activities series, Traub's activities during the 1980s and early 1990s are particularly well documented, including his sabbatical work. Examples of miscellaneous professional activities included in this series are consulting work to develop new Computer Science programs and recruit faculty and students; President of the John von Neumann Consortium for Scientific Computing at Princeton University; refereeing papers and grants. 
Commonly used acronyms in this series include: 

  • ACM- Association of Computing Machinery 
  • AMS- American Mathematical Society 
  • CSTB- Computer Science and Technology Board 
  • IFIP- International Federation for Information Processing 
  • NSF- National Science Foundation 
  • ONR- Office of Naval Research 
  • SIAM- Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics 
  • SIGNUM- Special Interest Group on Numerical Mathematics (ACM) 
  • SIG/SIC- Special Interest Group/Special Interest Committee (ACM Board) 



The Publication series series contains only material written or edited by Traub and includes conference papers, technical memos written at Bell Telephone Laboratories, reprints of articles in professional journals, and books or reports produced by the Computer Science and Technology Board while Traub was chairman. For many published articles, earlier typed drafts or submissions are available in this series. More information about research and drafts can be found in the "Research" Series. 


Reference Materials 

The Reference Materials Series contains articles, papers, reports, publications, and a few pieces of related correspondence. This series also includes user manuals, directories, journals, and dictionaries. 



The Miscellaneous Series includes subject files, calendars, correspondence, and notes. The calendars contain information about Dr. Traub's schedule and activities from 1970-2004. In some cases, desk calendars of others working with Traub have also been kept. 
The correspondence is generally of a personal, miscellaneous, or incidental nature. Original chronological correspondence files have been maintained. Correspondence files labeled "loose" have been created in chronological sections. Alphabetical files have been created for recurrent correspondents. 
The notes in this series are not labeled and therefore cannot be attributed to an existing series or folder. Of particular interest in this series are two diary notebooks kept by Traub during a trip to Germany and Russia in 1990 and a few photographs of Traub and Henryk Wozniakowski. The transcripts of Dr. Traub's interviews at the Babbage Institute can also be found in this series. 


Accessing the Collection

The Joseph Traub Papers are available for research in the Carnegie Mellon University Archives. Contact the archives to schedule an appointment.

Finding Aid

A guide to the collection is available online. This guide includes information about material not included in the digital collection.

Related Materials

Researchers may also be interested in the Pamela McCorduck Collection.


1965 – 1990


Copyright for the collection has been transferred to Carnegie Mellon University. The collection may contain third-party materials for which copyright is not held. Patrons are responsible for determining the appropriate use or reuse of materials.


This collection was digitized with support from the Traub and McCorduck families.