CWI History: 78 years cutting edge research

The first Dutch computer, a globally used algorithm for route navigation, and the development of Python, one of the most widely used programming languages in the world. These are three highlights from our rich history. A brief overview of CWI's pioneering past, made for its 75th anniversary in 2021.

How it all began

The history of CWI started in 1946, when the institute was founded under the name Mathematisch Centrum. Its purpose was to help rebuild the Netherlands after the Second World War.

According to the statutes this was to be achieved by ‘promoting the systematic practice of pure and applied mathematics in the Netherlands’. This should lead to ‘the raising of the level of prosperity and civilisation in the Netherlands’. In addition, the aim was ‘to increase the contribution of the Netherlands to international culture’.

Due to the ever-growing societal importance of computer science, the institute was renamed Centrum Wiskunde & Informatica (CWI) in September 1983.

A brief overview of CWI's rich history:

  • CWI was founded on 11 February 1946 to contribute to post-war reconstruction after WWII, as Mathematisch Centrum (MC)
  • CWI developed the first computers in the Netherlands, the ARRA (1952) and its successors, and continued to produce computers via Elektrologica (1956), the first spin-off company of CWI. Watch the Google movie Remembering ARRA: A pioneer in Dutch computing.
  • CWI used an ARRA to do calculations for the successful Fokker F-27 Friendship airplane (1954)
  • In the 1950s, CWI performed calculations for the Delta Works, which were designed to protect the Dutch coastline after the great flood of 1953

Edsger Dijkstra
Edsger Dijkstra

  • Later Turing Award winner Edsger Dijkstra developed Dijkstra’s Shortest Path Algorithm (1959) at MC/CWI, which is now used in many route navigation systems, traffic models and telecommunication
  • CWI co-developed the computer languages ALGOL 60 and -68; Edsger Dijkstra and others designed the first compiler for programming language ALGOL 60, and MC director and computer science pioneer Aad van Wijngaarden co-developed the programming language ALGOL 68

Names and domains

  • CWI changed its name from Mathematisch Centrum (‘mathematical centre’) into Centrum voor Wiskunde en Informatica ('centre for mathematics and informatics') on 1 September 1983, because of the growing importance of computer science
  • CWI registered the NL top level domain '.nl' on 25 April 1986. It was one of the first country domains in the world. The .nl top-level domain was registered by Piet Beertema (CWI), who is also known as the godfather of .nl.
  • CWI had the first .nl domain name in the Netherlands,, from 1 May 1986
  • CWI established the first civil connection between Europe and the Internet on 17 November 1988 (video: see below).

30 years of open internet in Europe

Inventions and spin-offs

  • CWI co-founded SARA Computing and Networking Services (now SURFsara) together with VU University and the University of Amsterdam (UvA)
  • CWI designed and developed the programming language Python in the 1990s. It is now one of the world’s most popular programming languages. Guido van Rossum, then working at CWI, began developing Python during his Christmas holidays in 1989.
  • The brilliant scientist David Chaum co-founded modern cryptography research – the science of digital safety – when working at CWI in the 1980s. He designed an anonymous payment system that was not only safe for banks but also for clients and their privacy. He started a spin-off company, DigiCash, which was far ahead of its time and went bankrupt. Chaum's ideas are still being used by scientists.

David Chaum
David Chaum

  • CWI and others broke the MD5 Internet security standard in practice in December 2008, also known as the ‘https crunch’; in 2017 CWI and others broke the SHA-1 Internet security standard in practice, used for secure credit card transactions and signing electronic documents and software.
  • In 2004, the first open source column-based database system MonetDB was released, and in 2019 DuckDB, the first purpose built in-process Online Analytical Processing (OLAP)-database management system.
  • Since 1990, CWI has started up 28 spin-off companies.
  • On 3 December 2015, CWI and UvA launched QuSoft, the Dutch research centre for quantum software

In 2021 CWI celebrated its 75th anniversary with events, a movie with Steven Pemberton (see below) and an anniversary magazine.

75 years of cutting edge research

Time line of CWI with research highlights

More highlights

  • 1982: The first UNIX-network in Europe, the predecessor of the Internet, was launched. The centre of this network was located at MC
  • 1989: Together with GMD in Germany and Inria in France, CWI founded ERCIM
  • 1993: was one of the first 500 websites in the world; now there are over a billion
  • 1990s: W3C Web standards CSS, HTML4, XHTML, XForms and SMIL were co-developed at CWI, followed by RDF, RDFa and many more
  • 2007: CWI Spinoza winner Lex Schrijver and others created an algorithm to make the timetable for the Dutch railroad-system, one of the busiest in the world
  • 2017: Opening FleX-ray Lab for real-time 3D X-Ray imaging on 18 May
  • 2022: CWI is involved in the two primary upcoming Post-Quantum Cryptography standards: the public-key encryption scheme (CRYSTALS-KYBER) and the digital signatures (CRYSTALS-DILITHIUM).