CWI: 75 years of pioneering research

This year, CWI is celebrating! 75 years ago, the institute opened its doors under the name Mathematisch Centrum.

Publication date
3 Feb 2021

The institutes aim was to promote the use of pure and applied mathematics in the reconstruction of the Netherlands after the Second World War, to improve prosperity in the Netherlands, and to enhance the Dutch contribution to international scientific culture. Computer Science was later added to the mix, and the centre was duly renamed Centrum Wiskunde & Informatica, or in short CWI.

75 years of cutting edge research

Bright minds in mathematics and computer science work at CWI, conducting fundamental, ground-breaking research that lays the foundation for future breakthroughs. The CWI strives to share the knowledge it acquires with society, and its research therefore always has a social relevance. This has proven itself repeatedly over the years. Let's take a look at some of the research highlights. For more info about CWI's work, read our New Scientist anniversary magazine, download a copy of the magazine in English or the Dutch version of the magazine, or order a paper copy.

First computers

In 1952 the Mathematical Center developed the first Dutch computer, the Automatische Relais Rekenmachine Amsterdam (ARRA). After the North Sea flood disaster in 1953, which killed nearly 2000 people in the Netherlands, ARRA was used to create models and perform calculations for the Delta Works. This was a Dutch national plan for new water defences, to prevent such a flood happening again. Today, the Delta Works still protect the Netherlands against high water. The compelling history of the ARRA computers, and the pioneers behind them, have been documented in short films produced by Google, commemorating the early days of computing and the Internet: Remembering ARRA: A pioneer in Dutch computing.

Spin-offs and partnerships

Cooperation is central to how CWI works, both on a national and international level, with companies and with individual researchers, who themselves go on to launch spin-offs. The first CWI spin-off was in 1956: Electrologica, the first Dutch computer manufacturer.

To date, CWI has launched 28 spin-offs. A modern example is Stokhos who make software that predicts how ambulances can be efficiently distributed within a region and therefore be on the scene faster. It's literally a life-saving development. Another example is MonetDB, founded by database scientists at CWI.

Shortest path algorithm and navigation

Navigation is an integral part of our daily life. In 1959 one of the world's top computer scientists, Edsger Dijkstra, developed the shortest path algorithm, also known as Dijkstra's algorithm. This is the basis of all route planners used today. Dijkstra is considered one of the most influential researchers in mathematics and computing science’s founding generation. During his life he shaped the field of computer science like no other scientist. His ground-breaking contributions ranged from the engineering to the theoretical side of computer science. In this picture, we see Dijkstra (left), Bram Loopstra and Ria Debets at the Mathematisch Centrum (1954).

For those who do not like to navigate, but prefer travelling by train, CWI has also delivered. In 2007, CWI researcher Lex Schrijver, with others, created an algorithm that was used to redesign and optimize the timetable of the Dutch Railways. For his CWI research, Lex received the Spinoza Prize, the highest Dutch science award.

Programming languages

For most of its 75 years, CWI has been a hotbed of programming language design and development, starting with the algorithmic languages ALGOL 60 and ALGOL 68, and continuing with Python, developed in 1989 by Guido van Rossum. Python is now the number one programming language in the world, and has millions of users, from hobby programmers to tech giants like Google, Amazon, Yahoo! and Facebook.


CWI has also been a leader in the development of the internet. In April 1986 CWI registered ".nl" as one of the first country domains worldwide, followed by the first Dutch domain name Not long after that, in November 1988, CWI set up the first node on the open internet in Europe, and spun off two companies to further expand the internet in the Netherlands and Europe.

CWI was involved right from the beginning with the internet's most important application, the World Wide Web, and had one of the world's first websites. CWI researchers have contributed to the design of many web standards including CSS, HTML, XHTML, RDF and many others.

Security and privacy

For security and privacy on the web and the internet, data is usually encrypted. CWI is on the forefront of research in encryption, both in creating encryption methods, and in testing them by attempting to break them.

In 1999 CWI coordinated the breaking of the encryption standard RSA-512, by factoring large numbers into their prime factors. In 2008 a group of CWI researchers and international colleagues exposed weaknesses in the MD5 security standard, which is widely used on the internet, for instance by web browsers. In 2017, the same happened again with the security standard SHA-1 which is used to protect credit card transactions and digital signatures.

Quantum software

In the near future quantum computers will surpass ordinary computers in performance: what will the possibilities be, and how can they be best used? In 2015, CWI and the University of Amsterdam launched QuSoft, the research center for quantum software. Within QuSoft researchers explore the possibilities and limitations of software that can be used on such computers once they are available. In addition, quantum research also contributes to the development of artificial intelligence.

Imaging, energy, and AI

In 2017 CWI opened the unparalleled X-ray scanner that provides real-time 3D images. With the FleX-ray Lab, mathematics and 3D scanning are brought together, so the new calculation methods can immediately prove themselves in practice. Working closely together with radiotherapists, CWI developed artificial intelligence to realize improvements in radiation treatment for cancer. Patients now are treated following optimal radiation plans created by AI.

CWI also works on energy research. With the main questions being: How do you achieve the most with artificial intelligence and calculation models from available energy sources? And how do you distribute energy fairly and efficiently?

Future possibilities

Throughout its history, CWI has been an innovator, connector, and driver in mathematics and computer science. Joining forces with the best and most motivated scientists and organisations in the field, and with unprecedented future possibilities ahead, they will continue to expand their work. In our podcast series together with AG Connect, CWI scientists look into the future and share their thoughts on the influence of computer science and mathematics on tomorrow's world. Listen to the podcasts with Sander Bohte (Deep Learning) and Tim Baarslag (Automatic Negotiation).