Peter J. Denning (born 1942) is an American computer scientist and prolific writer. He is best known for pioneering work in virtual memory, especially for inventing the working-set model for program behavior, which addressed thrashing in operating systems and became the reference standard for all memory management policies. He is also known for his works on principles of operating systems, operational analysis of queueing network systems, design and implementation of CSNET, the ACM digital library, codifying the great principles of computing , and most recently for his book The Innovator’s Way, on innovation as a set of learnable practices.


Denning was born January 6, 1942, in Queens, NY, and raised in Darien, CT.  He was interested in science from an early age and began building electronic circuits as a teenager. His computer built from pinball machine parts won the science fair in 1959, launching him into the new field of computing. He attended Manhattan College for a Bachelor inEE (1964) .At MIT for his doctorate in 1968, he worked on prototypes of computer utilities, precursors of today’s “cloud computing”. He became an educator and taught computer science at Princeton, Purdue, George Mason University, and Naval Postgraduate School. He was a pioneer in operating systems and computer networks and invented the “working set”, a way of automatically managing data flows in memory that is widely used in modern operating systems from desktops to smartphones. A strong advocate of computing as a domain of science on par with the traditional physical, life, and social sciences, he has codified the Great Principles of Computing. In the 1980s, while directing a research lab at NASA Ames Research Center, he became interested in how he could teach his students and researchers to be successful innovators, broadening his attentions to the human practices of technology adoption. From 1980 to 1982 he wrote 24 columns as ACM President, focusing on technical and political issues of the field. From 1985 to 1993 he wrote 47 columns on “The Science of Computing” for American Scientist magazine,focusing on scientific principles from across the field. Beginning in 2001 he has written quarterly “IT Profession” columns for Communications of the ACM, focusing on principles of value to practicing professionals.


ACM honored Peter J. Denning, Naval Postgraduate School (who served as President of ACM from 1980-82), with a special award “for his exceptional vision, devotion, and commitment to excellence. His 40 years of dedication and guidance have been an inspiration to the Association and all those who have served with him.”

In 1970 he published a classic paper that displayed a scientific framework for virtual memory and the validating scientific evidence, putting to rest a controversy over virtual memory stability and performance.

In 1966 he proposed the working set as a dynamic measure of memory demand and explained why it worked using the locality idea introduced by Les Belady of IBM. His working set paper,became a classic.

In 1999, he expanded the search for fundamental principles to cover all of computing. The discovery of natural information processes in biology, physics, economics, materials, and other fields convinced him that the basic definitions of computation had to be modified to encompass natural information processes as well as artificial.


Denning has been a major influence in computing education. In the early 1970s he led a task force that designed the first core course on operating systems (OS) principles. OS became the first non-math CS core course. In the mid 1980s he led a joint ACM/IEEE committee that described computing as a discipline with nine functional areas and three cognitive processes, the basis of ACM Curriculum 1991. In the 1990s he set out on a quest to codify the great principles of computing. He maintains that computing is a science both of natural and artificial information processes. NSF designated him a Distinguished Education Fellow in 2007 to launch a movement to use the Great Principles framework for innovations in education and research. In 2009, ACM’s SIGCSE (Special Interest Group on Computer Science Education) recognized his contributions with its lifetime service award.