an interview with
Maurice wilkes Maurice Wilkes, the designer and builder of the EDSAC—the first computer with an internally stored program—reflects on his career.
PrEsEntEd HErE arE excerpts from an interview with Sir Maurice Vincent Wilkes,the developer of the Electronic Display Storage Automatic
Calculator (EDSAC), microprogram-ming, symbolic labels, macros, and
subroutine libraries. Wilkes, the 1967
ACM A.M Turing Award recipient and
winner of the ACM lifetime membership award, is a former member of
Olivetti’s Research Strategy Board
and an emeritus professor at the University of Cambridge Computer Laboratory in the U.K. David P. Anderson,
Principal Lecturer in the History of
Computing at the School of Creative
Technologies, University of Portsmouth, U.K., conducted the interview
with Wilkes, 96, earlier this year.
When did you first get
involved with computers?
Well, you’ve got to realize that although
there were no digital computers in the
immediate pre-war period, there was
a lot of digital computing. The importance and power of it was beginning to
PHo ToGRAPH By BILL THoMPson
The actual computing was then on
desk machines with people to work
them, mostly research students, but professional computers were beginning to
be employed for organizations such as
the army, for calculating range tables
or firing tables as they were called in
America. That was all beginning to
grow up. Cambridge was a very lively
example of this digital computing.
What was your role?
The university took me on as the boy
who did the work! Analog computers
were much in the air then and a differential analyzer was ordered. We were
starting up this mathematical laboratory when I received an invitation to
join in the war effort working on radar.
Of course, I didn’t know the exact nature of the work at the time of the invitation but I was one of a small group of
people from the Cavendish who were
let into the secret.
Who was leading that activity?
We had here [John] Lennard-Jonesa
who was a great pioneer of structural
chemistry. And he and his small group
of very able people showed that in
spite of the computational bottleneck
you could, in fact, achieve quite significant results. Lennard-Jones was a man
of much vision and he was successful
persuading the university to establish
a computing laboratory, which was
initially called a mathematical laboratory. It was Lennard-Jones who gave
me my first opportunity to get practical experience of computing.
Who was it that told you?
It was [Robert] Watson-Wattb himself at
the Air Ministry. So, I went off to do that,
deserting Lennard-Jones very ungratefully because he’d got it all fixed up.
how did Lennard-Jones
react to losing you?
He didn’t mind—I went off anyway.
When I came back after the war, in September 1945, I found myself temporarily, but later permanently, head of
the Mathematical Laboratory.
how much latitude did you
have in deciding the priorities
of the laboratory?
As head of the laboratory I didn’t have
to ask people if I could do things. The
overall terms of reference were to develop mathematical methods and
equipment for doing computation. So
that was all fine. As I had been doing
a Sir John Edward Lennard-Jones (1894–1954)