Tom Kilburn: A Tale
of Five Computers
Reflections on a British computer engineer who influenced several
important machines, including the first stored-program computer.
Pythagoreans.a Speakers to the student
society included future Bletchley Park
code breakers M.H.A. Newman,
Le Couteur, and William T. Tutte. However, Kilburn would not have been like-
a Geoff Tootill was Christ’s College representative for the New Pythagoreans and president of
the Archimedeans, and Gordon Welchman was
a student at Sydney Sussex College and honorary vice president of the New Pythagoreans.
b Kilburn and Tootill were also students in some
of Newman’s classes.
ONE OF THE preeminent fig- ures in the early history of computer design was Tom Kilburn. Over the course of some 30 years, he made
significant contributions to the development of five historically significant computers. Although a natural
team leader possessed of a somewhat
dominating personality, who inspired
in those who worked closely with him
great loyalty and affection, Kilburn
was, on casual acquaintance, a self-contained man who chose his words
Tom Kilburn was born August 11,
1921, in West Yorkshire, England. His
father, John William Kilburn, was a
statistical clerk who rose to become a
13 Tom had a somewhat specialized education at Wheelwright Grammar School having been
permitted by his headmaster to study
almost nothing else from around the
age of 14. It was hardly surprising
therefore he emerged from school as
something of a mathematical specialist. In 1940, Kilburn went Sidney Sussex College, in Cambridge, with several scholarships. Wartime courses at
Cambridge were somewhat truncated
and in 1942, Kilburn graduated with
First Class Honors in Part I of the
Mathematical Tripos and in the preliminary examination for Part II.
During the Second World War,
many Cambridge mathematics dons
were absent from the university serving at Bletchley Park and elsewhere.
In spite of this, there remained a lively
mathematical community in which
Kilburn played a full part. As the Sidney Sussex college representative in
the New Pythagoreans (a subgroup of
the Cambridge University Mathematical Society), Kilburn almost certainly
came into contact with a number of
people who later went on to play a part
in the development of computing.
Geoff Tootill and Gordon Welchman
were, like Kilburn, officers of the New