Obituary | DOI: 10.1145/1897816.1897827
the Last Pioneer
Computer science has lost not only a great scientist, but an important
link to the electronic computing revolution that took place in the 1940s.
Sir MaUriCe WiLKes didn’t like to bicker about who was first when it came to ground- breaking technical achieve- ments. Nonetheless, history
credits him with a number of important
innovations, including the creation of
the world’s first practical stored-pro-gram computer—the earliest machine
capable of running realistic programs
and producing useful results—as well
as the invention of microprogramming.
With his death on November 29, 2010,
at the age of 97, computer science lost
not only a great scientist, but an important link to the electronic computing
revolution that took place in the 1940s.
Wilkes was born on June 26, 1913 in
Dudley, Worcestershire, England. He
initially struggled in school due to recurring bouts of asthma. By his teens,
however, he found his stride in the
study of science and mathematics, supplementing his education with a subscription to Wireless World and a keen
interest in amateur radio transmission.
In 1931, he entered St. John’s College,
Cambridge to study mathematics. Subsequent graduate studies on the propagation of radio waves provided his first
experiences with computing, as he
seized an opportunity to work with the
university’s differential analyzer, a device that used wheel-and-disc mechanisms to solve differential equations.
PHO TOGRAPH B Y JOHN ROBER TSON
World War II interrupted his budding career, and Wilkes left for war
service in 1939, working on radar and
operational research. Although Alan
Turing had been a classmate at Cambridge, Wilkes was unaware of the
computing developments under way
at Bletchley Park during the war. After World War II, he returned to Cambridge as the head of the mathematics
laboratory (later named the computer
laboratory), where he was tasked with
investigating new possibilities in calcu-
maurice Wilkes in front of the Harwell computer, now being restored at the national museum
of computing, Bletchley Park.
lating machinery. A chance encounter
with John von Neumann’s 1946 draft report on the EDVAC—the yet-to-be-built
successor to the electronic computer
designed by Americans John Mauchly
and J. Presper Eckert during the war—
convinced him which direction to take.
The EDSAC, or Electronic Delay Storage Automatic Calculator, took two-and-a-half years to build. Thirty-two
tanks of mercury provided memory by
delaying pulses that were sent from an
electrically charged quartz crystal. Programs were entered with punched tape.
On May 6, 1949, EDSAC successfully
computed a table of squares, and the
machine remained operational until
Wilkes was intimately involved with
computers for the rest of his career. In
1951, with David Wheeler and Stanley
Gill, both research students at the time,
he published the first textbook on pro-
gramming methods. (Recalling those
early efforts in his memoir, Wilkes re-
marked that he quickly realized the re-
mainder of his life would be spent find-
ing errors in his programs.) Later that
year, while laying plans for the EDSAC
2, he hit upon the idea of using a stored
program to represent the sequences of
control signals within the computer. He
called the technique “microprogram-
Wilkes received numerous honors
during his lifetime, including being the
second recipient of the ACM A.M. Tur-
ing Award, in 1967.
Leah hoffmann is a Brooklyn, NY-based technology writer.
© 2011 ACM 0001-0782/11/0200 $10.00