Farewell to Sir Maurice Wilkes: the UK's father of computing

30 Nov 2010

Sir Maurice Wilkes, the British forefather of the Stored Program computer, has died at the age of 97.

I attended one of his last speeches (read about my mind-blowing evening with £2.5bn worth of British computing talent) and was spellbound. Here was someone who looked carefully at what the Americans were doing in the 1940s and turned their largely military development efforts into a scientific and business tool, laying the ground for the development undertaken by such unlikely private-sector pioneers as Lyon's Tea Houses.

Very few people can legitimately deliver a verdict on our entire industry, from digital watches through to Google Earth, the way that Wilkes can - when I met him in 2008, he thought it had "all turned out rather well". He reminded us just how important the British are in an industry which can seem vast, indifferent and unstoppable.

The kind of philosophical chutzpah that Wilkes and his team showed in building their machine, in post-war Britain, is a very long way from the passive consumer approach found in today's population of Tweeting, Facebooking trivia-junkies. I can't help wondering where the next game-changing pioneer will come from, and if they see as much progress as Wilkes, what they will think of this business come the year 2071.

(Photo: Copyright Computer Laboratory, University of Cambridge. Reproduced by permission.)

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