Sir Maurice Wilkes dies

Sir Maurice Wilkes, has died at the ripe old age of 97.

Known as the “father” of British computing, Sir Maurice was best known as the designer and creator of the Electronic Delay Storage Automatic Calculator (Edsac), a computer that ran its first program in May 1949.

This was very instrumental in the British computer industry as it was the first widely-useable stored program machine.  It set standards for how computers should be used in academia and business that have lasted until the present day.

Speaking about this creation, Sir Maurice said in an interview last year: “We had vision. We saw computers as becoming important in the world, not just for mechanical calculations, but for business. But all we had was vacuum tubes.

“We couldn’t possibly have had any premonition of transistors and integrated circuits, and that’s what’s made the difference. Integrated circuits have given us speed and low cost and so on, but the central thing is reliability. Even if you don’t use them very often, they still work.”

However, it wasn’t his only innovation, with Sir Maurice continuing to pioneer computing. In 1951 he set to work on  developing the concept of microprogramming. This was derived from the realisation that the Central Processing Unit of a computer could be controlled by a miniature, highly specialised computer program in high-speed ROM. The results of his work meant that CPU development was greatly simplified.

The next computer for his laboratory was the Titan, a joint venture with Ferranti, which eventually supported the UK’s first time-sharing system and provided wider access to computing resources in the university, including time-shared graphics systems for mechanical CAD. One main feature of this computer was that it could provide controlled access based on the identity of the program, as well as or instead of, the identity of the user.

It introduced the password encryption system used later by Unix. Its programming system also had an early version control system.

Rightly so, his work has been recognised throughout the industry. He was awarded the Turing Award in 1967, the Faraday Medal from the Institution of Electrical Engineers in London in 1981 and the Kyoto Prize for Advanced Technology in 1992. He was also knighted in 2000.