The Obituary of Maurice Wilkes, Among Many Others

A major figure in the history of computing, Britain's Maurice Wilkes, died this past Monday. Obituaries can be found at the Guardian and the Independent; the latter was written by SIGCIS' own Martin Campbell-Kelly. Both discuss Wilkes' microprogramming design, which led me to consider that although we have many histories of machines (of ENIAC, EDSAC, UNIVAC, etc.), we have rather little in the way of histories of machine architectures. It would be interesting to know much more about how decisions about design trade-offs are made, how architectures evolve over time, and how they are shaped by the demands of maintaining compatibility with software, much of which shows remarkable longevity despite the supposed eternal youth of the digital world.

The death of Wilkes led me on a search for all the figures in the history of computing (well-known and otherwise) that have passed away this year.

The name that came most readily to mind was Ed Roberts, creator of the Altair microcomputer, who died in April. Obituaries can be found at the New York Times and the Guardian (again by Campbell-Kelly). A recollection from Dave Bunnell, who worked on the documentation for the Altair and later founded PC Magazine, among others, can be found here.

Roberts is a relatively enigmatic character, despite his significant role in the early history of personal computing in the United States. He was not a heavy self-promoter, nor a great business tycoon. While journalists have dedicated reams of paper and rivers of ink to Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, Roberts remains relatively unknown. Sadly, his memory is now lost to us, and to my knowledge he never recorded any extensive oral history. (He did give a somewhat lengthy interview to Dave Bunnell in the Nov./Dec. 1977 and Jan. 1978 issues of Personal Computing).

Another familiar figure to historians of computing who died this year was Herb Grosch (see the obituary from the Communications of the ACM). Though Grosch is best known for his Law (published in 1953), which held that electronic computers had economies of scale, he seems to pop up everywhere in the computing literature of the 1960s and 70s. His contrarian style may sometimes have rubbed his colleagues the wrong way, but it certainly makes for fun reading.

Among the names I recognized, the last was Max Palevsky, founder of Scientific Data Systems (SDS). SDS is, ironically, best known for being bought by Xerox. That purchase led to (or rather, made possible) the creation of the Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), the subject of at least two books. Palevsky himself has not received a great deal of attention, but based on the obituary he sounds fascinating.

My search also led me to a number of lesser known figures (at least, all of their names were new to me):

  • Peter Hilton, a cryptographer at Bletchley Park and later a mathematician of note, though not one closely allied to computer science.
  • Watts Humphrey, a major player in software engineering.
  • Frederick Jelinek, one of many Jewish emigrés from Eastern Europe who played a significant role in American computing, in his case in speech recognition.
  • Guy Kewney, who wrote the NewsPrint column in the long-running British periodical Personal Computer World (which received its own obituary last year).
  • Robin Milner, a computer scientist and creator of the ML(meta-language) computer language.
  • Finally Ray Solomonoff, one of the organizers of the 1956 Dartmouth conference widely considered to be the founding moment of the field artificial intelligence (AI). Solomonoff actually died last December, but his death was not reported by the New York Times until the following month.

Whew. That's what I was able to find, but whom have I missed? I'd especially appreciate any corrections to my obvious Anglo-American bias.