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  • Tom Kilburn: A Pioneer of Computer Design
  • David P. Anderson

Tom Kilburn was a figure of the first importance in the history of computer design, contributing to the development of five important computers over three decades. On casual acquaintance, Kilburn was a self-contained person who chose his words with care. Still, he possessed a somewhat dominating personality and was a natural team leader who inspired great loyalty and affection from those who worked closely with him. F.C. Williams summed up Kilburn in a simple sentence: “What you must always remember is that Tom is a Yorkshireman.”1

Early Days

Tom Kilburn was born near Dewsbury in West Yorkshire, England. His father, John William Kilburn, began as a statistical clerk and rose to become a company secretary.1

Tom was educated at Wheelwright Grammar School from which he emerged as something of a mathematical specialist since his headmaster had not allowed him to study much else from around the age of 14. In 1940, Kilburn went up to Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, with State, Dewsbury Major, and Minor Open Scholarships. In 1942, at the end of a shortened course, he graduated with First Class Honors in Part I of the Mathematical Tripos and in the preliminary examination for Part II.

Background of Tom Kilburn

Born: 11 August 1921, Dewsbury, England.

Died: 17 January 2001, Manchester, England.

Education: Wheelwright Grammar School, 1932–1940; Sidney Sussex College, University of Cambridge, BA (mathematics) 1945; Victoria University of Manchester, MA (electro-technics) 1947, PhD (electro-technics) 1948, DSc (electro-technics) 1953.

Professional Experience: Telecommunications Research Establishment (TRE), Malvern, 1942–1947. Victoria University of Manchester, initially seconded, thereafter lecturer in electrical engineering and professor, 1946–1948; head of computer science, 1964; dean of the Faculty of Science 1970–1972, and pro vice chancellor of the university, 1976–1979. Retired, 1981.

Honors and Awards: Fellow of the Royal Society, 1965; Honorary DU (Essex), 1968; Fellow of the British Computer Society (BCS), 1970; IEEE W. Wallace McDowell Award, 1971; Commander of the Order of the British Empire, 1973; BCS John Player Award, 1973; BCS Distinguished Fellow, 1974; Founder Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering, 1976; Honorary DUniv (Brunel), 1977; Royal Medal of the Royal Society, 1978; Member of Council for the Royal Society, 1978–1979, Honorary DSc (Bath), 1979; Foreign Associate, US National Academy of Engineering, 1980, Honorary DTech (CNAA), 1981; IEEE Computer Society (CS) Computer Pioneer Award, 1982; ACM and IEEE CS Eckert-Mauchly Award, 1983; Howarth Medal for Enterprise and Innovation in the North West, Royal Society for the Encouragement of the Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA), 1996; Mountbatten Medal, National Electronics Council (jointly with M.V. Wilkes), 1997; Honorary Member, Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society, 1998; Honorary DSc (University of Manchester), 1998; Fellow of the Computer Museum History Center, California, 2000.

During World War II, many Cambridge mathematics dons were absent from the university serving at Bletchley Park and elsewhere. In spite of this privation, Cambridge still boasted a lively mathematical community in which Kilburn played his 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 Pythagoreans.2 Speakers to the student society included future Bletchley Park code breakers M.H.A. Newman,3,4 Ken J. Le Couteur, and William (Bill) T. Tutte. However, Kilburn would likely not have come into contact with Alan Turing, who departed for Bletchley Park in 1939, too early for them to have met. It is also unlikely that Kilburn read “On Computable Numbers” as an undergraduate because his mathematical taste was more applied than pure:

[P]ure mathematics seemed extremely abstract. I was the sort of person who was always prepared to accept that two and two are four, whereas I’d spent the first term at [End Page 82] Cambridge in one of Newman’s lectures proving that this was so. Whilst it was all very interesting—I mean one could appreciate the beauty of it—it left...


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