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Historical reflections

Tom Kilburn: A Tale of Five Computers

Tom Kilburn

Tom Kilburn

Credit: Carolyn Djanogly

One of the preeminent figures in the early history of computer design was Tom Kilburn. Over the course of some 30 years, he made significant contributions to the development of five historically significant computers. Although a natural team leader possessed of a somewhat dominating personality, who inspired in those who worked closely with him great loyalty and affection, Kilburn was, on casual acquaintance, a self-contained man who chose his words with care.

Tom Kilburn was born August 11, 1921, in West Yorkshire, England. His father, John William Kilburn, was a statistical clerk who rose to become a company secretary.13 Tom had a somewhat specialized education at Wheelwright Grammar School having been permitted by his headmaster to study almost nothing else from around the age of 14. It was hardly surprising therefore he emerged from school as something of a mathematical specialist. In 1940, Kilburn went Sidney Sussex College, in Cambridge, with several scholarships. Wartime courses at Cambridge were somewhat truncated and in 1942, Kilburn graduated with First Class Honors in Part I of the Mathematical Tripos and in the preliminary examination for Part II.


CACM Administrator

The following letter was published in the Letters to the Editor of the September 2014 CACM (
--CACM Administrator

David Anderson's viewpoint "Tom Kilburn: A Tale of Five Computers" (May 2014) on the pioneering computers built at the University of Manchester was fascinating and informative, but no article on the history of British computing can avoid the precedence controversy between the Universities of Manchester and Cambridge. For example, Cambridge advocates will put the case for the EDSAC computer and its many achievements, including nearly 10 years of service to the scientific community starting in 1949. But the Manchester Baby was operational more than 10 months earlier. It is in this spirit we should examine Anderson's remark, "Starting in 1963, [Kilburn] spent several years establishing and organizing a new Department of Computer Science, the first of its kind in the U.K." It is no criticism of Manchester's fine School of Computer Science to ask, what is the word "first" doing here? (Let us ignore the qualifier "of its kind," which would guarantee uniqueness of almost anything.) The Cambridge department had already been in existence for 27 years. The central authorities at Cambridge published its Report on the Establishment of a Computing Laboratory in 1936, with the aim of providing a computing service to the sciences while also conducting research on computational techniques. Initially called the Mathematical Laboratory, it developed the EDSAC and other computers, taught programming to Edsger W. Dijkstra in 1951, and established the world's first course in computing (at the master's level) in 1953. Another point of note: Many people imagine the development of computing was driven by the demands of war, but the Mathematical Laboratory (now known as the Computer Laboratory) was created from the outset to meet the needs of science.

Lawrence C. Paulson
Cambridge, England

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