On Monday 23 June 2014 Professor Sir Maurice Wilkes died, aged 97. The Professor was an icon in the technology world, having led the Cambridge University team that built the world’s first operational stored-program computer, known as EDSAC (Electronic Delay Storage Automatic Calculator) in 1946.
Previous digital computers were only capable of dealing with one particular kind of problem and had to be reprogrammed to solve a different problem. However Von Neumann’s had published a paper which suggested a computer could not only store data but also a set of instructions or programmes.
Based on this suggestion Wilkes was the first to build an operational machine. The device took up the whole library in the university and was made up of 3,000 vacuum valves arranged on 12 racks and tubes filled with mercury for memory.
Wilkes was one of the first computer programmers to understand the importance of testing, he recalled “we found to our surprise that it wasn’t as easy to get programs right as we had thought. Debugging had to be discovered. I can remember the exact instant when I realised that a large part of my life from then on was going to be spent in finding mistakes in my own programs.”
Wilkes went on to publish the world’s first text book on computer programming and two years later established the first course in Computer Science at Cambridge.
In 1958 EDSAC came to the end of its life, however Wilkes continued to make breakthroughs in technology. In 1958 he built EDSAC’s replacement, EDSAC II, which not only incorporated magnetic storage but was the first computer in the world to have a micro-programmed control unit.
In 1965 he published the first paper on cache memories, followed later by a book on time-sharing and in 1974 he developed the “Cambridge Ring”, a digital communication system linking computers together. The network was originally designed to avoid the expense of having a printer at every computer, but the technology was soon developed commercially by others.
Wilkes’ contribution to technology set a standard which is still followed today. Professor Lavington said, “If any person deserves the title of the father of British computing, it is surely Professor Sir Maurice Wilkes”.