RIP, Tom Kilburn, Brit computing hero

Developed first digital computer program

Professor Tom Kilburn, the man who developed the first ever digital computer program, died yesterday, seven months before his 80th birthday.

He suffered a long illness before his death, but the cause has not been made public.

Kilburn worked both on the development of the Mark I computer, and helped to found the Computer Science department at Manchester University.

His academic career began with a degree in mathematics at Cambridge, which he completed in 1942, winning first class honours. He worked on Radar during the war at the Telecommunications Research Establishment in Malvern.

He left Malvern in 1946 for the University of Manchester. There he developed a random access storage system that could hold 2048 bits of data, based on a standard cathode ray tube.

He worked with the same team on "Baby", the world's first stored program computer. This was used as a springboard for the development of a full sized computer. Kilburn was awarded his PhD for his work on Baby and Mark 1. He later said that the first time the machine ran was the best moment of his life.

By 1951 he was running the Computer Group at Manchester, he oversaw the development of MEG, the first floating point computer. This was followed up with MUSE (from MicroSEcond), a machine that would be capable of one million instructions per second.

The Department of Computer Science was founded at Manchester University in 1964, a year after MUSE reached full power. It was the first computer science department in the UK.

During his career he received a number of awards including being made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1965, awarded a CBE in 1973 and the Royal Medal of the Royal Society in 1978.

Kilburn stayed at Manchester University until his retirement in 1981. ®

A more complete biography is available here.

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