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Maurice Wilkes

Born June 26, 1913 (1913-06-26) (age 96)
Dudley, Worcestershire
Nationality British
Fields Computer Science
Institutions Telecommunications Research Establishment
University of Cambridge Mathematical Laboratory
British Computer Society
Digital Equipment Corporation
Known for Microprogramming
Notable awards Turing Award

Sir Maurice Vincent Wilkes DFBCS FREng FRS (born June 26, 1913) is a British computer scientist credited with several important developments in computing.


Early life, education, and military service

Wilkes was born in Dudley, Worcestershire, England[1] and read Mathematics at St. John's College, Cambridge from 1931 to 1934, continuing to complete a Ph.D. in physics on the topic of radio propagation of very long radio waves in the ionosphere in 1936[2]. He was appointed to a junior faculty position of the University of Cambridge through which he was involved in the establishment of a computing laboratory.

Wilkes was called up for military service during WWII and worked on radar at the Telecommunications Research Establishment (TRE), and in operational research.

Initiation into electronic computing

In 1945, Wilkes was appointed as the second director of the University of Cambridge Mathematical Laboratory (later known as the Computer Laboratory).[1]

The Cambridge laboratory initially had many different computing devices, including a differential analyser. Wilkes obtained a copy of John von Neumann's prepress description of the EDVAC, a successor to the ENIAC under construction by Presper Eckert and John Mauchly at the Moore School of Electrical Engineering. He had to read it overnight because he had to return it and no photocopy facilities existed. He decided immediately that the document described the logical design of future computing machines, and that he wanted to be involved in the design and construction of such machines.

In August 1946 Wilkes traveled by ship to the United States to enroll in the Moore School Lectures, of which he was only able to attend the final two weeks because of various travel delays. During his time in the United States he visited all of the relevant American sites of computing progress and became intimately familiar with the ENIAC, for a while even living next door to Mauchly on Philadelphia's St. Marks Street.

Construction of the EDSAC

Since his laboratory had its own funding, he was immediately able to start work on a small practical machine, the EDSAC, once back at Cambridge. He decided that his mandate was not to invent a better computer, but simply to make one available to the university. Therefore his approach was relentlessly practical. He used only proven methods for constructing each part of the computer. The resulting computer was slower and smaller than other planned contemporary computers. However, his laboratory's computer was the first practical stored program computer to be completed, and operated successfully from May 1949.

Other computing developments

In 1951, he developed the concept of microprogramming from the realisation that the Central Processing Unit of a computer could be controlled by a miniature, highly specialised computer program in high-speed ROM. This concept greatly simplified CPU development. Microprogramming was first described at the Manchester University Computer Inaugural Conference in 1951, then published in expanded form in IEEE Spectrum in 1955. This concept was implemented for the first time[3] in EDSAC 2, which also used multiple identical "bit slices" to simplify design. Interchangeable, replaceable tube assemblies were used for each bit of the processor. This was extremely advanced for the time.

The next computer for his laboratory was the Titan, a joint venture with Ferranti Ltd. It eventually supported the UK's first time-sharing system and provided wider access to computing resources in the university, including time-shared graphics systems for mechanical CAD.

A notable design feature of the Titan's operating system was that it provided controlled access based on the identity of the program, as well as or instead of, the identity of the user. It introduced the password encryption system used later by Unix. Its programming system also had an early version control system.

Wilkes is also credited with the idea of symbolic labels, macros, and subroutine libraries. These are fundamental developments that made programming much easier and paved the way for high-level programming languages.

Later, Wilkes worked on an early timesharing systems (now termed a multi-user operating system) and distributed computing.

Toward the end of the 1960s, Wilkes also became interested in capability-based computing, and the laboratory assembled a unique computer, the Cambridge CAP.

In 1974 Wilkes encountered a Swiss data network (at Hasler AG) that used a ring topology to allocate time on the network. The laboratory initially used a prototype to share peripherals. Eventually, commercial partnerships were formed, and similar technology became widely available in England.

Awards, honors, and leadership positions

In 1956 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society.

He was a founder member of the British Computer Society (BCS) and its first president (1957-1960).

Wilkes received the Turing Award in 1967, with the following citation: "Professor Wilkes is best known as the builder and designer of the EDSAC, the first computer with an internally stored program. Built in 1949, the EDSAC used a mercury delay line memory. He is also known as the author, with Wheeler and Gill, of a volume on Preparation of Programs for Electronic Digital Computers in 1951, in which program libraries were effectively introduced." In 1968 he received the Harry H. Goode Memorial Award, with the following citation: "For his many original achievements in the computer field, both in engineering and software, and for his contributions to the growth of professional society activities and to international cooperation among computer professionals."

In 1980 he retired from his professorships and post as the Head of the laboratory and joined the central engineering staff of Digital Equipment Corporation in Maynard, Massachusetts[1].

In 1986 Wilkes returned to England, and became a member of Olivetti's Research Strategy Board. In 1993 Wilkes was presented, by Cambridge University, an honorary Doctor of Science degree. In 1994 he was inducted as a Fellow of the Association for Computing Machinery. He was awarded the Mountbatten Medal in 1997. He was knighted in the 2000 New Year Honours List. In 2002, Wilkes moved back to the Computer Laboratory, University of Cambridge, as an Emeritus Professor.[1]

In his Memoirs Wilkes writes:

It was on one of my journeys between the EDSAC room and the punching equipment that "hesitating at the angle of the stairs" the realization came over me with full force that a good part of the remainder of my life was going to be spent finding errors in my own programs.


  1. ^ a b c d
  2. ^
  3. ^ Wilkes, Maurice V., "IEEE Annals of the History of Computing archive" - Volume 14 , Issue 4 (October 1992), p.49-56 -


  • The Preparation of Programs for an Electronic Digital Computer by Maurice Wilkes, David Wheeler, and Stanley Gill; (original 1951); reprinted with new introduction by Martin Campbell-Kelly; 198 pp.; illus; biblio; bios; index; ISBN 0-262-23118-2. Available through Charles Babbage Institute
  • Automatic Digital Computers. John Wiley & Sons, New York, 1956, 305 pages, QA76.W5 1956.
  • A Short Introduction to Numerical Analysis. Cambridge University Press, 1966, reprinted 1971. ISBN 0-521-09412-7 paperack; ISBN 0-521-06806-1 clothbound.
  • Time-sharing Computer Systems. Elsevier, 1975. ISBN 0-444-19525-4
  • Memoirs of a Computer Pioneer. The MIT Press. 1985. ISBN 0-262-23122-0

External links



Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

One cannot help being struck by the power of the computer to bind together, in a genuine community of interest, people whose motivations differ widely.

Maurice Vincent Wilkes (born June 26, 1913, in Dudley, Staffordshire, England) is a pioneering British computer scientist and winner of the 1967 Turing Award. He developed the first stored-program computer in 1949, and invented the concept of microprogramming in 1951. He is also credited with originating the fundamental software concepts of symbolic labels, macros, and subroutine libraries.



  • I well remember when this realization first came on me with full force. The EDSAC was on the top floor of the building and the tape-punching and editing equipment one floor below. [...] It was on one of my journeys between the EDSAC room and the punching equipment that "hesitating at the angles of stairs" the realization came over me with full force that a good part of the remainder of my life was going to be spent in finding errors in my own programs.
    • Memoirs of a Computer Pioneer, MIT Press, 1985, p. 145
  • Since 1954, the raw speed of computers, as measured by the time it takes to do an addition, increased by a factor of 10,000. That means an algorithm that once took 10 minutes to perform can now be done 15 times a second. Students sometimes ask my advice on how to get rich. The best advice I can give them is to dig up some old algorithm that once took forever, program it for a modern workstation, form a startup to market it and then get rich.
    • "A Half Century of Surprises", in Talking Back to the Machine: Computers and Human Aspiration‎, Ed. Peter J. Denning, Springer, 1999, ISBN 0387984135, p. 112

"Computers Then and Now" (1968)

1967 Turing Award lecture[1], Journal of the ACM 15 (1), January 1968, pp. 1-7

  • A source of strength in the early days was that groups in various parts of the world were prepared to construct experimental computers without necessarily intending them to be the prototype for serial production. As a result, there became available a body of knowledge about what would work and what would not work.
    • Sect. 1: Pioneering Days
  • Much of the early engineering development of digital computers was done in universities. A few years ago, the view was commonly expressed that universities had played their part in computer design, and that the matter could now safely be left to industry. [...] Apart from the obvious functions of keeping in the public domain material that might otherwise be hidden, universities can make a special contribution by reason of their freedom from commercial considerations, including freedom from the need to follow the fashion.
    • Sect. 1: Pioneering Days
  • In the judgment of design engineers, the ordinary means of communicating with a computer are entirely inadequate. [...] Graphical communication in some form or other is of vital importance in engineering as that subject is now conducted; we must either provide the capability in our computer systems, or take on the impossible task of training up a future race of engineers conditioned to think in a different way.
    • Sect. 4: Design and Assembly
  • The artificial intelligence approach may not be altogether the right one to make to the problem of designing automatic assembly devices. Animals and machines are constructed from entirely different materials and on quite different principles. When engineers have tried to draw inspiration from a study of the way animals work they have usually been misled; the history of early attempts to construct flying machines with flapping wings illustrates this very clearly.
    • Sect. 4: Design and Assembly
  • Surveying the shifts of interest among computer scientists and the ever-expanding family of those who depend on computers for their work, one cannot help being struck by the power of the computer to bind together, in a genuine community of interest, people whose motivations differ widely.
    • Sect. 6: Summary


  • As soon as we started programming, 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 realized that a large part of my life from then on was going to be spent in finding mistakes in my own programs.

Quotes about Maurice Wilkes

  • Professor Wilkes is best known as the builder and designer of the EDSAC, the first computer with an internally stored program. Built in 1949, the EDSAC used a mercury delay line memory. He is also known as the author, with Wheeler and Gill, of a volume on "Preparation of Programs for Electronic Digital Computers" in 1951, in which program libraries were effectively introduced.

External links

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