Maurice Wilkes

Maurice Wilkes bigraphy, stories - British computer scientist

Maurice Wilkes : biography

26 June 1913 – 29 November 2010

Sir Maurice Vincent Wilkes FRS, FREng, DFBCS (26 June 1913 – 29 November 2010) was a British computer scientist credited with several important developments in computing. At the time of his death, Wilkes was an Emeritus Professor of the University of Cambridge. He received a number of distinctions: he was a knight bachelor, Distinguished Fellow of the British Computer Society, a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering and a Fellow of the Royal Society. Biography of Maurice Wilkes Obituary in The Guardian Obituary in The Independent Obituary in The TelegraphAutomatic Digital Computers. John Wiley & Sons, New York, 1956, 305 pages, QA76.W5 1956.

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).

The Cambridge laboratory initially had many different computing devices, including a differential analyser. One day Leslie Comrie visited Wilkes and lent him 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 travelled 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.

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 University of Manchester Computer Inaugural Conference in 1951, then published in expanded form in IEEE Spectrum in 1955. This concept was implemented for the first time 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. The next computer for his laboratory was the Titan, a joint venture with Ferranti Ltd begun in 1963. 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.