Oral history of British science

Brooker, Tony (Part 5 of 14). An Oral History of British Science.

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  • Subjects

    Computer Software

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  • Recording locations

    Interviewee's holiday home, Hexham

  • Interviewees

    Brooker, Ralph Anthony, 1925- (speaker, male)

  • Interviewers

    Lean, Thomas (speaker, male)

  • Abstract

    Part 5: Remarks on undergraduate degree in mathematics at Imperial collage: HL, numerical mathematics course based on 'Calculus of Variations', and war time radio course. Remarks on end of war leaving few employment openings in establishments such as RAE, and being encouraged by SM to start postgraduate work in chemical technology department under GF, who was on the 1922 Everest Expedition and helped plan the bombing of Hamburg for the Ministry of Supply. Remarks on feelings about Hiroshima bombing [05:20]. Comments on electron diffraction. Remarks on getting mathematics graduates to work in a laboratory being a daft idea. Remarks on discovering a technique for getting brilliant patterns using electron diffraction. Description of apparatus used in electron diffraction. Mentions having to produce a report for his DSIR funding. Comments on boating on the Thames. Remarks on not submitting his dissertation for a diploma because he had a low opinion of himself. [11:50] Remarks on becoming a mathematics lecturer and being introduced to computing. Remarks on being comfortable with relays but not electronic valves, knowing about ENIAC but not Colossus computers at Bletchley. Remarks on George Barnard's [GB] ideas for building computing devices around Brunsviga and Munroe calculators. [15:12] Remarks on information available on stored program computers, Andrew Donald Booth [ADB] at Birkbeck College, Bell Telephone Laboratory. Comments on building an adder and multiplier based on Post Office relays, speed of units. Description of working of relay adder and problem of carry digit. [20:45] Story about discovering a correlation coefficient circuit plan with SM in the library, its use in building a faster adder with instantaneous carry, similarities to ADB's work, application in a binary computer at Farnborough and decimal computer at Bell Telephones. Short story about surprising Tom Kilburn [TK] and Dai Edwards with the idea over lunch in 1959, rediscovering it in the 'Bell Telephone Journal', its use in Atlas computer. [28:42] Remarks on buying relays from war surplus shops in Tottenham Court Road and his grant. Remarks on Ken Tocher [KT], later professor at Southampton, continuing his work on the relay machine despite its obsolescence with SM when he left. Remarks on time at Imperial. [33:05] Mentions move to work for Maurice Wilkes [MW] and getting interested in programming. [mic noise] Describes how using relays was like playing with Meccano and their uses in other technologies. Mentions people not knowing about valves at Bletchley. Remarks on having heard about Bletchley Park at war's end but informed by GF and SC that there were no jobs there, knowing people who worked at Bletchley later. Story about trouble remembering names and forgetting the name of Charles Kennedy. [38:37] [short pause] Further remarks on knowledge of Bletchley Park, job situation at end of war. Comments on first job after move to Cambridge running differential analyser, designed by Vannevar Bush and built by Douglas Hartree, its use by a mechanical engineering postgraduate. Remarks on MW wanting to replace differential analyser with EDSAC computer and EDSAC's status as first practical computer compared to experimental Manchester computer. [44:28] Remarks on starting work as a programmer with David Wheeler [DW] as mentor. Detailed technical comments on using DW's initial orders operating system, with short comparison to Manchester Computer programming and comments on instructions. [50:00] Remarks on EDSAC performance, use of acoustic delay line storage, higher speed of Manchester computer thanks to random access store, mentions similarity with earlier work on electron diffraction. Comments on operation of DW's initial orders with Teletype tape and how Initial Orders were hard-wired on a rotary switch. [55:57] Comments on working with DW on numerical analysis problems and more efficient programming methods, such as interpreted programs. Detailed comments on development of subroutines by DW and Stanley Gill with support of MW eventually leading to higher level languages. [1:03:00] Remarks on pace of development of computing languages, such as ALGOL 58 and 68. Remarks on DW as a mentor and anecdote about sneaking into Trinity College after hours. Comments on visiting Cambridge whilst at Imperial to learn about Siemens relays, 1949 conference, and being recruited by MW. Mentions rebuilding adder with Siemens high-speed relays. [1:09:48] Remarks on how he built the relay unit, the limited help of the mechanical workshop, buying materials government surplus from Tottenham Court Road. Remarks on similarity of programming to Meccano and the way amino acids build up into DNA [mic noise]. Remarks on not having the expertise to work with valves. [1:14:25] Story about being sent to Manchester by MW while on a climbing trip to Snowdonia, with reference to competition between research teams, meeting TK and Alan Turing [AT], and becoming a lecturer at Manchester after an interview with F.C. Williams. [FCW] [mic noise] [1:18:24] Comments on his position at Manchester in assisting users, temperament of AT, difficulties of programming the Manchester computer, his development of a more practical programming system, culminating in Atlas 1 Autocode. [1:21:33] Detailed comments on improving programming on the Ferranti Mark 1 by disguising computer structure to user, with reference to 'Resurrection' article, problems of floating point numbers, making memory appear to be one level store rather than separate random access memory and backing store, later work of Derrick Morris [mic noise] [1:28:25] Comments on rivalry between Cambridge, Manchester and National Physical Laboratory, the differences between their machines' memory technologies, work of FCW and TK on cathode ray tube memory, with reference to MW and AT's time at Cambridge between the NPL and Manchester[mic noise] [1:31:25] Remarks on 1949 Cambridge computer conference and it's emphasis on engineering. Further Remarks on MW and AT. Remarks on his visit to Manchester before Ferranti Mark 1 arrival, probably not seeing the Baby computer, reliability problems with computers. Further remarks on academic rivalry: Crick, Watson and Rosalind Franklin's work on DNA; KT criticism of MW's conservatism in his work. [1:38:13] Story about unsuccessfully contacting ADB for information, TB's Fiancé knowing ADB's assistant Kathleen Britten [TB says Catherine] Britain, before ADB went to Saskatoon, Canada. Remarks on limited literature available while he was building relay computer, discovery with SM of the Bell Laboratory plans left by Farnborough at an exhibition in the Huxley Building at Imperial, later realising what it did and finding published details. Mentions not knowing much more about the circuit but recommends Brian Randell at Newcastle, who taught his son, as a source of answers. [mic noise] Remarks on having forgotten how a differential analyser works, Vannevar Bush, transfer of Douglas Hartree's analyser to the Royal Military Collage of Science Shrivenham. Mentions female assistant on analyser and being given a c.1950 photograph of the Cambridge computing team by Donald Hunter.

  • Description

    Life story interview with computer scientist Tony Brooker

  • Related transcripts

    Tony Brooker interviewed by Tom Lean: full transcript of the interview

  • Related links

    Visit this interviewee's page on the 'Voices of Science' web resource

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