Oral history of British science

Hopper, Andy (Part 1 of 7). An Oral History of British Science

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  • Subjects

    Computer Hardware; Electronics

  • Recording date


  • Recording locations

    Interviewee's office, Cambridge

  • Interviewees

    Hopper, Andy, 1953- (speaker, male)

  • Interviewers

    Lean, Thomas (speaker, male)

  • Abstract

    Part 1: Remarks on background: born in Warsaw, Poland, 1953; moved to UK 1964 after his parents divorced and mother remarried to [William] Hopper [WH] in 1963; AH still speaking Polish [mic noise] but with an old vocabulary; memories of childhood in Poland, mother, not many of father, grandparents, School Number 85; strong visual and geographical memory rather than emotional. [04:45] Description of Warsaw home and neighbourhood: faculty accommodation for the School of Planning and Statistics, now Warsaw Business School, kindergarten downstairs, garden; near to university, military base and a notorious prison; history of neighbourhood, used by the Germans during war and escaped worst damage of Warsaw Uprising; [08:30] first television; Comments about stepfather, WH: Englishman of Northern Irish descent, probably born in Hornchurch; businessman who traded in fruit and veg, business in Spitalfields, traded with Poland; met AH's mother at a hotel where she worked in Poland; gave AH gifts, such as television and train sets; widower, with two grown up daughters; language difficulties with AH's grandparents; WH's teetotalism; AH's vague memories of his father; grandparents approving of WH; death of WH in 1978; WH's role as AH father figure. [15:10] Further comments on WH: inspired confidence, founder of Alcoholics Anonymous in the UK, successful businessman. Remarks on mother: strong minded Polish woman; academic context, university educated at Planning and Statistic University. Remarks on stepfather: businessman, office on Brick Lane, near Spitalfields Market, B&H - Butcher and Hopper, business eventually sold to Guinness Mahon when AH left for University. [20:25] Remarks on: stepfather's influence on AH in familiarising him with business context; Polish background taking AH out of British class system; WH's background, father emigrated from Portrush in Northern Ireland to East End of London. [22:55] Remarks on Mother: socialist outlook, involved in Warsaw Uprising, saw postwar Poland's socialist reconstruction as a success, Polish affinity for Britain due to war. Remarks on politics: not a major part in his upbringing, dispute between his father and mother, political situation in late 50s Poland compared to middle class culture in the UK; difficulties returning to Poland while growing up; not knowing his real father; not being able to visit Poland for family funerals. [29:37] Further comments on mother: Married three times, AH's father, William Hopper, Polish-Canadian named Proust Jankowsky, with the collusion of the wider Polish community; lived in Canada c.1980 to 1998 when they returned to Poland where Jankowsky died in 2003; born 1928, aged 82; opinionated; valued her degree highly; came from a well-off family with printing business but lost everything in the war; father had an administrative job in church; [mic crackle] messenger in the Warsaw uprising. Remarks on uncle's experience of the war; WH and AH not letting their children play with military toys. [35:55] Comments linking childhood train set, Scalextric and electronics sets to his current work. Comments about his school education: arrived in the UK unable to speak English, started local primary school in 1964, couldn't do the 11 plus, turned down from Latymer and Westminster schools, WH getting him a place at Quintin Grammar School in St John’s Wood, effect of move from Poland, being ridiculed in class as he was still reading simple books like Enid Blyton. [40:00] Short story about WH offering him financial incentives for doing well at school and his subsequent success for a time. Remarks on family not being knowledgeable about the education system at the time, going for quantity not quality with O levels, being excluded from classes like history in favour of woodwork, not doing very well, school changing into a comprehensive. [43:19] Remarks on: wanting to go to university; doing A-levels in pure maths, applied maths and physics, and Polish in a college in Ealing; educational psychologist tests after disagreements with school, which suggested that he would be unable to even do an HND; lively social life, visiting Soho and earning money flyering; A-level results of 2 Cs and a D. Comments on choosing to study computers at university: advise from family friend that computers was a good line, wanting to go to university, it being quite unusual for people in his school class to go to university, attitudes and cultural diversity at school, change to comprehensive, disagreements with headmaster. [48:25] Comments on: being advised that university was not out of the question, psychologist's report not taking his Polish background into account, leaving him with a lasting suspicion of tests; favourite subjects at school, Geography, maths and physics; [mic noise] may have enjoyed other subjects but pushed to do certain ones; doing woodwork instead of history; still enjoying mechanical tasks. [52:14] Reflections on academic success, but with emphasis on breadth of life experience unrestricted by subject disciplines and related to different people, contexts, communities and travel, such as to Iran and Brazil as a student; children going to local comprehensive school; Jewish friends; school friends from different communities, driving to Iran, flying himself around the world; contrasts wider experience with narrower perspective on transition from school to university. [57:03] Comments on David Aspinall and story about admission to university: Applied to Manchester, Lancaster and Swansea Universities, didn't get the required A level grades but David Aspinall admitted him to Swansea. Remarks on: headmaster, Mr Holt; being caned; reflections on education; school in Poland and importance of family culture and educational achievement in the reconstruction of post-war Poland in his background; competitive parents and differences between UK and Poland in this respect. [1:03:43] Remarks on grandparents, looking after him while his mother worked in a hotel, taking him out on weekends. Remarks on childhood entertainments: living in a flat in Putney an hour from school, watching TV, playing with train set going out while older. Remarks on his reading habits being wrecked by change from Poland to UK, but being a great absorber of information more broadly, not reading for its literary merits, enjoying talking books. [1:07:44] Remarks on differences between living in Britain and Poland: not really noticing, visiting grandparents, being further from friends, restricted his horizons in some ways but not really noticing at the time. Comments on teenage years: going out on the town, being more savvy than than others when he arrived in Swansea, being in a band, visiting London clubs, girlfriends; owned a Triumph Herald; lived an unsheltered life; spring cleaned to earn money for a car; London still being familiar. Remarks on: girlfriends, being in an all boy’s school, visiting Swiss Cottage pubs [mic noise]; Swansea and visiting a night club in Porthcawl; breadth of life experience. Short discussion of interview. [1:14:05] Remarks: on science at school, liking chemistry experiments, varying success at maths, physics; building a model hovercraft, and driving it on Wimbledon common pond; building gliders. [1:17:25] Summarises his outlook on liking practical things throughout his life, linking electric train sets to flying round the world in his aeroplane. Short story about his start in computers: idea suggested by family friend, learning the difference between software and hardware on the train to his Manchester interview from a magazine in 1971. [1:19:18] Remarks on being grateful to David Aspinall, Maurice Wilkes and David Wheeler. Further comments on David Aspinall, originally from Manchester University, and his computer technology course at Swansea: course content combining electronics hardware, computer science and economics and business studies; mentions reading Lipsey on economics and doing accountancy exams; match of course with his later work and computing in the wider world; gaining confidence from knowing about economics and accountancy; getting a first. [1:22:58] Remarks on: David Aspinall; Swansea Universty; [mic crackle]; lively social life; drinking; having a good tutor, Erik Dagless; AH's colleague Robin Milner who was also at Swansea; having an honorary fellowship from Swansea; practical classes and final year project; using microprocessors in classes; [1:27:18] Further comments on microprocessors in practicals c.1974: TI [Texas Instruments] TTL book, equipment built by PhD students, compilers available, programming in POP-2, buying a TI-10 calculator. Remarks on social life at University, girlfriend; visiting Iran and Brazil, skiing, beaches. [1:29:53] Further remarks on practical classes at Swansea, using a rack and board microcomputer system, writing multi-threaded programs. Remarks on recognising that there should be an indivisible test and set instruction as part of a basic instruction set for multiprocessors, a line of work that went into his PhD and then into Acorn. Remarks on having a systems perspective, having done theoretical work as an undergraduate, including reading papers by Antony Hoare, doing pragmatic rather than fundamental programming, being able to solder and build hardware himself then produce code to run it. Remarks on learning electronics with the aid of Philips kit as a child, building a radio, using TI chips, arriving at Cambridge University as a PhD student, at a time between the work on the CAP computer and Cambridge Ring and most others were working on software. [1:34:38] Remarks on: starting work at Cambridge on a bench with the technicians; not programming for fun but doing much programming in work; origins of Cambridge Ring, BBC Micro and Virata microchips; having a systems perspective, similar to Maurice Wilkes; position of his work in applied computing, between theoretical computing and fundamental computer electronics. [1:38:30] Story about starting at Cambridge University: Remarks on being in the ski team at Swansea University, going on ski trips to the Brecon Beacons, Scotland and the Alps, wanting to find a university near mountains, speaking some French, applying to Grenoble University and the Ecole Polytechnique in Lausanne. Remarks on getting a first, not hearing back, being advised by David Aspinall to talk to David Wheeler at Cambridge, visiting Cambridge with school friends in his Fiat. Short story about being interviewed by Roger Needham and Maurice Wilkes, who offered him a funded place, running the paperwork between Swansea and Cambridge, [short break due to phone, mic noise]. [1:43:47] Further remarks on starting Cambridge: getting a place partly due to Aspinall's recommendation and Cambridge having someone drop out leaving a grant spare, being on a university grants committee later, being accepted by other Universities. Remarks on funding for his undergraduate degree: student grant, money from parents, stepfather giving him a smart Fiat to replace the Triumph Herald, which he took to Iran. Remarks on stepfather selling his business about the time AH became a PhD student and gifting him enough money for a flat and a Porsche 911, as well as making investments for his children.

  • Description

    Life story interview with Professor Andy Hopper CBE FREng FRS, Professor of Computer Technology at the University of Cambridge, co-founder of Acorn.

  • Related transcripts

    Professor Andy Hopper 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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