Oral history of British science
Furber, Steve (Part 1 of 5)
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Interviewee's office, University of Manchester
Furber, Steve, 1953- (speaker, male)
Lean, Thomas (speaker, male)
Part 1 [1:42:22] [Interview One: 11 June 2012] Remarks introducing self: currently Professor of Computer Science at University of Manchester; born in Manchester, grew up in Marple with parents; attended Rose Hill Primary and Manchester Grammar School; undergraduate, PhD, and research fellow at University of Cambridge; joined Acorn Computers in 1981; moved to Manchester in 1990. [01:25] Remarks on childhood: born March 21st 1953, Withington Hospital; parental home in Old Trafford; father, a heat transfer engineer at Manchester College of Science and Technology, later UMIST, before joining The Nuclear Power Group [TNPG] in late 1950s; mother, trained as physiotherapist, through which she met SF father, retrained as maths teacher. [03:20] Comments on father Benjamin Neil Furber: anecdote about uses of fist and second names by mother, colleagues and family; family background, SF grandfather a cheese factor; careful with money; physically similar to SF; hobbies maintaining cars, building furniture; worked long hours, strict but fun; tennis player; supportive of SF and his career choices; PhD from Manchester Tech; anecdote about SF temporary jobs with father's colleague Jim Davidson at TNPG. [10:50] Remarks on mother Margaret; from Yorkshire; family background in Hebden Bridge; met father in Derby, where father worked at Rolls Royce; educational aspirations frustrated by finances; sister Enid, brother who died in infancy; keen school hockey player; enjoyed walking in Peek district until 80s; dedicated and loving to children, in a Yorkshire way. [0:16:30] Remarks on parents: strong views, argued little; mother's Labour and father's Liberal political alignment; inherited traits from parents in SF; parents singing in church choir; parent's religious outlook, Congregational Church and United Reformed Church; SF church attendance as child and adult, Crusader Class in teens; SF inherited traits, father's approach on logical argument, interest in energy industry; SF sisters Anne and Mary. [23:40] Remarks on growing up on Clifton Drive in Marple: playing with go-carts on the hill; description of family home, designed by parents, shared with grandmother who had the only television in the house, 1950s legislation governing size of house. [27:50] Remarks on television: watched with grandmother; SF allowed to watch a limited amount of TV; anecdote about watching Gerry Anderson's 'Fireball XL5' in black and white but remembering it in colour; description of typical 'Fireball XL5' events and why SF enjoyed it. [33:00] Remarks on: little other technology around house; SF interest in model aircraft and radio controlled aircraft. [34:02] Discussion about Meccano: inherited from father, building vehicles and gear boxes, building Lythgeuse figure machine to help mother's maths teaching, limitations of Meccano, use of Meccano in 1930s Differential Analyser. [38:47] Remarks on early hobbies: interest in model aircraft, building balsa wood planes and a hovercraft; running aircraft engines; appeal of flying, gliding as a student, model aircraft flying after university at Impington Village College; limitations of early aircraft radio control; reading, 'Biggles'; enjoying making things, Airfix kits, model railway; anecdote about buying Scaletrix for daughter; tree climbing. [44:25] Remarks on: limited SF memory of early years; family holidays at Aberdaron in North Wales; cycling. [46:25] Remarks on Rose Hill County Primary School in Marple: walk to school; exams for grammar school; SF project on aeroplanes in last year at primary school and lecture on Joukowsky transformations at grammar school. [49:40] Comments on Manchester Grammar School [MGS]: SF going through school a year ahead of his age, winning scholarship to Cambridge at 16 but taking 18 months between end of school and starting university; anecdote about SF being a prefect and the smallest pupil in his year; struggling with Latin and History but excelling at Maths; description of MGS, most academic boys school in Manchester, class and stream arrangements. [54:25] Discussion about SF enjoying the power of maths: example of predicting aeroplane wing behaviour; current activities using computers to model brain activity; importance of understanding mathematics and underlying theory to development of engineering, such as in microchips; SF interest in applied maths, Cambridge mix of applied and theoretical maths. [1:01:40] Remarks on SF direction after school: MGS interest in getting pupils to Oxbridge; anecdote about physics teacher suggesting he do physics at university; SF mathematical bent; parental viewpoint on SF educational direction; anecdote about how MGS assigned pupils to Oxbridge colleges; SF taking time off after school to work for The Nuclear Power Group [TNPG] and tour of North America, with term at McGill University and working at a summer camp in Meadville, USA; SF meeting people in his year at Cambridge previously whilst on the British Mathematical Olympiad team.[1:07:25] Remarks on 1970 Mathematical Olympiad in Hungary: other team members all going to Cambridge; holiday with exams; SF winning bronze medal; drabness of Budapest; contest at Keszthely; meeting future Cambridge contemporaries, such as John Proctor, now a theologian. [1:11:15] Further remarks on school: enthusiastic head of maths 'Killer' Maugham; maths teacher 'Smiggy'; enthusiastic physics teacher Alec Robinson, whose demonstrations were explosively impressive; Mr Moffat who helped SF with electronics; anecdote about sixth form maths teachers, David 'Harpic' Coply's fascinating stories about developing the cavity magnetron during the war; anecdote about dozing during a maths class; limited interest in maths outside school, aerodynamics, Martin Gardner columns in 'Scientific American'; recently enjoying working on a research paper with a mathematician on a neural network memory. [1:18:55] Description of SF when he left school. [1:20:55] Comments on 9 months working at TPNG: father organising job in maths group; writing programs on IBM360 to compute confluent geometric functions; working with Jim Davidson and other professional mathematicians; later post-graduation work at Risley; work on thermal conductivity of fibrous insulation, anecdote about units being used for calculations; interesting seeing how maths was useful; good work experience for SF; [1:25:40] early electronic calculators compared to electro-mechanical calculators; using mainframe computer. [1:27:15] Story about SF recently meeting the teacher who introduced computing to MGS whilst SF was a pupil at Royal Society panel on computing in schools; details of MGS school computing classes, with programs sent down to Imperial College; SF playing with digital circuits at home. [1:28:40] Remarks on TPNG: limited guidance in how to use TPNG computer; SF summer jobs at IBM Sale, learning a different language each year; SF comparisons with teaching programming today and his early experiences; value of TNPG experiences to SF; TPNG offices at Radbrook Hall, later merger to form National Nuclear Corporation and moved to Risley; SF travelling to TPNG with father; enjoyments at TPNG; 1000 page volume on mathematical functions given to him when he finished. [1:34:00] Remarks on building electronics in his teens: modifying radio control for plane; circuit construction kit with valves; building electronic audio equipment at university, 741 Op-Amp. [1:35:45] Remarks on music: music when he was growing up, having a poor ear for music; father's purchase of guitar; sisters' musical skills; SF learning guitar; playing with 20th Century Group at Cambridge, where he met his wife; playing bass for church group; SF technically competent but without a good ear; being a member of the rock generation, Moody Blues, Justin Haywood, Dire Straits, Eric Clapton, Queen. [1:41:00] Remarks on physics teacher at school helping him with electronics, anecdote about Sinclair amplifiers of 1960s not working.
Interview with computer scientist, Steve Furber