Tom Kilburn

Last updated

Tom Kilburn

Tom kilburn.jpg
Tom Kilburn
Born(1921-08-11)11 August 1921
Dewsbury, Yorkshire, England
Died17 January 2001(2001-01-17) (aged 79)
Manchester, England
Education Wheelwright Grammar School for Boys
Alma mater
Known for
Irene Marsden
(m. 1943)
Children2 [1]
Scientific career
Thesis A storage system for use with binary digital computing machines  (1948)
Doctoral advisor Frederic Calland Williams

Tom Kilburn CBE FRS (11 August 1921 – 17 January 2001) was an English mathematician and computer scientist. [1] [2] Over his 30-year career, he was involved in the development of five computers of great historical significance. With Freddie Williams he worked on the Williams–Kilburn tube and the world's first electronic stored-program computer, the Manchester Baby, while working at the University of Manchester. His work propelled Manchester and Britain into the forefront of the emerging field of computer science. [3] [4] [5]


A graduate of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, Kilburn worked on radar at the Telecommunications Research Establishment (TRE) in Malvern under Frederic Calland Williams during the Second World War. After the war ended, he was recruited by Williams to work on the development of computers at the University of Manchester. He led the development of a succession of innovative Manchester computers that incorporated a host of ground-breaking innovations and developments, including the Ferranti Mark 1, the world's first commercial computer, and the Atlas, one of the first time-sharing multiprocessing computers that incorporated job scheduling, spooling, interrupts, instruction pipelining and paging. [6]

Early life and education

Tom Kilburn was born in Earlseaton near Dewsbury, Yorkshire, on 11 August 1921, [7] the only son of John William Kilburn, a wool mill clerk who later became a company secretary, and his wife, Ivy Mortimer. From 1932 to 1940, [8] he attended the Wheelwright Grammar School for Boys, where the headmaster encouraged his aptitude for mathematics. [9] He also played sports, notably running. [8]

In 1940, Kilburn entered Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, with a state scholarship, a county major scholarship, and a minor open scholarship, [8] where he studied mathematics. Although many university dons were absent performing war work at places like Bletchley Park, the University of Cambridge maintained a vigorous mathematical community, and Kilburn became the Sidney Sussex College representative in the New Pythagoreans, a clique with the Cambridge University Mathematical Society that also numbered Gordon Welchman and Geoff Tootill among its members. Due to the outbreak of the Second World War, courses were compressed to two years, and he graduated in 1942 with First Class Honours in Part I of the Mathematical Tripos and preliminary examinations for Part II. [9]

Career and research

On graduation, Kilburn was recruited by C.P. Snow. [10] He was given a quick course in electronics, and was posted to the Telecommunications Research Establishment (TRE) in Malvern, where he worked on radar in Group 19 under Frederic Calland Williams. The group was responsible for designing and debugging electronic circuitry. Although Williams was initially disappointed at being given someone with so little practical experience, Kilburn became a valued member of the team. [9] On 14 August 1943, he married Irene Marsden, a shop assistant. They went on to raise a son, John, and a daughter, Anne. [8]

Kilburn's wartime work inspired his enthusiasm for some form of electronic computer. The principal technical barrier to such a development at that time was the lack of any practical means of storage for data and instructions. In July 1946, Kilburn and Williams collaboratively developed a storage device based on a cathode ray tube (CRT) called the Williams–Kilburn tube. A patent was filed in 1946. [11] Initially they used it to store a single bit. The CRT image soon faded, so they devised a scheme by which it was read and refreshed continually, effectively making the data storage permanent. By December 1947, they were able to store 2,048 bits on one 6-inch (150 mm) diameter CRT. [12] [13]

In December 1946, Williams took up the Edward Stocks Massey Chair of Electrotechnics at the University of Manchester, and recruited Kilburn on secondment from Malvern. [9] The two developed their storage technology and, in 1948, Kilburn put it to a practical test in constructing the Manchester Baby, which became the first stored-program computer to run a program, on 21 June 1948. [8] He received the degree of PhD in 1948 for his work at Manchester, writing his thesis on A storage system for use with binary digital computing machines under Williams's supervision. [14]

Manchester computers

Kilburn anticipated a return to Malvern but Williams persuaded him to stay to work on the university's collaborative project developing the Ferranti Mark 1, the world's first commercial computer. [15] [16] [17] Max Newman withdrew from the project, believing that the development of computers required engineers and not mathematicians at this point, but Williams preferred to return to electrotechnics, leaving Kilburn in charge. [9] He was assisted by Alan Turing, who arrived at Manchester in 1948. [12] [18] The Mark I incorporated innovations such as index registers, and combined CRTs with magnetic drum storage. [8] [19] Nine Mark I computers were sold by between 1951 and 1957. [9]

Replica of the Baby at the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester SSEM Manchester museum.jpg
Replica of the Baby at the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester

Over the next three decades, Kilburn led the development of a succession of innovative Manchester computers. [15] The first, commenced in 1951, was a development of the Mark I known as the megacycle machine or Meg, that replaced the vacuum tube diodes with solid state ones. This permitted an order of magnitude increase in the clock rate. To add further speed, Kilburn provided for 10-bit parallel CRT memory. [9] It was also one of the first computers, if not the first, to have floating point arithmetic. [8] Meg operated for the first time in 1954, and nineteen were sold by Ferranti under the name 'Mercury', six of them to customers overseas. [9]

While Kilburn led one design team working on Meg, he led another with Dick Grimsdale and Douglas Webb, on a research project examining what he believed would be the next step forward in computer design: the use of transistors. The 48-bit machine they completed in November 1953 was the world's first transistor computer, with 550 diodes and 92 transistors, and was manufactured by STC. An improved version completed in April 1955 had 1,300 diodes and 200 transistors, and was sold by Metropolitan-Vickers as the Metrovick 950. [9]

Kilburn's next project, known as Atlas, aimed to create a fast computer by making maximum use of existing and new technologies. The project was backed by Ferranti and a £300,000 grant from the National Research Development Corporation. [9] It incorporated numerous technologies and techniques such as "multiprogramming, job scheduling, spooling, interrupts, pipelining, interleaved storage, autonomous transfer units, virtual storage and paging – though none of these techniques had been invented when the project started in 1956." [9] Other innovations included read only memory and a compiler-compiler. [20] The greatest innovation was virtual memory, which allowed the drum storage to be treated as if it were core. [21] [22] Three of them were built, and installed at Manchester University, the University of London and the Rutherford Laboratory. [9]

The Kilburn Building, home of the Department of Computer Science at the University of Manchester is named in honour of Tom Kilburn. Manchester Kilburn Building.jpg
The Kilburn Building, home of the Department of Computer Science at the University of Manchester is named in honour of Tom Kilburn.

Kilburn became a professor of computing engineering in the Department of Electrical Engineering at Manchester in 1960. He was instrumental in forming the Department of Computer Science in 1964, becoming the first head of the department, and served as Dean of the Faculty of Science from 1970 to 1972, and pro-vice-chancellor of the university from 1976 to 1979. [9] His final computer project was the MU5, which was designed to facilitate the running of programs in high-level programming languages. An analysis of code written for the Atlas gave an insight into the frequency of different operands and control structures. The project was assisted by a £630,000 Science Research Council (SRC) grant awarded over five-years. The design heavily influenced the successful ICL 2900 Series. [9] [20]

Awards and honours

Over the years, Kilburn received numerous awards and accolades. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS) in 1965, [23] a Distinguished Fellow of the British Computer Society in 1974 [24] and a fellow of the Computer History Museum "for his contributions to early computer design including random access digital storage, virtual memory and multiprogramming" in 2000. [25] He was created a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1973, [26] and was awarded an honorary doctorate of science from the University of Bath in 1979. [27]

Memorial plaque commemorating Kilburn Kilburn Williams Plaque cropped.jpg
Memorial plaque commemorating Kilburn

Kilburn received the IEEE Computer Society W. Wallace McDowell Award in 1971 "for his achievement in designing and building some of the first – as well as some of the most powerful – computers in the world", [28] the British Computer Society IT Award in 1973, [29] the Royal Medal of the Royal Society, in 1978, [30] the IEEE Computer Society Computer Pioneer Award in 1982, [31] the Eckert-Mauchly Award in 1983, [32] and the Mountbatten Medal. 1997. [33] A building at the University of Manchester, which houses the Department of Computer Science, is named "The Kilburn Building" in his honour. [34] [35] His nomination for the Royal Society reads:

Professor of Computer Engineering in the University of Manchester. He was a pioneer in the engineering realisation of the general purpose electronic digital computer and has made major contributions to the rapid rate of development that has occurred in this field over the past 15 years. His contributions cover the whole range from overall system design to the invention of high speed circuits to meet particular needs. His latest machine, 'Atlas' may well be the most advanced machine currently under construction anywhere in the World. [30]

Personal life

Kilburn married Irene Marsden in 1943 and had two children, one daughter and one son. [1] Kilburn habitually holidayed with his family in Blackpool but was always back in time for Manchester United F.C.'s first match of the football season. He claimed that watching Manchester United win the 1968 European Cup Final at Wembley stadium was the best day of his life. [8] He took early retirement in 1981 to care for his ailing wife, [12] who was suffering from chronic bronchitis, but she died on 3 August 1981, two weeks before his retirement. [8] [9] [1]

After his wife's death, Kilburn lived alone in the modest house they had shared in Manchester. He did not own a personal computer. [12] In 1998 he unveiled a fully functional replica of the Manchester Baby at the Manchester Museum of Science and Industry. [12] He died at Trafford General Hospital in Davyhulme of pneumonia following abdominal surgery on 17 January 2001. [8]

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">History of computing hardware</span> From early calculation aids to modern day computers

The history of computing hardware covers the developments from early simple devices to aid calculation to modern day computers.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Max Newman</span> English mathematician

Maxwell Herman Alexander Newman, FRS,, generally known as Max Newman, was a British mathematician and codebreaker. His work in World War II led to the construction of Colossus, the world's first operational, programmable electronic computer, and he established the Royal Society Computing Machine Laboratory at the University of Manchester, which produced the world's first working, stored-program electronic computer in 1948, the Manchester Baby.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Williams tube</span> Early form of computer memory

The Williams tube, or the Williams–Kilburn tube named after inventors Freddie Williams and Tom Kilburn, is an early form of computer memory. It was the first random-access digital storage device, and was used successfully in several early computers.

A stored-program computer is a computer that stores program instructions in electronically or optically accessible memory. This contrasts with systems that stored the program instructions with plugboards or similar mechanisms.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">History of computing</span> Aspect of history

The history of computing is longer than the history of computing hardware and modern computing technology and includes the history of methods intended for pen and paper or for chalk and slate, with or without the aid of tables.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Department of Computer Science, University of Manchester</span>

The Department of Computer Science at the University of Manchester is the longest established department of Computer Science in the United Kingdom and one of the largest. It is located in the Kilburn Building on the Oxford Road and currently has over 800 students taking a wide range of undergraduate and postgraduate courses and 60 full-time academic staff.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Manchester Baby</span> First electronic stored-program computer, 1948

The Manchester Baby, also called the Small-Scale Experimental Machine (SSEM), was the first electronic stored-program computer. It was built at the University of Manchester by Frederic C. Williams, Tom Kilburn, and Geoff Tootill, and ran its first program on 21 June 1948.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Ferranti Mark 1</span> First commercial computer

The Ferranti Mark 1, also known as the Manchester Electronic Computer in its sales literature, and thus sometimes called the Manchester Ferranti, was produced by British electrical engineering firm Ferranti Ltd. It was the world's first commercially available electronic general-purpose stored program digital computer.

Sir Frederic Calland Williams,, known as F.C. Williams or Freddie Williams, was an English engineer, a pioneer in radar and computer technology.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Mary Lee Woods</span> British mathematician and computer programmer

Mary Lee Berners-Lee was an English mathematician and computer scientist who worked in a team that developed programs in the Department of Computer Science, University of Manchester Mark 1, Ferranti Mark 1 and Mark 1 Star computers. She was the mother of Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, and Mike Berners-Lee, an English researcher and writer on greenhouse gases.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Transistor computer</span> Computer built using discrete transistors

A transistor computer, now often called a second-generation computer, is a computer which uses discrete transistors instead of vacuum tubes. The first generation of electronic computers used vacuum tubes, which generated large amounts of heat, were bulky and unreliable. A second-generation computer, through the late 1950s and 1960s featured circuit boards filled with individual transistors and magnetic-core memory. These machines remained the mainstream design into the late 1960s, when integrated circuits started appearing and led to the third-generation computer.

Richard Lawrence Grimsdale was a British electrical engineer and computer pioneer who helped to design the world's first transistorised computer.

Geoff C. Tootill was an electronic engineer and computer scientist who worked in the Electrical Engineering Department at the University of Manchester with Freddie Williams and Tom Kilburn developing the Manchester Baby, "the world's first wholly electronic stored-program computer".

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Atlas (computer)</span> Supercomputer of the 1960s

The Atlas Computer was one of the world's first supercomputers, in use from 1962 to 1972. Atlas' capacity promoted the saying that when it went offline, half of the United Kingdom's computer capacity was lost. It is notable for being the first machine with virtual memory using paging techniques; this approach quickly spread, and is now ubiquitous.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Manchester computers</span> Series of stored-program electronic computers

The Manchester computers were an innovative series of stored-program electronic computers developed during the 30-year period between 1947 and 1977 by a small team at the University of Manchester, under the leadership of Tom Kilburn. They included the world's first stored-program computer, the world's first transistorised computer, and what was the world's fastest computer at the time of its inauguration in 1962.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Harwell CADET</span> First fully transistorised computer in Europe

The Harwell CADET was the first fully transistorised computer in Europe, and may have been the first fully transistorised computer in the world.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Manchester Mark 1</span> British stored-program computer, 1949

The Manchester Mark 1 was one of the earliest stored-program computers, developed at the Victoria University of Manchester, England from the Manchester Baby. Work began in August 1948, and the first version was operational by April 1949; a program written to search for Mersenne primes ran error-free for nine hours on the night of 16/17 June 1949.

The Computing Machine Laboratory at the University of Manchester in the north of England was established by Max Newman shortly after the end of World War II, around 1946.

Hilary J. Kahn (1943–2007) was a South African British computer scientist who spent most of her career as a professor at the University of Manchester, where she worked on computer-aided design and information modelling. Kahn participated in the development of the Manchester MU5 computer. Later she became involved in standards development and was both the chair of the Technical Experts Group and a member of the Steering Committee for the development of the EDIF standard. Kahn retired from Manchester in 2006 and died in 2007.

G. B. B. "Barrie" Chaplin was a British engineer and inventor, and professor emeritus at the University of Essex where he established the Department of Electrical Engineering Science in 1966. He was selected by IET as one of its 95 inspiring engineers and technologists of the past, present, and future and he was included in an exhibition at Savoy Place.


  1. 1 2 3 4 5 Anon (2007). "Kilburn, Prof. Tom" . Who's Who (online Oxford University Press  ed.). Oxford: A & C Black. doi:10.1093/ww/9780199540884.013.U23039.(Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  2. Tom Kilburn publications indexed by Google Scholar OOjs UI icon edit-ltr-progressive.svg
  3. Anderson, D. P. (2009). "Interview An interview with Maurice Wilkes". Communications of the ACM. 52 (9): 39–42. doi:10.1145/1562164.1562180. S2CID   31699280.
  4. Anderson, D. P. (2009). "Biographies: Tom Kilburn: A Pioneer of Computer Design". IEEE Annals of the History of Computing. 31 (2): 82–86. doi:10.1109/MAHC.2009.32.
  5. Lavington, Simon (2001). "Obituary: Tom Kilburn (1921–2001)". Nature. 409 (6823): 996. Bibcode:2001Natur.409..996L. doi:10.1038/35059201. PMID   11241994. S2CID   6971607.
  6. Lavington, Simon (1998). A History of Manchester Computers (2nd ed.). British Computer Society. ISBN   9781902505015. OCLC   156380308.
  7. Wilkes, Maurice; Kahn, Hilary J. (1 December 2003). "Tom Kilburn CBE FREng. 11 August 1921 – 17 January 2001". Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society. 49: 283–297. doi:10.1098/rsbm.2003.0016. S2CID   71234844.
  8. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 Kahn, Hilary J. (2004). "Kilburn, Tom (1921–2001), computer scientist". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/55314.(Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  9. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 Anderson, David. "Historical Reflections Tom Kilburn: A Tale of Five Computers" (PDF). Communications of the ACM . 57 (5): 35–38. doi:10.1145/2594290. S2CID   42682473.
  10. "Interview with Tom Kilburn". IEEE Annals of the History of Computing. 15 (3): 17–32. doi:10.1109/MAHC.1993.10017. ISSN   1058-6180.
  11. Kilburn, Tom (1990). "From Cathode Ray Tube to Ferranti Mark I". Resurrection. The Computer Conservation Society. 1 (2). ISSN   0958-7403 . Retrieved 15 March 2012.
  12. 1 2 3 4 5 Anon (2001). "Professor Tom Kilburn". London: The Daily Telegraph . Retrieved 16 August 2014.
  13. Williams, F.C.; Kilburn, T. (May 1949). "A storage system for use with binary-digital computing machines". Proceedings of the IEE - Part II: Power Engineering. 97 (50): 183–200. doi:10.1049/pi-2.1949.0078.
  14. Kilburn, Tom (1948). A storage system for use with binary digital computing machines. (PhD thesis). University of Manchester. OCLC   841848118. EThOS A first version of this thesis was written by Kilburn with the same title, as a personal report to the Telecommunications Research Establishment (TRE) to obtain a second year of secondment to the University of Manchester. Kilburn has stated that whilst he was writing it, requests for copies came in. Twenty copies were therefore made, and the document was circulated as an Internal Report by the Department of Electrotechnics, University of Manchester, dated 1st December 1947. Due to demand, a further 30 copies were made. It is known that several copies were taken to the USA by Douglas Hartree, Harry Huskey and A. M. Utley (TRE) in the Spring of 1948
  15. 1 2 Shelburne, B. J.; Burton, C. P. (1998). "Early programs on the Manchester Mark I Prototype". IEEE Annals of the History of Computing. 20 (3): 4. doi:10.1109/85.707570.
  16. Kilburn, T. (1949). "The University of Manchester Universal High-Speed Digital Computing Machine". Nature. 164 (4173): 684–687. Bibcode:1949Natur.164..684K. doi: 10.1038/164684a0 . PMID   15392930.
  17. Williams, Frederic; Kilburn, Tom (1948). "Electronic Digital Computers". Nature. 162 (4117): 487. Bibcode:1948Natur.162..487W. doi:10.1038/162487a0. S2CID   4110351. Archived from the original on 6 April 2009.
  18. Haigh, T. (2014). "Actually, Turing did not invent the computer". Communications of the ACM. 57: 36–41. doi:10.1145/2542504. S2CID   5694189.
  19. Kilburn, T. (1951). "The New Universal Digital Computing Machine at the University of Manchester". Nature. 168 (4264): 95–96. Bibcode:1951Natur.168...95K. doi:10.1038/168095a0. S2CID   4216071.
  20. 1 2 Hilary J Kahn. "Obituary: Tom Kilburn". The Guardian. Retrieved 16 August 2014.
  21. Kilburn, Tom (1961). "The Manchester University Atlas Operating System Part I: Internal Organization". The Computer Journal. 4 (3): 222–225. doi:10.1093/comjnl/4.3.222.
  22. Kilburn, T.; Edwards, D. B. G.; Lanigan, M. J.; Sumner, F. H. (1962). "One-Level Storage System". IEEE Transactions on Electronic Computers (2): 223–235. doi:10.1109/TEC.1962.5219356.
  23. Kilburn, T.; Piggott, L. S. (1978). "Frederic Calland Williams. 26 June 1911 – 11 August 1977". Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society . 24: 583–604. doi: 10.1098/rsbm.1978.0020 .
  24. "Roll of Distinguished Fellows". BCS – The Chartered Institute for IT. Retrieved 22 February 2016.
  25. Computer History Museum. "Tom Kilburn – CHM Fellow Award Winner". Archived from the original on 3 April 2015. Retrieved 30 March 2015.
  26. "No. 45984". The London Gazette (Supplement). 22 May 1973. p. 6480.Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire
  27. "Honorary Graduates 1966 to 1988". University of Bath . Retrieved 22 February 2016.
  28. "W. Wallace McDowell Award". IEEE Computer Society. Retrieved 22 February 2016.
  29. "BCS IT Awards: 1973 – 1999". BCS – The Chartered Institute for IT. Retrieved 22 February 2016.
  30. 1 2 "Tom Kilburn EC/1965/18: Library and Archive Catalogue". London: The Royal Society. Archived from the original on 29 April 2014.
  31. "Computer Pioneer Award". IEEE Computer Society. Retrieved 22 February 2016.
  32. "Eckert Mauchly Award". IEEE Computer Society. Retrieved 22 February 2016.
  33. "Mountbatten Medal – Medal Recipients". Institute of Engineering and Technology. Retrieved 22 February 2016.
  34. "50 years of Computer Science at Manchester". The University of Manchester – Department of Computer Science. Retrieved 22 February 2016.
  35. "The Kilburn Building". Retrieved 2 September 2023.
Academic offices
Preceded by
Head of the Department of Computer Science, University of Manchester
Succeeded by
Dai Edwards