Maurice Wilkes

1913 - 2010

Professor Sir Maurice Wilkes led the team that built EDSAC (Electronic Delay Storage Automatic Calculator) at the Mathematical Laboratory at Cambridge University. The EDSAC was a vacuum tube computer with 3000 tubes. It first ran in May 1949. It was switched off in July 1958 after a decade of consistently reliable service.

EDSAC was the first practical stored program computer designed specifically to provide a computing service to users, in this case, to researchers at Cambridge University. Up to that time computers were experimental and used by engineers for development. EDSAC was designed to provide a service for those outside computing itself – students, scientists, mathematicians and engineers. EDSAC was heavily influenced by the ENIAC a vast vacuum-tube calculator developed at the University of Pennsylvania during World War 2.

Wilkes and his team pioneered new techniques in hardware design and computer programming. Many of these techniques are part of accepted practice today. The team developed software libraries, and users could write their own programs for the first time. This was the beginning of a new profession – the computer programmer.

Wilkes did not push technology to its limits but used only techniques that were already tried and tested. So EDSAC was not as fast or as big as others being planned at the time but it gave countless users access to computer services at a time when computers were mainly still laboratory curiosities used only by the engineers that designed them.

Wilkes spent his long professional life at the forefront of computing, working both in the UK and in the US.