Maurice Wilkes

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One cannot help being struck by the power of the computer to bind together, in a genuine community of interest, people whose motivations differ widely.

Maurice Vincent Wilkes (June 26, 1913November 29, 2010) was a pioneering British computer scientist and winner of the 1967 Turing Award. He developed the first stored-program computer in 1949, and invented the concept of microprogramming in 1951. He is also credited with originating the fundamental software concepts of symbolic labels, macros, and subroutine libraries.


  • I well remember when this realization first came on me with full force. The EDSAC was on the top floor of the building and the tape-punching and editing equipment one floor below. [...] It was on one of my journeys between the EDSAC room and the punching equipment that "hesitating at the angles of stairs" the realization came over me with full force that a good part of the remainder of my life was going to be spent in finding errors in my own programs.
    • Memoirs of a Computer Pioneer, MIT Press, 1985, p. 145
  • Since 1954, the raw speed of computers, as measured by the time it takes to do an addition, increased by a factor of 10,000. That means an algorithm that once took 10 minutes to perform can now be done 15 times a second. Students sometimes ask my advice on how to get rich. The best advice I can give them is to dig up some old algorithm that once took forever, program it for a modern workstation, form a startup to market it and then get rich.
    • "A Half Century of Surprises", in Talking Back to the Machine: Computers and Human Aspiration‎, Ed. Peter J. Denning, Springer, 1999, ISBN 0387984135, p. 112

"Computers Then and Now" (1968)[edit]

1967 Turing Award lecture[1], Journal of the ACM 15 (1), January 1968, pp. 1-7

  • A source of strength in the early days was that groups in various parts of the world were prepared to construct experimental computers without necessarily intending them to be the prototype for serial production. As a result, there became available a body of knowledge about what would work and what would not work.
    • Sect. 1: Pioneering Days
  • Much of the early engineering development of digital computers was done in universities. A few years ago, the view was commonly expressed that universities had played their part in computer design, and that the matter could now safely be left to industry. [...] Apart from the obvious functions of keeping in the public domain material that might otherwise be hidden, universities can make a special contribution by reason of their freedom from commercial considerations, including freedom from the need to follow the fashion.
    • Sect. 1: Pioneering Days
  • In the judgment of design engineers, the ordinary means of communicating with a computer are entirely inadequate. [...] Graphical communication in some form or other is of vital importance in engineering as that subject is now conducted; we must either provide the capability in our computer systems, or take on the impossible task of training up a future race of engineers conditioned to think in a different way.
    • Sect. 4: Design and Assembly
  • The artificial intelligence approach may not be altogether the right one to make to the problem of designing automatic assembly devices. Animals and machines are constructed from entirely different materials and on quite different principles. When engineers have tried to draw inspiration from a study of the way animals work they have usually been misled; the history of early attempts to construct flying machines with flapping wings illustrates this very clearly.
    • Sect. 4: Design and Assembly
  • Surveying the shifts of interest among computer scientists and the ever-expanding family of those who depend on computers for their work, one cannot help being struck by the power of the computer to bind together, in a genuine community of interest, people whose motivations differ widely.
    • Sect. 6: Summary


  • As soon as we started programming, we found to our surprise that it wasn't as easy to get programs right as we had thought. Debugging had to be discovered. I can remember the exact instant when I realized that a large part of my life from then on was going to be spent in finding mistakes in my own programs.

Quotes about Maurice Wilkes[edit]

  • Professor Wilkes is best known as the builder and designer of the EDSAC, the first computer with an internally stored program. Built in 1949, the EDSAC used a mercury delay line memory. He is also known as the author, with Wheeler and Gill, of a volume on "Preparation of Programs for Electronic Digital Computers" in 1951, in which program libraries were effectively introduced.

External links[edit]

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