Tom Kilburn Memorial Service Text


Emeritus Professor Tom Kilburn CBE FRS was born in Dewsbury, Yorkshire in August 1921. He attended Wheelwright Grammar School, Dewsbury and Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, where he studied Mathematics. He completed his studies in June 1942 and was sent to the Telecommunications Research Establishment (TRE) after a short City and Guilds course in electronics. There he joined the group led by F C Williams. They concentrated on troubleshooting problems in radar and other electronic circuitry.

In December 1946, F C Williams moved to Manchester to take up a chair at The University of Manchester, and he invited Tom to join him. Initially Tom was on secondment from TRE and it was in a landmark report written in December 1947 for TRE that he described precisely how a Cathode Ray Tube (CRT) could be used to provide digital storage for use in computing. In the early months of 1948 he concentrated on building a computer that would prove the effectiveness of the CRT storage mechanism. That computer, known as the Small Scale Experimental Machine or Baby, worked successfully for the first time on June 21st 1948. This was the world’s first electronic stored-program computer.

From that time until his retirement in 1981, Tom took the lead in the computer developments at The University of Manchester. Under his guidance, five leading edge computers were designed; all led directly or indirectly to commercial machines and all helped to ensure that Manchester remained at the forefront of computer research.

In addition to leading major research developments, Tom founded the UK’s first Department of Computer Science at The University of Manchester (1964), was the UK’s first Professor of Computer Science, and led the establishment in 1965 of the UK’s first undergraduate course in Computer Science. In addition to being Head of Department from 1964 – 1980, he also served the University as Dean of the Faculty of Science and Pro Vice-Chancellor.

Memorial of Service

A Memorial Service for Tom Kilburn was held at the University of Manchester at 12.30 pm on Tuesday 1st May 2001 at the University's Chaplaincy, at:

St Peter's House
Precinct Centre
Oxford Road
Manchester M13 9GH

The Memorial Service was followed at 1.15 pm by a Buffet Luncheon in St Peter’s House.

At 2.15 pm, the Chancellor of The University of Manchester, The Lord Flowers, unveiled a plaque in the Foyer of the Department of Computer Science to mark the naming of the building as the Kilburn Building.

Around 250 people were present at the service, including Tom's son, the Lord Mayor of Manchester, the Deputy Mayor and Mayoress of Trafford, and that other great pioneer of British computers, Sir Maurice Wilkes.

Order of Service

Welcome: The Reverend Liz Carnelley

Liz Carnelley is the Anglican Chaplain at St Peter's House, the Chaplaincy to Higher Education in Manchester

Hymn: O God, our help in ages past

Speaker: The Vice Chancellor Professor Sir Martin Harris Sir Martin Harris is Vice Chancellor of the University of Manchester

Reading: Ecclesiasticus 44: 1-15. Read by Christopher Burton

"Let us now praise famous men ..." - Christopher Burton was the Project Manager for the rebuilding of the Baby

Hymn:Father, hear the prayer we offer

Speaker: Peter Hall

Peter Hall was head of the West Gorton Computer Department of Ferranti, taken over by ICT then ICL, for much of the period of formal cooperation between Tom Kilburn's computer group and Ferranti/ICT/ICL

Video Reflection
This was a moving three minute montage of personal and professional photographs of Tom, with some short film clips, produced for the Memorial Service by the University of Manchester Media Centre

Speaker: Professor Dai Edwards
Dai Edwards joined Williams' team in September 1948 as a PhD. student and was Tom's second-in-command from the middle '50s till he took over from Tom as Head of Department in 1980

Prayer of Thanksgiving


Hymn: For all the Saints who from their labours rest


The congregation retired to the strains of Glen Miller's orchestra, a favourite of Tom and a nostalgic reminder of the war years, when Tom started on his professional career

The Vice Chancellor Professor Sir Martin Harris

In its first 150 years, this University has produced more than its fair share of scientific greats. Men like Rutherford, Bragg, Charnley and Lovell, who through their skill, dedication and scholarship have made a lasting impact on mankind and the lives of millions of people all around the world.

Few, however, can claim to have started a revolution, but that is exactly what Tom Kilburn and FC Williams did when they built and ran the world’s first stored-program computer in a laboratory just 200 yards from this chaplaincy 53 years ago.

The Small Scale Experimental Machine, better known as “The Baby”, which ran in that workshop in Coupland Street on the 21st June 1948, started the second industrial revolution. It led to the development of new machines that have transformed every aspect of our daily lives – from the classroom to the boardroom – and spawned an industry which is now worth in excess of £300 billion.

Tom was an unlikely man to start a revolution. A bright boy from a modest Yorkshire home, Tom passed his eleven plus and won a scholarship to Cambridge to read Mathematics in the early years of World War II. Keen to play his part in the War effort, Tom did a crash course in electronics and reported for duty at the Government’s secret Telecommunications Research Establishment at Malvern.

At Malvern, 21-year-old Tom joined FC Williams’ small group working on troubleshooting problems in radar and other electronic circuitry.

After the War, Tom joined FC’s team here in Manchester. Tom’s main area of research concerned the development of the cathode ray tube to provide digital storage in computing. In 1948, they set about building a machine to demonstrate the effectiveness of the CRT storage system - and “The Baby” was born.

There was little public or media interest in that first machine, but there was positive government support that led the Manchester team to forge a powerful alliance with Ferranti which led to the development of the Mark 1, and in the next 25 years to faster and more powerful machines such as the Mercury, Atlas and MU5.

In 1960, Tom Kilburn became Professor of Computer Engineering at the University. Four years later, he established the Department of Computer Science, the first in the country. Today, the Department still bears his distinctive stamp. Tom retired from the University in 1981.

Tom didn’t earn a fortune for his work and he wasn’t exactly showered in public honours during his working life either. It didn’t bother him, however. “We never did anything with money or honours in mind” he told me a few years ago. His motivation was the scientific challenge and the opportunity to share his knowledge and enthusiasm with others.

Tom was a modest and private man who didn’t have much time for fuss and hype. So it was with some trepidation that we approached him in 1998 and asked him to take part in a series of events being organised by the City, the University and the Computer Conservation Society to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Birth of the Baby.

Tom agreed to take part in the celebrations in large part because he couldn’t resist the scientific challenge of assisting Chris Burton and his colleagues in the task of recreating a replica of “The Baby” as a permanent exhibit at the Manchester Museum of Science and Industry.

The scale of public and media interest in those celebrations took us all by surprise, but Tom took it all in his stride. He responded to the endless demands for photographs, interviews and public appearances with his characteristic patience and courtesy.

For all of us, it was a pleasure to see Tom receiving some belated public recognition for his remarkable achievements. For Tom, the pleasure came from meeting up with old friends, seeing the replica Baby stir into life and the chance to communicate some of his enthusiasm for science and engineering to the younger generation.

The revolution that Tom and FC started in 1948 continues apace. Their joint legacy can be seen in almost every home and workplace in the developed world. All of us who were privileged to meet him, and even more those who worked with him, will miss him sorely. But his legacy lives on, here in the Department of Computer Science, in Manchester and indeed across the world: an astonishing legacy indeed.

Peter Hall

Tom and I had a relationship, which, I think, was important to the success of both the work of his team in the university, and of our success in industry. I, and the companies I worked for, owe Tom a very great deal.

Sir Ben Lockspeiser, then a government Chief Scientist, set up the early collaboration between Freddie Williams' team and the dedicated team put together by Ferranti. This set up was made possible, I believe, because of the relationship which had developed in the war between Freddie and his team – one of whom was Tom Kilburn – and a group in Ferranti which included Eric Grundy, Norman Searby and Hubert Wood, all of whom are now deceased, and who otherwise would be here paying tribute to Tom.

The wartime work by Ferranti, taking prototype Radar devices and turning them, with very tight deadlines, into items which could be mass produced by the Ferranti factories, had built up just the sort of expertise needed by Freddie’s team. The two teams were old friends, used to the impossible demands placed upon them by wartime deadlines, and had learnt how to overcome the inevitable disagreements and confrontations. They had learnt to trust each other; if both sides agreed the work should be done then the thing was to get on with it – the bureaucrats could sort out tedious things like contracts later.

So it was that Freddie and Tom began a university-industry collaboration that lasted as a major consideration to both the University and to Ferranti, ICT and ICL well into the 1980’s.

So where do I fit in? When for different reasons Freddie Williams, and on the Ferranti side, Brian Pollard moved on to other things, it was Tom and I who carried on. I am sure that Tom would agree that we made a good job of it! I was new to the field – but I was lucky.

Like Freddie and Tom, I spent the war at the Radar Research Establishment in Malvern. I did not work for Freddie but learnt the same “can do” attitude as Tom from my boss – Martin Ryle.

So Tom and I had learnt our trade in the same school, thought very much the same way and were able to agree on who should do what and by when. He and his team would do the clever bits and we would do the hard work. Tom understood – usually – that he had to compromise if we were to make something customers needed at a price they were willing to pay.

Thus it was that Ferranti were the first company in the world to put a real computer up for sale. This was of course the Mark 1, followed by Mercury and then the spectacular Atlas. Later, Tom’s team developed many of the ideas that were incorporated in the very successful ICL 2900.

For me personally, it was a great privilege to work with Tom over so many years in what by any standards must be judged one of the most exciting and significant of post-war developments.

Our relationship was built on trust. We did not always agree – how could we – we had different ultimate goals – Tom was not so concerned as I was with somehow making a profit out of it all! We stretched each other’s patience, but in the end things pretty well always worked out right.

I have so many memories of our time working together. I will mention but two which were rather typical.

Tom allowed us to second staff to his team – this helped him of course but it was of immense value to us since we got back valuable know-how. Tom sometimes ran out of money – I well remember him once ringing me up to say that he would have to get rid of one of his staff unless somehow we could pay for him – to keep the project on the rails, that man was on my payroll within hours!

One year, two days before Christmas, Tom rang to say that all the Atlas logic boards had to be modified. Every gate needed an additional diode wired in – so all had to come back – the modification was neither easy nor cheap, and it had to be done over Christmas!

All things had to come to an end. I left West Gorton and Tom retired. For many years after retirement Tom and I rarely met, but when Chris Burton put together his plan to build a copy of the “Baby” we all felt that the project would be so much easier if we could enlist Tom. He was reluctant at first, but became a great enthusiast and an enormous help to Chris and his team.

So it was that Tom’s last years were made exciting and worthwhile by the 50th Anniversary project and the celebrations of his great achievement – the building of the first electronic stored program computer in the world.

I have an abiding memory of Tom and one of the Ferranti team, Charlie Portman, now also sadly deceased, sitting by the display tube of the 1998 “Baby” trying to discover how on earth 50 years previously such a device had been made to work.

But of course it did.

Thank you – it has been a privilege to pay tribute to Tom Kilburn.

Professor Dai Edwards

Tom Kilburn retired at the end of September 1981; a comparative youngster aged 60 at the top of his profession. For a few years he had planned for this early retirement in order to spend more time with his wife Rene. Tragically he was unable to do this because Rene died just three months before his retirement date. Many of us then tried to persuade Tom not to retire but we were unable to change his decision, though he did agree to come into the University for lunch once a month with Professor Sutherland and myself. Other colleagues often joined us and the arrangement continued for some 19 years, that is until a short time before he died. After Rene died Tom became very depressed and immersed himself in music, an interest he had shared with Rene. It took almost two years for us to see the Tom we used to know emerge from this situation. However, in 1998 he took a full and active part in the celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the “Birth of the Baby”, with the reconstruction of the Baby by Chris Burton and colleagues and the events at the Bridgewater Hall and the Castlefields Museum. He seemed to enjoy the occasion immensely.

Tom was a family man and we have just seen some pictures of him with Rene and their two children, John and Ann. For his summer holidays, always taken in August, he took the family to Butlins for several years when the children were small, because it kept the children busy during the day, whatever the weather, and allowed Rene and him to enjoy the entertainment during the evening when the children were asleep. He even persuaded me to follow in his footsteps a few years later when I had small children and my family too found it satisfactory, though we found that at the end of the children’s day the adults were often asleep before them. Later he moved on to the delights of Blackpool, one of its advantages being close proximity to Manchester so that he could return for Manchester United’s first matches of the new season. Both he and Rene were keen United fans and had season tickets for many years. Tom did not enjoy travelling, particularly abroad, but he did go when it was important for his work and on several occasions Rene went too - to Paris, Pisa, Rome and Moscow.

Tom got off to a good start in life; he was born in Yorkshire, and Yorkshire grit and determination were key parts of his character. I first met Tom in mid September 1948 - just three months after the Baby had worked for the first time - when I joined F C Williams as a research student and my first task was to read Tom’s PhD thesis checking for typographical and drawing errors – of course the Baby was not up to word processing or drawing diagrams at that stage!!!! From that day I worked closely with Tom until his retirement, some 33 years later. Though Tom retired early, his continuous contribution throughout his career to the state of the art in computing, is very significant and indeed unique, because of its continuity and innovation and the fact that five computer designs were all made commercially – Tom held more than 100 patents. The quality of the work and the esteem with which it is regarded, both nationally and internationally, is supported by the number of awards and distinctions that he received, I will recall some of these: -

In late 1948 and 1949 the Baby was rapidly expanded in capability at the University and then produced commercially by Ferranti, the first machine being delivered to the University in February 1951. This is an early example of a cooperative project between University, Government Department and Industry being brought to a successful conclusion. Under Tom’s direction, the Ferranti Mark 1 was used to develop a COMPUTING SERVICE free of additional charge for the University but available to other Universities, Government Establishments, and Industry at a charge determined by the time used. Tom remained in charge of the University Computing Service until 1970 when a full time director was appointed, though Tom continued to be involved as a member of the management committee and later its chairman. The University also benefited from the replacement of the Ferranti Mark 1 by new machines Tom had designed, namely the Ferranti Mercury in 1958 and the Ferranti Atlas in 1962.

Tom also had the foresight to persuade the University to form an undergraduate Department of Computer Science in 1964, the first in any University in the UK, which took in its first 24 students in 1965. It expanded rapidly under Tom’s direction and has continued to expand since, so that now it is one of the largest in the University with an undergraduate intake of about 200 a year. Tom also did his fair share of committee work for the University and became Dean of Science and Pro Vice Chancellor.

All of you will be aware, when you try to create anything new, particularly on the scale that Tom required, there are bound to be problems apart from the technical ones and Tom certainly had a good share of these; primarily persuading people that his ideas were sound, and then pragmatic problems like space: - Tom was involved with the design of three different University buildings to house computer service and computer teaching; Finance: - money for equipment, for research, for staff, for postgraduate students, etc; problems with industrial collaboration, confidentiality, property rights, time scale of work, etc. Indeed over the years differences with industry on patents and know how escalated into two legal conflicts but Tom’s forthright but fair approach plus his clear determination to resolve difficulties led to out of court settlements.

There is no doubt that this is a sad time, but it is also a time to celebrate Tom's achievements and a time for all of us, colleagues, students, friends, acquaintances to acknowledge the help and inspiration he gave many of us through the years by simply saying: -



Father, hear the prayer we offer;
Not for ease that prayer shall be,
But for strength that we may ever
Live our lives courageously.

Not for ever in green pastures
Do we ask our way to be;
But the steep and rugged pathway
May we tread rejoicingly.

Not for ever by still waters
Would we idly rest and stay;
But would smite the living fountains
From the rocks along our way.

Be our strength in hours of weakness,
In our wanderings be our guide;
Through endeavour, failure, danger,
Father, be thou at our side.

Mrs L. M. Willis (1864)

This gives the Introduction, Order of Service and one of the hymns from the programme produced for the Memorial Service for Tom Kilburn, together with the text from the three speakers, The Vice Chancellor Professor Sir Martin Harris, Peter Hall and Professor Dai Edwards. Some background text is also provided, in italics.

Author : Brian Napper; created May 20th 2001