Personal Memories of the Late Professor Tom Kilburn CBE FRS

Written by his long-time secretary Joan Hart

Building of Prototype Mark 1 1947/48 "The Baby"

A small team of dedicated research workers led by the late Professor F C Williams and Tom Kilburn worked in a small building close to the University, consisting of only two floors -- it was on the end of a terrace of old houses, as I remember.

When the hoped-for result eventually shone on the screen, they all went wild with excitement (21st June 1948).

The term "BABY" I never heard personally. By the time I joined the University in 1956, never having even heard of a computer, the commercial MARK I had been working for some time (not without problems, I may say). "BABY" only came to my ears at the time of the 50th Anniversary in 1998.

MUNICH - Manchester United 6th February 1958

When the Ferranti MERCURY which was due for the University was completed, the Department decided to have a party to celebrate.

During the afternoon, one of the Engineers had a telephone call from West Gorton, telling us about the Manchester United disaster at Munich, when many of the team were lost, mostly very young. Eight of the nine journalists and others accompanying them were also killed. Matt Busby was seriously injured and very ill, likewise Duncan Edwards, who died very soon after.

The stunning news ended the party, of course, as everyone was devastated.

We were still in Electrical Engineering at that time.

Still in Electrical Engineering -- FCW

During a telephone conversation in my office, I was amused to hear Professor Kilburn talking with F C Williams about certain research in a different University (British) in this way -- "thinking machines, talking machines, and all that sort of clap-trap" -- which later came up with a much grander title. Not one of his favourite subjects apparently. The two Professors often talked together before we left Dover Street.

Manchester United win the European Cup, 1968 and 1999

Professor Hilary Kahn wrote in her obituaries of Professor Kilburnís passion for football. She wrote of his delight in Manchester Unitedís triple success in 1999 and also briefly mentioned the date 1968.

On reading this, my own mind went back to 1968 (only 10 years after the "Busby Babes" were almost demolished at Munich) when Manchester United won the European Cup. Not only was Professor Kilburn at Wembley for the match, he was also somewhere in the streets of Manchester to welcome the team home when they toured the city. His pleasure knew no bounds.

I believe it was in our last telephone conversation that he explained to me "the Golden Goal".

FRS -- 1965

Very proud of this distinction. I have a framed photograph at home, taken for this particular occasion, which I think is the nicest one of all the many photos taken of Tom Kilburn through all the years.

"The College", 1970

As the Campus grew larger, with new buildings taking up much space, there was obviously some demolition of old properties, particularly an old pub named "The College", where many problems were tackled and solved in the early days by staff members both of Electrical Engineering and Ferranti Ltd. When this pub was demolished, the stone bearing its name was rescued and built into the new Computer Building, which was occupied in 1971. I am not quite clear, at this distance in time, of its exact place in the building, but I know it was held in affection and looked on as a part of the early years. It is still in position to this day, I understand.

Editor's note : The stone was built in to the wall in the area outside the departmental library, where there was a small display of old equipment. In the summer of 2001, the library was replaced by a conference area, with stone and display re-sisted within the area.

The Queenís Birthday Honours, Summer 1973

Although publication of the Birthday Honoursí List appears in the summer, the Investiture can be any time later. In this year it took place in November.

Talking on the telephone to F C Williams (again in my office), the subject of transport came up. F C Williams said "take an ordinary taxi, it will be quicker" -- Professor Kilburn picked up this remark and interrupted with, "do you mean a black one?" F C Williams had already been to the Palace and knew the ropes.

Such simple remarks for such brilliant men, who were old friends.

The Investiture, London

When November came, my office diary, usually crowded with notes and details, simply said on one blank page, in my writing, "Buckingham Palace". I think the actual date was 20th November 1973.

I begged him to promise, for once, to tell me all about it. He did give me what he called a "blow-by-blow" description, but in fact Mrs Kilburn had already told me about the ceremony on the telephone, and she seemed especially surprised at how small the Queen looked.

After lunch, he put the family on a train and went on to a Royal Society meeting himself!

Government Committee (after 1971)

There was a period in the later years, when Professor Kilburn was called upon to serve on a Government Committee. Very confidential. I never saw the papers, but he was required to have a combination safe in the then almost new Computer Building. The combination was only to be known to the two of us, and I was screened of course. There was actually a key locked somewhere inside the safe, but was never used or even seen.

We worked out our combination, but quite often he would set off down the corridor (he seldom told me where he was going when I had no particular appointments in the diary) but quite frequently he would come back to my door and say, "come and have a go at that safe, it wonít open." It worked for me first time, every time, perhaps my smaller fingers made it easier, and I may have had fewer important matters on my mind.

It always amazed me that such brilliant intelligence could have difficulty with a plain combination safe.

In the mid-1970ís, Tom Kilburn was very concerned about FC Williamsís serious illness, and while I do not know whether he visited him in person, I remember that he made sure his Laboratory Superintendent could visit the hospital every working afternoon for several weeks.

Sir Frederic died in 1977.

The "Golden Anniversary", 1998

I was disturbed to see Professor Kilburn on TV just before the 50-year celebrations, as he looked so ill. But he carried out all commitments, social and technical, as arranged. He was awarded an Honorary Degree by the Chancellor, at a ceremony in the Bridgewater Hall. He had perhaps four or five years of ill health after retirement in 1981, during which time I did not see him.

After the Golden Anniversary, I visited him at his home, a few times, and thought he looked better, and was a pleasant host. He was not better really, and was always grateful for the care shown by his son and daughter; he had always been a devoted husband and father.

Unfortunately, I suffered a personal accident and was unable to visit him, although we did have some telephone contact. I sent him a letter and card before Christmas but did not know he was in hospital again. In fact I was only given the final news by telephone. It was a shock and I was deeply sad. I was not well enough to attend the funeral myself.


In the 25 years we worked in partnership, it would not be true to say we did not have our differences, sometimes quite serious. But I had tremendous admiration and respect for him, and on the whole, our partnership was a good one. It had to be, 25 years is a long time.

I considered my own position as a privilege. I still do.

Joan Hart
1st May, 2001