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EN | Personajes ilustres – Wilkes

Wilkes, Maurice Vicent (1913 - )

Director of the Cambridge Computer Laboratory, Wilkes made important contributions to computer development and the use of labels, macros, subroutines. He also introduced the microprogramming concept.

He was born on 26 June 1913 in Dudley, Staffordshire, England.

In 1931, Wilkes entered St. John’s College, Cambridge, where he completed his PhD in Physics in 1936 on the topic of propagation of long radio waves in the ionosphere.

In 1937, he began working as an assistant professor at the newly created Cambridge University Mathematical Laboratory, but was forced to break off his work to join the armed forces in 1939, where he worked on radar.

In 1945 he returned to Cambridge and was appointed director of his old laboratory, which was renamed the Computer Laboratory in the 1960s.

He got the chance to read a copy of the Von Neumann’s First Draft of a Report on the EDVAC in 1946. This report describes the stored program concept. In August, he travelled to the Moore School of Electrical Engineering in Pennsylvania (USA) to participate in the Theory and Techniques for Design Electronic Digital Computer course, taught by John Mauchly and Presper Eckert. This course provided a detailed description of ENIAC and discussed the development of EDVAC.

His american experience motivated him to deal the design of a small machine based on stored program ideas, mercury memories,and delay lines, which he called EDSAC (Electronic Delay Storage Automatic Calculator), its construction was completed in 1949.

He was inspired by his American experience to design a small machine based on the ideas of the stored program and mercury delay line memories, which he called EDSAC (Electronic Delay Storage Automatic Calculator). EDSAC was built in 1949.

In 1951, he introduced the microprogramming concept during a lecture given at the University of Manchester. This concept was, however, not widely publicized until 1955 when it was published in IEEE Spectrum. The basic idea was to control a computer’s CPU using a small and highly specialized program contained within a high-speed ROM. This was a highly remarkable advance, because it simplified CPU design. These ideas were implemented in the construction of the EDSAC2 machine. EDSAC2 became operational in 1958 and was a computer with very advanced features for its time.

Around 1960, he started to work on the design of the Titan machine, a joint venture with Ferranti Ltd. Titan was the first time-sharing system in the UK. This machine meant that multiple users could access their programs from their own work stations rather than waiting in a queue with a pack of punch cards or tape. One of the remarkable features of this operating system was access control through user and/or program identity. This introduced the keyword encryption system later used in UNIX systems.

He also made important contributions to the programming field, introducing the ideas of symbolic labels, macros, and subroutine libraries.

Later he worked on timesharing operating systems (now known as multiuser operating systems) and distributed computing.

The laboratory under his leadership contributed significantly to the development of the ALGOL 68 standard.

In 1978, he developed a prototype data network with a ring topology (Cambridge Ring) to share peripherals. The network reached speeds of 10 Mbits per second, and the design was widely commercialized in England.

In 1980, he left Cambridge University and joined the Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) in Maynard, Massachusetts (USA) as a consultant, working simultaneously as associate professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at MIT.

In 1986, he returned to England to join Olivetti’s Research Strategy Board.

Throughout his lifetime, he received a large number of prizes, awards and honorary doctor degrees.

In 2002, he returned to the Cambridge University Computer Laboratory as an emeritus professor.