Computer pioneer Sir Maurice Wilkes: vision and vacuum tubes

Jack Schofield:

Sir Maurice Wilkes, 96, one of the pioneers of British computing, strolls through the history the he helped create
Walk round the National Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park and sooner or later you’ll hear a cry of recognition and someone will say: “I remember using one of those.” It probably doesn’t happen often to The Millionaire, a mechanical calculator that went into production in 1893, but Sir Maurice Wilkes spotted it, adding: “We used to have one in the lab. I hope it’s still there.”
In this case, “the lab” was what became the Cambridge University Computer Lab, which Wilkes headed from 1945 until 1980. It was where he built Edsac, one of the world’s first electronic computers, using sound beams traversing baths of mercury for the memory units. Edsac (Electronic Delay Storage Automatic Calculator) first ran in May 1949, so this year a dinner was held to celebrate its 60th birthday. And, of course, to celebrate Wilkes himself, who is a bright, sharp 96 years of age, and has seen most of the history of computing at first hand.
How sharp? On seeing the museum’s air traffic control display, which fascinates many visitors, he immediately asks: “Where’s the radar?” Ah, well, there isn’t one. The displays are running real radar sequences but they’re recorded. Wilkes, the consummate hardware guy, doesn’t just see the screen, he looks to see how the whole system fits together.