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Essex remembers computer science pioneer

  • Date

    Wed 4 Dec 19

Professor Tony Brooker in the 1970s

One of the great pioneers of computer science and software development Professor Tony Brooker has died.

Professor Brooker, who worked alongside Alan Turing in Manchester in the 1950s, was the founding professor of computer science at the University of Essex in 1967. He helped establish Essex’s international reputation for research in programming languages, artificial intelligence and robotics.

At Essex he also launched one of the first undergraduate computer science courses in the UK covering software and hardware, just two years after he had helped establish the first at the University of Manchester. Within the University, he served as Dean of Students and Pro-Vice-Chancellor with his huge contribution to Essex recognised through the establishment of a laboratory in his name in the Networks Centre building.

Vice-Chancellor Professor Anthony Forster said: “Professor Brooker helped to transform our world. He pushed back the boundaries of computer science research and at Essex made an invaluable contribution to the lives of so many students. By establishing the first courses of their kind he helped nurture a generation of computer scientists who went on to be at the forefront of the technological revolution we’ve seen over the past 50 years.”

Head of the School of Computer Science and Electronic Engineering, Professor Anthony Vickers, said: “After retirement he continued to support the School of Computer Science and Electronic Engineering by attending our Capstone Project Opens Days when he could. His memory lives on with us as the Brooker Laboratory is used 24 hours a day, seven days a week, by our students.”

Early years

Professor Brooker was born in London and graduated in Mathematics from Imperial College in 1945. During his time at Imperial he first became involved with computers by building from electro-mechanical relays a multiplier unit which served as the arithmetical basis of the Imperial College Computing Engine based on the same technology.

In 1949 Professor Brooker moved to Cambridge University where he also switched from building computer hardware to addressing the problem of how users would tell the computer what they wanted it to do, effectively developing what we now call computer software. This brought Professor Brooker to the attention of Alan Turing at Manchester University who in 1951 persuaded Professor Brooker to make the move to Manchester and join the Computing Machine Laboratory. Professor Brooker then took over from Turing, the running of the user service on the university's computer.

This job gave Professor Brooker a critical understanding of the pressing need for higher-level programming languages, which did not require programmers to understand computer hardware. His early work in computing at this abstract level led Alan Turing to refer to Professor Brooker and his team as the “space cadets”. Turing, by comparison modestly described his own approach as representing ‘the Primitives’.

The output of Professor Brooker's early work in this area was the release of arguably the world’s first high level programming language, Mark I Autocode in 1954 which was about two years ahead of IBM’s first Fortran compiler.

Professor Brooker spent the following decade extending and enhancing his work on the evolution of programming languages – or ‘autocodes’ as they were originally called. There was a continuing need to free languages from the evolution of computer hardware. His work culminated in 1960 with the seminal idea of the compiler-compiler   Professor Brooker wrote the world’s first compiler-complier in the early 1960’s which provided the critical technology step to remove from even programming language developers, the need to understand the actual computer hardware being used.

At Essex

In 1967 he moved to the University of Essex as founding Professor of the Computing Centre where, with the late Professor Keith Bowden, he initiated (just two years after Manchester) one of the first undergraduate schemes in Computer Science that encompassed both software and hardware. By the early 1970s the department was world-renowned for its work on theory, numerical optimisation and Artificial Intelligence. Although not a personal contributor, he created the environment for research and teaching in AI at Essex, a legacy which the School continues to build on. After serving many years as faculty Dean and as a Pro-Vice-Chancellor, he retired in 1988. After his retirement he published a book on a data based programming language and maintained strong links with his department as an Emeritus Professor.

A friend and mentor

Although he had a distinguished academic career, those who worked with him, and the students he taught, will probably remember Professor Brooker most as a friend and mentor, a life-long socialist and someone who enjoyed company and conversation.

As a young man, Professor Brooker was a keen rower, mountain climber and fell walker. In middle age he developed a combined love of sailing and travel, and used his yacht to explore both coasts of the North Sea and of the English Channel.

Professor Brooker spent the last 25 years of his life caring for his wife Vera who was suffering from the after effects of a stroke. He first met Vera at Manchester.  Vera was, with others such as Mary Berners Lee, one of the first female computer programmers. They were married for 60 years, and between them they raised three sons and also leave behind seven grandchildren.

Professor Brooker died on 20 November 2019 peacefully in his sleep in his 95th Year, close to his home in Hexham, Northumberland.

This tribute is based on the University’s records and information provided by Professor Brooker’s family.

If you would like to add your own tribute to this page please email comms@essex.ac.uk