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Al Williams

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Loss of a Pioneer

March 15, 2011

I was sad to hear that Sir Maurice Wilkes passed away in November. Sadder still to see that it didn't make nearly the news splash that some other early computer pioneer deaths have made.

If you don't recall, Dr. Wilkes was the brain behind EDSAC -- arguably the first "real" computer completed (although not the first designed). I know he was better known in the UK than the US, but if you really look at what Wilkes and his team did it is amazing. Wilkes pioneered the use of microprogramming, bit slices (if you are old enough to remember when that was important), symbolic labels, macros, and subroutines.

I was fortunate enough to correspond with Dr. Wilkes several times over the last few years and he was very gracious and clearly very sharp. I always thought I might recreate EDSAC in FPGA and thought it would please him to see such a project, but alas I have waited too late to do it.

If you want to see what it was like to program such an influential early machine, check out this simulator. I've written some code for it and its amazing what they were able to accomplish. You can find my code at the Yahoo group I maintain for EDSAC -- although it isn't very active with only 10 members -- clearly EDSAC is under appreciated!

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