Computer Pioneer Geoff Tootill Passed Away

“Computer pioneer Geoff Tootill passed away in October,” writes long-time Slashdot reader tigersha. Born in 1922, Tootill began his career troubleshooting airborne radar systems during World War II, leading him to some pioneering research in the late 1940s. “He worked on the first computer that stored a program in main memory, as opposed to a paper tape, and actually had the opportunity to teach Alan Turing and debug one of Turing’s programs.” The Guardian remembers:

The computer could store just 32 instructions or numbers using a single cathode ray tube. The machine first worked in June 1948, taking 52 minutes to find the highest factor of 262,144, involving about 3.5 million arithmetic operations. The following year, Tootill transferred to Ferranti, the Manchester-based electrical engineering company, to specify a full-scale computer…the world’s first commercially available computer. That was the Ferranti Mark I, first released in 1951. Tootill passed away at the age of 95.

Geoff Tootill built on wartime work in setting up his computer memory project at Manchester University in the mid-1940s

When the war was over, Williams – still only in his mid-30s – was appointed to the chair of electro-technics at Manchester University. By this time computers were in the air, and designing a suitable memory technology was the outstanding technical challenge. He brought in Kilburn and Tootill to work on a computer memory project.

Dissatisfied with his salary at Ferranti, Tootill took up a senior lectureship at the Military College of Science, Shrivenham, near Oxford. The college offered no opportunity for research, so in the mid-1950s he leapt at the offer of a research position from Stuart Hollingdale, head of the mathematics division at the Royal Aircraft Establishment, Farnborough, Hampshire. He and Hollingdale collaborated on Electronic Computers (1965), a book for the layperson. Published as a Pelican Original, it filled a vacuum of information about computers, and sold remarkably well.

From 1963 to 1969 Tootill was seconded to the European Space Research Organisation, where he established a network of computerised ground stations. Returning from this high point in his career, he was assigned a bureaucratic role that he detested.

He was educated at King Edward’s high school, Birmingham, where he excelled in the sciences and won a scholarship to Christ’s College, Cambridge University, to read mathematics.

Baby that gave birth to a hi-tech revolution

After graduation he was directed to work of national importance, initially as a mathematician in operations research. However, after a few weeks he managed to switch to an engineering role at the TRE. Outside work duties, he met Pamela Watson, a laboratory technician. They married in 1947.

Two years after Pamela’s death in 1979, Tootill married Joyce Turnbull. He retired in 1982 but remained active in computing and academic pursuits.


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