Tony Brooker obituary

Inventor of the first practical computer programming language

Tony Brooker, who has died aged 94, was a pioneer of computer programming and education. He designed and implemented the world’s first high-level programming language, at Manchester University, and was later founding professor of computer science at Essex University.

In 1947, when Brooker took up his first academic post, as assistant lecturer in engineering mathematics at Imperial College, University of London, computers were in the air. He joined Professor KD Tocher and another student, Sidney Michaelson, in building the Icce (Imperial College Computing Engine, pronounced “icky”). In 1949 Brooker became a research assistant at the Cambridge University mathematical laboratory and took charge of its differential analyser, a prewar analogue computer.

This machine was made obsolete following the completion in May 1949 of the laboratory’s Edsac, the world’s first practical electronic digital computer. Brooker switched his interest to computer programming, under the tutelage of David Wheeler, then a research student and later a professor in the laboratory. The two collaborated to produce a scheme to simplify mathematical programming.

Brooker was a keen rock climber; after a weekend climbing in north Wales, he called in at the computing machine laboratory of Manchester University to check out its developments. He introduced himself to the staff, among them Alan Turing. This resulted in the offer of a lectureship in 1951, which he accepted, not least for the proximity to Snowdonia.

Although nominally deputy director of the laboratory, Turing was so absorbed by his own research that he failed to help other people use the Manchester computer. The machine was formidably difficult to program, typically taking two weeks for a novice to get to grips with. Brooker designed a simplified programming system, the Manchester Autocode, which was introduced early in 1954. The system was fully described on two sides of foolscap, took just half a day to learn, and allowed many more casual users to get results from the machine. He later developed the Mercury Autocode for the university’s next computer.

Manchester University’s most ambitious computer project, begun in 1959, was the Atlas (when it was installed in 1963 it was briefly the world’s fastest). By this time high-level programming languages had begun to proliferate and the new computer would need to offer half a dozen different ones. Each would require a “compiler” to translate the programmers’ code into the inner machine code. Developing so many compilers would have overwhelmed the programming resources available, so Brooker, together with a colleague, Derrick Morris, invented the “compiler-compiler”. In this system the grammatical rules defining a programming language were used to automate the production of a compiler. The compiler-compiler was a milestone in the development of programming in the 1960s.

In 1967 Brooker became founding professor of the department of computer science at the recently founded University of Essex. For the next six years, as chair of the department, he used his personal connections to attract academic staff, fostered research programmes (notably in artificial intelligence and programming theory), and oversaw the development of undergraduate and postgraduate courses.

To his surprise, he developed a taste and a talent for academic administration. He served two terms as dean of the school of mathematical studies and became a pro-vice-chancellor. Towards the end of his career he was involved in database research. Brooker was a lifelong socialist, sociable and talkative, and beloved by his colleagues and students. He retired in 1988.

Tony was born in Fulham, south-west London, the youngest of four children of Edwin Brooker, a civil servant, and his wife, Dorothy. He was educated at Emanuel school, Wandsworth, and enjoyed running and rowing.

In 1943 he won a scholarship to study mathematics at Imperial College. There he formed a lifelong friendship with Michaelson (later professor of computer science at Edinburgh University). He graduated with first-class honours in 1946. During the second world war, Brooker was given the choice of joining the home guard or fire-watching. He chose the latter – spending nights on the roof of the Huxley Building in Exhibition Road.

In 1957 he married Vera Hewison, a Manchester University mathematics graduate turned programmer. During their courtship they worked together on programming problems.

In his later years he cared for Vera, who suffered from the after-effects of a stroke. She died in 2018.

Brooker is survived by their three sons, Stephen, Timothy and Richard.

• Ralph Anthony Brooker, computer scientist and educationist, born 22 September 1925; died 20 November 2019


Martin Campbell-Kelly

The GuardianTramp

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