David Aspinall obituary

Other lives: Computer scientist who helped build the early Manchester University Atlas computer

My father, David Aspinall, who has died aged 86, was one of a small group of researchers who founded the field of computer science in the UK. As an engineering research student he was involved in building the Manchester University Atlas computer which, when it was switched on in 1962, was the fastest in the world.

In 1970, David moved to University College Swansea to become professor of electrical engineering and create a new course, a BSc in computer technology, based on the model designed by his boss Tom Kilburn whose computer science department at Manchester University was the first of its kind in the UK. These people were the pioneers of the new academic and educational field of “computer science”.

David was born in Cleveleys, Lancashire, the son of Hilda (nee Whittle), who had worked in the weaving sheds of Blackburn before her marriage, and William Aspinall, a civil servant. He attended King Edward VII school, Lytham, before going to Manchester University to read physics. On graduating he was awarded a scholarship to conduct postgraduate research in the new computer laboratory in the electrical engineering department at Manchester.

At first, the received wisdom was that only a small number of massive, very expensive computers would ever be needed. This was changed in the 1970s by the invention of the microprocessor. When David got hold of his first microprocessor, which had been sent to him through the post in a shoebox, he realised that this changed everything: smaller, cheaper computers were now possible. A completely new approach to teaching students about computers was therefore required.

In 1978 David edited a book entitled The Microprocessor and its Application which was translated into many languages and became the international authority on this new technology. In the same year, David moved from Swansea back to Manchester to become a professor of computation at the University of Manchester, Institute of Science and Technology (Umist). In 1981 he became head of department and in 1984 a vice-principal of Umist. On his retirement in 1993, he was made emeritus professor of computation at Manchester University.

He achieved all of this while still being able to make it home for tea at six o’clock on most evenings. Although tempted by offers of big bucks in the US, David preferred a career that would enable him to balance life with work and keep him close to his roots in Lancashire.

He is survived by his wife, Ina (nee Sillars), whom he married in 1958, their children, Mary, Edward and me, and three grandchildren, Thomas, Matthew and William.

Robert Aspinall

The GuardianTramp

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