Richard Zobel obituary

Other lives: Computer scientist who in his spare time played and sang with the Nice’n’Easy Trio

My father, Richard Zobel, who has died aged 81, was a pioneering computer scientist at the University of Manchester, birthplace of “Baby”, the world’s first stored-program computer.

He rode the wave of the information technology revolution, starting in the early 1960s on military flight simulators for the electronics and equipment company Sperry’s – the valve analog computers they used ran so hot that he had to work in the cool of the night – and in later years recommending improvements to the distant early warning system (Dews) protecting Indian Ocean coastlines from tsunami, but it was his 40-year academic career that defined his professional life.

Richard was born in Lewisham, south London, the son of Joan, a dressmaker, and Norman Zobel, a car mechanic, just before the outbreak of the second world war, and narrowly escaped early tragedy when a water tank came through the ceiling and landed on his bed during the blitz. He went to Colfe’s school (then a grammar school) on a scholarship, and graduated in 1963 in electrical engineering from London University, sponsored on his sandwich course by Sperry Gyroscope, a UK arm of the US company, which had headquarters in Bracknell. He met Lesley Winks at Peggy Spencer’s ballroom dancehall in Penge, and they married in 1964.

I was the first of their three children, born in 1965 in Bracknell. Tim and Colin followed in 1967 and 1970, born in Stockport after Richard had taken up a lecturing post in 1966 at Manchester University’s brand new department of computer science, where he stayed for nearly four decades. He worked under Professor Tom Kilburn, co-creator of the computer known officially as the Small-Scale Experimental Machine and nicknamed “Baby”, specialising in simulation and modelling.

There was the constant presence of the soldering iron at home as he created complicated circuit boards for work, but also for play. The dongle disappeared from the bathroom light switch on Christmas Eve 1977 only to reappear the following day as the joystick on a “games console” he had built from scratch.

At a university open day in 1980 he proudly introduced us to “electronic mail” and a bank of boxes hooked up to green-screen TVs where several people were driving tanks through the same 3D maze, a precursor to multiplayer online games.

His alter ego was as an entertainer. He performed most weekends for over 30 years in the Nice’n’Easy Trio (“cabaret, dances, socials, weddings”). Clad in green satin frilly shirts, they played covers of the Beatles, Showaddywaddy and Glen Campbell. He sang the low notes in a three-part harmony but it was his shiny black accordion, “Nellie”, that usually stole the show.

Richard Zobel on Nellie the accordion, with fellow members of the Nice’n’Easy Trio – Roger Wilson, far left, on guitar, and Roy Whittle, centre, on drums – jamming with other musicians.
Richard Zobel on Nellie the accordion, with fellow members of the Nice’n’Easy Trio – Roger Wilson, far left, on guitar, and Roy Whittle, centre, on drums – jamming with other musicians Photograph: None

He also enjoyed gardening and the cultivation of “difficult” plants such as canna lilies, which scared the living daylights out of his children as we watched the BBC’s adaptation of The Day of the Triffids.

In the late 1980s he separated from Lesley and began a life with Margaret Graham, who was his constant companion until his death. They enjoyed travelling together, especially to Brittany in France, until his diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease. He moved into care in 2016 where he remained until his death, and although much diminished by this cruel disease, he maintained his sense of humour. Staff at his care home say they will miss his swearing.

Richard is survived by his younger brother, Jim, by Colin and me, and by his granddaughters, Georgia and Ellie. Margaret died just 10 days after him, and Tim also predeceased him.

Clare Lynas

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Richard Bird obituary
Other lives: Computer scientist whose polished style led to his being known as the ‘poet laureate of functional programming’

Jeremy Gibbons

03, Jun, 2022 @3:41 PM

Article image
David Aspinall obituary
Other lives: Computer scientist who helped build the early Manchester University Atlas computer

Robert Aspinall

28, Feb, 2020 @3:28 PM

Article image
Robert John obituary
Other lives: Pioneer of the use of type-2 fuzzy sets in computational intelligence through his research at De Montfort University

Simon Bennett

10, Apr, 2020 @11:37 AM

Article image
Howard Davies obituary
Other lives: Computer scientist whose work connected students and researchers across the world

Judy Davies

30, Sep, 2020 @5:20 PM

Article image
Richard Beckwith obituary
Other lives: Pioneer of computer networking

Sue Turner

21, Nov, 2010 @6:53 PM

Article image
William Newman obituary
Other lives: Pioneer in computer graphics

George Coulouris

27, Aug, 2019 @4:49 PM

Article image
Peter Molloy obituary
Other lives: Worker on the UK’s early ballistic missile programme who became a computer engineer and academic

Fran Perillo

25, Oct, 2018 @3:52 PM

Article image
Judy Butland obituary
Other lives: Software engineer who devised a range of computer tools

David Butland

17, Jan, 2019 @12:12 PM

Article image
Anthony Hoskyns obituary
Other Lives: Innovative physics teacher who helped to set up centres for disadvantaged young people in inner cities

Catherine Hoskyns

10, Feb, 2021 @6:27 PM

Article image
Joe Armstrong obituary
Other lives: Computer scientist with a special interest in Erlang programming language

Bjarne Däcker

08, May, 2019 @4:58 PM