Howard Davies obituary

Other lives: Computer scientist whose work connected students and researchers across the world

My husband, Howard Davies, who has died aged 81, knew from a young age that he wanted to become a scientist and as a boy engineering was his passion. However, during his studies he became increasingly interested in computing and went on to play a key role in establishing academic computer networks in Europe.

Born in Bradford, where his parents, Eddie Davies and Margaret (nee Hunter), owned a small grocer’s shop, Howard attended Bradford grammar school and excelled in maths and science. In 1958 he was awarded a scholarship to study engineering science at Balliol College, Oxford. He achieved a first-class degree in just two years and went on to complete a doctorate in engineering and computing.

We met at a party in Bradford, our home town, in 1958. We married in 1964 and went straight to Geneva where, still in his 20s, Howard took a role as a scientific programmer at Cern (the European Organization for Nuclear Research). He later became a group leader and was project manager for the organisation’s first general purpose internal network. While working in Switzerland, he became a keen off-piste skier, climbing to high altitude and skiing down glaciers including the Aletsch in Switzerland and the Mer de Glace in France.

In 1977 Howard returned to England with a young family to become director of the computer unit at Exeter University. He was responsible for the provision of computing services to all academic departments and also for the development of services based on the use of Janet – the national research network in the UK – and its successors. During this period, he spent six months in 1986 as a visiting computer specialist at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center in California. Despite his huge workload Howard also found the time to run a small farm with me at Kennford, near Exeter, keeping horses, cows, chickens and the odd goat.

In 1989 he became involved in Cosine, the European computer network. In 1993, he became vice-president of Rare, the Europe-wide research and education network. And in 1993 he moved to Cambridge as joint director of the not-for-profit start up Dante. There he played a prominent role in the implementation of a powerful data-communications infrastructure to support research and education across Europe.

Before his early retirement in 2001, due to the onset of Parkinson’s disease, Howard saw the successful launch into production of the Geant network, which today interconnects more than 110 countries worldwide and is used by millions of scientists and students daily.

Unbowed by his diagnosis, Howard used his newfound spare time to edit a book, A History of International Research Networking – The People Who Made it Happen, with Beatrice Bressan of Cern. He also returned regularly to the French/Swiss Alps, where we spent many happy times skiing and hiking.

Howard was a gentle, unassuming person and one of those rare people who really would help anyone in need.

He is survived by me and by our daughters, Claire and Jacqui, and three grandchildren.

Judy Davies

The GuardianTramp

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