Allan G. Bromley
Allan George Bromley (1947–2002) was an Australian historian of computing who became a world authority on many aspects of early computing and was one of the most avid collectors of mechanical calculators.
His work on understanding Charles Babbage's calculating engines is Allan Bromley's greatest legacy. The October–December 2000 issue of the IEEE Annals of the History of Computing was dedicated to him for the quality of his research on this subject.
Dr. Allan Bromley started collecting mechanical calculators in 1979. A year later he already had sixty pieces. Eventually he was responsible for a collection of old computers which used to be displayed in the rear foyer of the building containing the University of Sydney Computer Science Department. At home, he had a large personal collection of mechanical calculators, slide rules, etc. He was a generous donor of artefacts to museums in Australia, especially the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, and the Australian Computer Museum Society Inc.
His collection included some rare pieces. The pride of place was taken by four mechanical anti-aircraft gun predictors developed and built by the British government after world war I. These machines, weighing about half a tonne, marked the height of mechanical computation, they were first used in the spanish civil war and extensively during world war II. They performed in real-time and were capable of predicting the firing angle to explode a shell within 10 meters of a plane at anything up to 10,000 meters.
Charles Babbage's computing engines
Most discussions of the history of computing start with Charles Babbage, and what we know about Charles Babbage's Difference and Analytical engines really starts with the scholarship of Allan Bromley.—Tim Berguin, Editor-in-chief, IEEE Annals of the History of Computing, Volume 22, number 4, October–December 2000, p.2
Allan Bromley's most important and lasting achievement was his study, at the Science Museum library in London, of the original drawings for the Difference and Analytical Engines designed by Charles Babbage more than a century earlier. This led to the reconstruction of two Difference Engines No. 2 under the direction of Doron Swade:
During several visits to London beginning in 1979, Allan G. Bromley of the University of Sidney in Australia examined Babbage's drawings and notebooks in the Science Museum Library and became convinced that Difference Engine No. 2 could be built and would work. I had independently read of Babbage's hapless fate and become deeply puzzled as to why no one had tried to resolve the issue of Babbage's failures by actually building his engine.
In 1985, shortly after my appointment as curator of computing, Bromley appeared at the science museum carrying a two-page proposal to do just that. He suggested that the museum attempt to complete the machine by 1991, the bicentenary of Babbage's birth. Bromley's proposal marked the start of a six years project that became something of a personal crusade for me.—Doron D. Swade, Scientific American, February 1993, p.89
Bromley built a partial reconstruction of the Antikythera mechanism, one of the oldest (surviving) geared mechanisms known. Working with Frank Percival, a Sydney clockmaker, he improved on an earlier reconstruction by Derek J. de Solla Price. Having tested Price's theory using Meccano parts, Bromley found that the mechanism was unworkable. Working with Percival, he improved the device by altering the function of the handle so that one complete rotation would correspond to a single day, which he considered to be the most obvious astronomical unit. Bromley worked with the same set of parts as Price, but suspected that a gap in the mechanism was originally home to several extra gears.
Another breakthrough by Bromley concerned a train of gearing which appeared to have 15 and 63 teeth, for which Price had been unable to discover a purpose. Price considered these numbers to be too difficult to work with, and assumed that they should be corrected to 16 and 64, theorising that it could have operated a four-year cycle on the device. Bromley worked with the original count of 15 and 63 teeth, discovering that the train's cycle was four and a half years; four of such cycles equalled 18 years, a duration equal to the cycle of eclipses. With this gearing, the mechanism worked correctly, with the pointer moving into a new square for each new moon, as the handle is turned, meaning that each square on a dial represented one month. Over 223 months, or 18 years, the complete cycle is shown.
Allan George Bromley was born on 1 February 1947 and named after his uncle Allan, who was killed in New Guinea during World War II, and his father George, who died on 8 August 1962. He grew up on a 30-acre property at Freeman's Reach, on the Hawkesbury River, New South Wales, Australia,. in an historic home, "Sunny Corner". He completed his schooling at Richmond High School and at 17 his academic ability earned him a scholarship and a place to study science at the University of Sydney in 1964. He was awarded the Nuclear Research Foundation Medal, University of Sydney, Summer Science School, 1963.
Allan graduated with first class honours in physics in 1967, stayed on for a research degree in astrophysics, and was awarded his PhD in 1971. His doctoral work on maser emission from interstellar gas clouds required extensive computation with high-order polynomials, and awakened his interest in computing.
He was an inspired teacher. His philosophy was in many ways more suited to the contemplative style of the Oxbridge tradition, at odds with the market-driven ethos of his day and today.
Bromley had an amateur interest in the history of mechanical inventions, and was aware of the ancestral figure of Charles Babbage. No one had ever made a very detailed study of Babbage's papers and, in a surprising career move, Bromley decided to turn historian and took a year's sabbatical leave in 1979 to work on the Babbage Papers at the Science Museum in London. What he found was overwhelming: notebooks containing over 6,000 pages of Babbage's impenetrable scribblings, 300 machine drawings, and several hundred notations. These were to occupy Bromley for the next several years. His first marriage, to Jann Makepeace, was during this time. Bromley worked with and convinced the Science Museum in London that Babbage’s Difference Engine No. 2, designed between 1847 and 1849, could be built and subsequently it was in 1989-91.
After Babbage's engines, Bromley moved on to other historical computing artefacts. He made a path-breaking study of the Antikythera Mechanism, originally made famous by the Yale historian Derek de Solla Price in the late 1950s. Price had speculated that the mechanism, dating from 50 BC, was an astronomical calculating device. Bromley's background in astrophysics paid dividends, and after several trips to Athens where he obtained radiographs of the inner mechanisms, and with the help of a clockmaker Frank Percival, back in Sydney, they produced a working reconstruction. In November 2000, Bromley was given a Distinguished Service Award and made an Honorary Associate of the Powerhouse Museum, Sydney. In 1998, after a long spell of illness, he was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma. He met Anne Mitchell at this time and on 15 April 2000 they married under the Jacaranda Tree in the Main Quadrangle at the University of Sydney.
- Graeme Philipson, Allan Bromley: historian, eccentric, gem, 27 August 2002.
- Michael R. Williams, Allan Bromley, IEEE Annals of the History of Computing, 22(4):3, October–December 2000.
- IEEE Annals of the History of Computing, 22(4), October–December 2000.
- The University of Sydney News, 29 March 1988, p.39
- The Gazette, May 1980, p.24
- Omega Science Digest, Nov–Dec 1983
- Comments on "Decoding the Heavens", many details about Bromley's involvement in the Antikythera Mechanism research.
- "Article". The University of Sydney News. 29 March 1988. p. 39.
- Received from Anne Bromley, Allan Bromley's widow, 22 September 2012.
- The last of the first, Biography of Allan Bromley, p.160 (2000)