Tom Kilburn

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Tom Kilburn
Born (1921-08-11)11 August 1921[1]
Dewsbury, Yorkshire
Died 17 January 2001(2001-01-17) (aged 79)
Nationality English
Institutions University of Manchester
Telecommunications Research Establishment
University of Cambridge
Alma mater University of Manchester
Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge
Thesis A storage system for use with binary digital computing machines (1948)
Doctoral advisor Frederic Calland Williams[2]
Known for Manchester Mark 1
Notable awards Fellow of the Royal Society (1965)
Spouse Irene Marsden

Tom Kilburn CBE, FRS (11 August 1921 – 17 January 2001)[3] was an English engineer. With Freddie Williams he worked on the Williams-Kilburn Tube[4][5] and the world's first stored-program computer, the Small-Scale Experimental Machine (SSEM), while working at the University of Manchester.[6][7][8]

Computer engineering[edit]

Kilburn was born in Dewsbury, Yorkshire and studied the Cambridge Mathematical Tripos at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, pursuing a course compressed to two years following the outbreak of World War II. On graduation, he was recruited by C.P. Snow for unspecified secret work and found himself on a crash course in electronics before being posted to the Telecommunications Research Establishment in Malvern to work on radar under Frederic Calland Williams. In 1943 he married Irene Marsden and the couple went on to raise a son and a daughter.

Kilburn's wartime work inspired his enthusiasm for some form of electronic computer. The principal technical barrier to such a development at that time was the lack of any practical means of storage for data and instructions. Kilburn and Williams collaboratively developed a storage device based on a cathode ray tube called Williams-Kilburn tube. A patent was filed in 1946.

In December 1946, Williams took up the chair of electrotechnics at Manchester and recruited Kilburn on secondment from Malvern. The two developed their storage technology and, in 1948, Kilburn put it to a practical test in constructing the Small-Scale Experimental Machine which became the first stored-program computer to run a program, on 21 June 1948.

Kilburn received the degree of Ph.D.[2] for his work at Manchester and had then anticipated a return to Malvern. However, Williams persuaded him to stay to work on the university's collaborative project developing the Ferranti Mark 1, the world's first commercial computer. Over the next three decades, Kilburn led the development of a succession of innovative Manchester computers including Atlas and MU5.


During his career at the University of Manchester, Kilburn was instrumental in forming the School of Computer Science in 1964, becoming the first head of the department, and served as Dean of the Faculty of Science (1970–1972) and pro-vice-chancellor of the university (1976–1979). He retired in 1981.


Kilburn habitually holidayed with his family in Blackpool but was always back in time for Manchester United F.C.'s first match of the football season.

He died in Manchester of pneumonia following abdominal surgery.



  1. ^ Kahn, Hilary J. (2004). "Kilburn, Tom (1921–2001), computer scientist". The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/55314.  edit
  2. ^ a b Kilburn, Tom (1948). A storage system for use with binary digital computing machines (PhD thesis). University of Manchester. 
  3. ^ Wilkes, M.; Kahn, H. J. (2003). "Tom Kilburn CBE FREng. 11 August 1921 - 17 January 2001". Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society 49: 283. doi:10.1098/rsbm.2003.0016.  edit
  4. ^ Why Williams-Kilburn Tube is a Better Name for the Williams Tube
  5. ^ Kilburn, Tom (1990), "From Cathode Ray Tube to Ferranti Mark I", Resurrection (The Computer Conservation Society) 1 (2), ISSN 0958-7403, retrieved 15 March 2012 
  6. ^ Kilburn, T. (1949). "The University of Manchester Universal High-Speed Digital Computing Machine". Nature 164 (4173): 684–687. doi:10.1038/164684a0. PMID 15392930.  edit
  7. ^ Williams, Frederic; Kilburn, Tom (1948). "Electronic Digital Computers". Nature 162 (4117): 487. doi:10.1038/162487a0.  edit
  8. ^ Williams, F.C.; Kilburn, T. (1949). "A storage system for use with binary-digital computing machines". Proceedings of the IEE - Part II: Power Engineering. doi:10.1049/pi-2.1949.0078.  edit

External links[edit]

Academic offices
Preceded by
Head of the School of Computer Science, University of Manchester
Succeeded by
Dai Edwards