Conway Berners-Lee

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Conway Berners-Lee
Conway Maurice Berners-Lee

(1921-09-19)19 September 1921
Died1 February 2019(2019-02-01) (aged 97)[1]
Alma materTrinity College, Cambridge
EmployerNPL ICI, Ferranti, ICT, ICL
(m. 1954; died 2017)
Parent(s)Helen Lane Campbell Gray and Cecil Burford Berners-Lee

Conway Maurice Berners-Lee (19 September 1921[2] – 1 February 2019) was an English mathematician and computer scientist who worked as a member of the team that developed the Ferranti Mark 1, the world's first commercial stored program electronic computer.[3][4] He was born in Birmingham in 1921[5] and was the father of Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, and Professor Mike Berners-Lee, researcher into climate change.

Early and personal life[edit]

Berners-Lee was son of Major Cecil Burford Berners-Lee (1884–1931), of the Royal Field Artillery,[6] and Helen Lane Campbell Gray (1895–1968). His mother was from Winnipeg, Manitoba, daughter of John Sidney Gray, M.D.[7][8]

Berners-Lee died in February 2019 at the age of 97.[1][9]


Early in World War II whilst an undergraduate at Trinity College, Cambridge reading mathematics, Berners-Lee volunteered for the armed services, but was instructed to stay on to take parts I and II of the mathematical tripos as a compressed two-year course, because the government needed people trained in mathematics and electronics. In addition, he attended a series of lectures in electronics. After university, he had further training in electronic engineering and soon joined the army in the Corps of Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (REME). He worked on Gun Laying and Searchlight Radar in England.

After the end of hostilities, Berners-Lee was posted to Egypt where he encountered Maurice Kendall's book The Advanced Theory of Statistics, which greatly impressed him. He then had a chance to join the statistics bureau in the GHQ in Cairo, known as the Number 1 Statistics Unit of the Royal Army Ordnance Corps. He was employed to close down a very large punched card installation involving about five million 65-column punched cards covering all types of vehicle and spares. This meant that they had to say goodbye to 30 women who had been punching the cards. The last job was sorting and listing the 250,000 personnel cards to get all the service people onto ships for home. There was a race with the clerks doing this job by hand—and the clerks won over the machines.[3]

Berners-Lee was demobilised in 1947 with the rank of Major. He then worked on a punched card data processing system for the Plastics Division of Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI). He met his wife Mary Lee Woods at the Ferranti Christmas party in Manchester in 1952. She had been working as a programmer on the Ferranti Mark 1 and Mark 1 Star computers at the Department of Computer Science, University of Manchester since 1951.[10][11] He joined Ferranti in 1953 working at Ferranti's London Computer Centre.[12] They were married on 10 July 1954 at St Saviour's Church, Hampstead.[13]

The following is an extract from Dominic Wilson's book Organizational Marketing.[14]

In Manchester, nearly half the programmers were women, Conway Berners-Lee, who married one of them, said 'Ferranti hired intelligent girls very cheaply but this gave them a big cultural problem because, prior to that, the company had only employed women as typists or factory hands'. 'Men got more than women', Mary Lee added. 'It was grossly unfair and there was a rebellion. The personnel officer was shocked we'd even discussed our wages.' She was on £400 a year. [Her starting salary was actually £450.] 'The Tin Hut [where the programmers worked] marriage rate was high', her husband said. 'The Robinsons … the Bennetts … the Clarkes … us.' [ ... ] Many of these pioneers had moved on to professorships, or stock options and top executive jobs. They'd been the culmination of a measured progress from military radar work to academia to commerce, and the heroically named 'Pegasus’ computers had made Ferranti a lot of money.

In the 1950s it was not clear how computers could usefully be employed away from the field of mathematics.[15] As well as statistics, Berners-Lee had acquired a knowledge of operations research (OR), and he showed himself to be good at devising worthwhile computer applications. He directed the development of routines for the basic data processing techniques of sorting and updating files. In 1956 he devised an application for planning the production of items from a variety of components, for example, animal feed products. In 1957 he published an article on machine loading.[15] A report that he produced in 1964 listed 31 Ferranti projects that used OR techniques in a wide variety of businesses.[12]

Conway Berners-Lee and Mary Lee Berners-Lee in 2013

The business computing division of Ferranti was merged with International Computers and Tabulators (ICT) in 1963, and ICT was, in turn, merged with English Electric Leo Marconi (EELM) computers in 1968 to form International Computers Limited (ICL).

In 1960 Berners-Lee had evolved a technique for editing text—including hyphenation—for metal typesetting of printed material. As space in memory and backing store was a scarce and valuable resource in those days, he had also devised a procedure for compressing text, which in 1963 he sent to Bob Bemer at Univac.[16]

In the late 1960s Berners-Lee led the Medical Development Team of ICT and then ICL. He was involved in some of the earliest developments in the applications of computers in medicine, and his text compression ideas were taken up by an early electronic patient record system.[17]

Berners-Lee spent the 1970s developing and using a queuing network model[18] for ICL's 'New Range' of computers (later the ICL 2900 Series) with Dr John Pinkerton who was responsible for optimising the price/performance of the new systems. It was known as FAST – standing for Football Analogy for System Throughput.[19][20] The work done by each 'player' was derived from a system monitor file containing data for device and concurrency counts. He received much encouragement when Hughes and Moe at Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Trondheim, predicted the effect of increasing the memory on their Univac Installation. The model could also be used to predict throughput on a minute to minute basis – peaks being believed to be due to instability in the operating system. He retired in 1986.[21]


  1. ^ a b Gagne, Ken (27 December 2019). "Tech luminaries we lost in 2019". Computerworld. Retrieved 28 February 2021.
  2. ^ Reed Business Information (7 March 1957). New Scientist. Reed Business Information. pp. 43–.
  3. ^ a b Conway and Mary Lee Berners-Lee, interviewed by Thomas Lean, 2010–2011, An Oral History of British Science, British Library Sound & Moving Image reference C1379/23 Audio and Transcript (at British Library only but brief Content summary available online).
  4. ^ Although the Ferranti Mark 1was preceded by the BINAC and the Z4, BINIAC was not designed as a general purpose computer and it was never used for its intended purpose,"Description of the BINAC", citing Annals of the History of Computing, Vol. 10 No. 1 1988, archived from the original on 4 August 2008, retrieved 5 June 2009 and Konrad Zuse's Z4 was electro-mechanical not electronic Dead medium: the Zuse Ziffernrechner; the V1, Z1, Z2, Z3 and Z4 program-controlled electromechanical digital computers; the death of Konrad Zuse, retrieved 5 June 2009
  5. ^ "Births", The Times, London (42835), p. 1, 26 September 1921
  6. ^ The London Gazette, 6 October 1908, p. 7227
  7. ^ Winnipeg Free Press, 2 September 1920, p. 8
  8. ^ Reitwiesner, William Addams. "Ancestry of Tim Berners-Lee". Retrieved 28 February 2021.
  9. ^ News Bulletin from the Parish of SS Alban & Stephen
  10. ^ Scientific pioneers honoured by The University of Manchester
  11. ^ I am Tim Berners-Lee. I invented the WWW 25 years ago and I am concerned and excited about its future. AMA
  12. ^ a b Ross, Hugh McGregor (Summer 2001), "Ferranti's London Computer Centre", Resurrection: The Bulletin of the Computer Conservation Society (25), ISSN 0958-7403, retrieved 5 June 2009
  13. ^ "Marriages", The Times, London (52981), p. 1, 12 July 1954
  14. ^ Wilson, Dominic (1999), Organizational Marketing, Cengage Learning EMEA, p. 262, ISBN 978-1-86152-480-5
  15. ^ a b Ross, Hugh McGregor (Autumn 2005), "Finding the Necessity for Invention", Resurrection: The Bulletin of the Computer Conservation Society (36), ISSN 0958-7403, retrieved 5 June 2009
  16. ^ Bemer, Bob, Getting to know a Berners-Lee, Computer History Vignettes, archived from the original on 16 December 2004, retrieved 5 June 2009
  17. ^ Coles, E. C.; Beilin, L. J.; Bulpitt, C. J.; Dollery, C. T.; Johnson, B. F.; Mearns, C.; Munro-Faure, A. D.; Turner, S. C.; et al. (1973), "Computer-based records in the clinic (a)", Proc. R.Soc. Lond. B, 184 (1077), pp. 387–397, Bibcode:1973RSPSB.184..387C, doi:10.1098/rspb.1973.0058, PMID 4149140, S2CID 36059484
  18. ^ Kelly, F. P. (1979), Reversibility and Stochastic Networks (Probability & Mathematical Statistics), John Wiley & Sons, ISBN 978-0-471-27601-2
  19. ^ Berners-Lee, C.M. (1979), "Network Models of System Performance", ICL Technical Journal (published May 1979), 1 (2), p. 147, ISSN 0142-1557
  20. ^ Berners-Lee, C.M. (1976), "Four Years Experience with Performance Methodology for System Planning", Proceedings of Computer Performance Evaluation Session, EUROCOMP 1976 (published September 1976), pp. 165–187
  21. ^ Ferry, Georgina (23 January 2018). "Mary Lee Berners-Lee obituary". The Guardian.

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