David Wheeler (computer scientist)

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David Wheeler
David John Wheeler

(1927-02-09)9 February 1927[5]
Birmingham, England
Died13 December 2004(2004-12-13) (aged 77)
Cambridge, England
EducationUniversity of Cambridge (MA, PhD)
Known forinventing subroutines
Burrows–Wheeler transform (BWT)[6]
Tiny Encryption Algorithm (TEA)[7]
Wheeler Jump[8]
AwardsFellow of the Royal Society (1981)
Computer Pioneer Award (1985)
Fellow, Computer History Museum (2003)[1]
Scientific career
FieldsComputer Science
InstitutionsUniversity of Cambridge
Computer Lab, Cambridge
Darwin College, Cambridge
Thesis Automatic Computing With EDSAC  (1951)
Doctoral advisorMaurice Wilkes[2]
Doctoral students

David John Wheeler ForMemRS (9 February 1927 – 13 December 2004)[10][11][12] was a computer scientist and professor of computer science at the University of Cambridge.[13][14][15][16]


Wheeler was born in Birmingham, England, the second of the three children of (Agnes) Marjorie, née Gudgeon, and Arthur Wheeler, a press tool maker, engineer, and proprietor of a small shopfitting firm.[17] He was educated at a local primary school in Birmingham and then went on to King Edward VI Camp Hill School after winning a scholarship in 1938. His education was disrupted by World War II, and he completed his sixth form studies at Hanley High School.[17] In 1945 he gained a scholarship to study the Cambridge Mathematical Tripos at Trinity College, Cambridge, graduating in 1948.[18] He was awarded the world's first[19] PhD in computer science in 1951.[19][20]


Wheeler's contributions to the field included work on the Electronic Delay Storage Automatic Calculator (EDSAC) in the 1950s[21] and the Burrows–Wheeler transform (published 1994). Along with Maurice Wilkes and Stanley Gill, he is credited with the invention around 1951 of the subroutine (which they referred to as the closed subroutine), and gave the first explanation of how to design software libraries;[8] as a result, the jump to subroutine instruction was often called a Wheeler Jump. Wilkes published a paper in 1953 discussing relative addressing to facilitate the use of subroutines.[22] (However, Turing had discussed subroutines in a paper of 1945 on design proposals for the NPL ACE, going so far as to invent the concept of a return address stack.[23])

He was responsible for the implementation of the CAP computer, the first to be based on security capabilities. In cryptography, he was the designer of WAKE and the co-designer of the TEA and XTEA encryption algorithms together with Roger Needham. In 1950, with Maurice Wilkes, he used EDSAC to solve a differential equation relating to gene frequencies in a paper by Ronald Fisher.[24] This represents the first use of a computer for a problem in the field of biology.

He became a Fellow of Darwin College, Cambridge in 1964 and formally retired in 1994, although he continued to be an active member of the University of Cambridge Computer Laboratory until his death.

Personal life[edit]

On 24 August 1957 Wheeler married astrophysics research student Joyce Margaret Blackler, who had used EDSAC for her own mathematical investigations as a research student from 1955. Together they had two daughters and a son.

Wheeler died of a heart attack on 13 December 2004 while cycling home from the Computer Laboratory.[17]

Recognition and legacy[edit]


The Computer Laboratory at the University of Cambridge annually holds the "Wheeler Lecture", a series of distinguished lectures named after him.[25]


Wheeler is often quoted as saying "All problems in computer science can be solved by another level of indirection."[26] or "All problems in computer science can be solved by another level of indirection, except for the problem of too many layers of indirection."[27] This has been called the fundamental theorem of software engineering.

Another quotation attributed to him is "Compatibility means deliberately repeating other people's mistakes."[28]


  1. ^ a b "David John Wheeler: 2003 Fellow". Computer History Museum. Retrieved 15 May 2020.
  2. ^ a b c d e David Wheeler at the Mathematics Genealogy Project
  3. ^ Li, Gong; Wheeler, David J. (1990). "A matrix key-distribution scheme". Journal of Cryptology. 2 (1): 51–59. CiteSeerX doi:10.1007/bf02252869. S2CID 30468228.
  4. ^ Hopper, Andy (1978). Local Area Computer Communication Networks (PhD thesis). University of Cambridge.
  5. ^ Campbell-Kelly, Martin (2004). "Wheeler, David John (1927–2004)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Vol. 1 (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/94633. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  6. ^ Burrows, Michael; Wheeler, David J. (1994), A block sorting lossless data compression algorithm, Technical Report 124, Digital Equipment Corporation
  7. ^ Wheeler, D. J.; Needham, R. M. (1995). "TEA, a tiny encryption algorithm". Fast Software Encryption. Lecture Notes in Computer Science. Vol. 1008. p. 363. doi:10.1007/3-540-60590-8_29. ISBN 978-3-540-60590-4.
  8. ^ a b Wheeler, D. J. (1952). "The use of sub-routines in programmes". Proceedings of the 1952 ACM national meeting (Pittsburgh) on - ACM '52. p. 235. doi:10.1145/609784.609816. Archived from the original on 28 June 2015.
  9. ^ Wheeler, D. J. (1992). "The EDSAC programming systems". IEEE Annals of the History of Computing. 14 (4): 34–40. doi:10.1109/85.194053. S2CID 23064533.
  10. ^ Campbell-Kelly, M. (2006). "David John Wheeler. 9 February 1927 -- 13 December 2004: Elected FRS 1981". Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society. 52: 437–453. doi:10.1098/rsbm.2006.0030.
  11. ^ "David Wheeler, 1927–2004". Obituaries. Cambridge Computer Laboratory. Retrieved 21 July 2011.
  12. ^ "Professor David Wheeler". Obituaries. The Independent. London. 22 December 2004. Retrieved 21 July 2011.[dead link]
  13. ^ David Wheeler publications indexed by Microsoft Academic
  14. ^ Wheeler, D. J. (1994). "A bulk data encryption algorithm". Fast Software Encryption. Lecture Notes in Computer Science. Vol. 809. pp. 127–134. doi:10.1007/3-540-58108-1_16. ISBN 978-3-540-58108-6.
  15. ^ Hopper, A.; Wheeler, J. (October 1979). "Binary Routing Networks". IEEE Transactions on Computers. C-28 (10): 699–703. doi:10.1109/tc.1979.1675237. ISSN 0018-9340. S2CID 20076347.
  16. ^ Hopper, A.; Wheeler, D. (April 1979). "Maintenance of Ring Communication Systems". IEEE Transactions on Communications. 27 (4): 760–761. doi:10.1109/tcom.1979.1094451. ISSN 0090-6778.
  17. ^ a b c Campbell-Kelly, Martin (3 January 2008). "Wheeler, David John (1927–2004), computer scientist". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Vol. 1 (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/94633. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  18. ^ David J. Wheeler at DBLP Bibliography Server Edit this at Wikidata
  19. ^ a b Hey, Tony; Pápay, Gyuri (2015). "The Software Is In The Holes". The Computing Universe: A Journey through a Revolution. Cambridge University Press. p. 47. ISBN 9780521766456.
  20. ^ The Preparation of Programs for an Electronic Digital Computer by Maurice Wilkes, David Wheeler, and Stanley Gill; (original 1951); reprinted with new introduction by Martin Campbell-Kelly; 198 pp.; illus; biblio; bios; index; ISBN 0-262-23118-2
  21. ^ Wilkes, M.V.; Renwick, W.; Wheeler, D.J. (1958). "The design of the control unit of an electronic digital computer". Proceedings of the IEE - Part B: Radio and Electronic Engineering. 105 (20): 121–128. doi:10.1049/pi-b-1.1958.0267 – via ResearchGate.
  22. ^ Proceedings of the Cambridge Philosophical Society, Vol 49, Pt 1, pgs 84-9
  23. ^ Turing, Alan M. (1945), Report by Dr. A.M. Turing on proposals for the development of an Automatic Computing Engine (ACE): Submitted to the Executive Committee of the NPL in February 1946 reprinted in Copeland, B. J., ed. (2005), Alan Turing's Automatic Computing Engine, Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 383, ISBN 0-19-856593-3
  24. ^ Fisher, R. A. (December 1950). "Gene Frequencies in a Cline Determined by Selection and Diffusion" (PDF). Biometrics. 6 (4): 353–361. doi:10.2307/3001780. hdl:2440/15146. JSTOR 3001780. PMID 14791572.
  25. ^ "Computer Laboratory:Wheeler Lectures". Retrieved 15 October 2013.
  26. ^ Spinellis, Diomidis (2007). "Another level of indirection". In Oram, Andy; Wilson, Greg (eds.). Beautiful code. Sebastopol, CA: O'Reilly. ISBN 978-0-596-51004-6.
  27. ^ Bjarne, Stroustrup. The C++ Programming Language - 4th edition. p. Preface.
  28. ^ Cofta, Piotr (27 September 2007). Trust, Complexity and Control: Confidence in a Convergent World. John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 9780470517840.

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