Sophie Wilson

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Sophie Wilson
Sophie Wilson Presenting.jpg
Sophie Wilson giving a presentation on ARM development
Born Roger Wilson
1957 (age 57–58)[1]
Leeds, Yorkshire, England [2]
Residence Lode, Cambridgeshire[3]
Nationality British[4]
Institutions University of Cambridge
Acorn Computers
Alma mater University of Cambridge[4]
Known for Acorn Computers
BBC Micro
ARM architecture[4]
Notable awards Fellow of the Royal Society (2013)
Computer History Museum Fellow (2012) [1]
Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering (2009)

Sophie Wilson FRS FREng[5] (born Roger Wilson in Leeds, England, in 1957) is a British computer scientist and software engineer. She designed the Acorn Micro-Computer, the first of a long line of computers sold by Acorn Computers Ltd, including its programming language BBC BASIC.[6] She later designed the instruction set of the ARM processor, which became the de facto model used in 21st century smartphones. She is a member of the Royal Society.

Early life and education[edit]

Wilson was born in Leeds, Yorkshire. Her parents were both teachers, her father specialising in English and her mother in physics.[2] She studied computer science and the Cambridge Mathematical Tripos at the University of Cambridge.[4] In an Easter break from university, she designed a microcomputer with a 6502 microprocessor inspired by the earlier MK14,[7] which was used to electronically control feed for cows.[8]


In 1978, Wilson joined Acorn Computers Ltd, after she had designed a device to prevent cigarette lighter sparks triggering payouts on fruit machines.[8] Her computer design was used by Chris Curry and Hermann Hauser to build the Acorn Micro-Computer, the first of a long line of computers sold by the company.[6][7]

In July 1981, Wilson extended the Acorn Atom's BASIC programming language dialect into an improved version for the Acorn Proton, a microcomputer that enabled Acorn to win the contract with the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) for their ambitious computer education project.[9] Hauser played a mental game where he told Wilson and colleague Steve Furber that each other had agreed a prototype could be built within a week. Agreeing to the challenge, she designed the system including the circuit board and components from Monday to Wednesday, which required new 4Mhz DRAM units being sourced directly from Hitachi. By Thursday evening, a prototype had been built, but the software had bugs, requiring Wilson to stay up all night and into Friday debugging. She recalled watching the wedding of Charles, Prince of Wales, and Lady Diana Spencer on a small portable television while attempting to debug and re-solder the prototype. It was a success with the BBC, who awarded Acorn the contract. Along with Furber, Wilson was present backstage at the machine's first airing on television, in case any software fixes were required. She later described the event as "a unique moment in time when the public wanted to know how this stuff works and could be shown and taught how to program."[10] The Proton became the BBC Micro and its BASIC evolved into BBC BASIC, whose development was led by Wilson for the next 15 years. As well as programming, she wrote the manuals and technical specifications, realising communication was an important part of being successful.[8]

In October 1983, Wilson began designing the instruction set for one of the first RISC processors, the Acorn RISC Machine (ARM),[11] The ARM1 was delivered on 26 April 1985 and worked first time.[12] The processor type later to become one of the most successful IP cores (i.e., a licensed CPU core) and by 2012 was being used in 95% of smartphones.[8]

Wilson designed Acorn Replay, the video architecture for Acorn machines. This included the operating system extensions for video access as well as the codecs themselves, optimised to run high frame rate video on ARM CPUs from the ARM 2 onwards.

Wilson was a member of the board of the technology and games company Eidos plc, which bought and created Eidos Interactive, for the years following its flotation in 1990, and was a consultant to ARM Ltd when it was split off from Acorn in 1990.

Wilson giving a public presentation on ARM development in 2009

Since the demise of Acorn Computers, Wilson has made a small number of public appearances to talk about her time there.[13]

Wilson is now the Director of IC Design in Broadcom’s Cambridge, UK office.[14] She was the Chief Architect of Broadcom's Firepath processor.[15] Firepath has its history in Acorn Computers, which, after being renamed to Element 14, was bought by Broadcom in 2000.

She was listed in 2011 in Maximum PC as number 8 in an article entitled The 15 Most Important Women in Tech History.[16] She was awarded the Fellow Award by the Computer History Museum in California in 2012 "for her work, with Steve Furber, on the BBC Micro computer and the ARM processor architecture."[17][18][19][20] In 2013 Sophie was elected as a Fellow of the prestigious Royal Society.[21]

Personal life[edit]

Wilson is transgender.[22][23] In the BBC television drama Micro Men, a young version of her is played by Stefan Butler and Wilson herself makes a cameo appearance as a pub landlady.[23]



  1. ^ a b Sophie Wilson 2012 Fellow
  2. ^ a b
  3. ^ "Wilson's Website". Retrieved 1 January 2010. 
  4. ^ a b c d "Sophie". Retrieved 1 January 2010. 
  5. ^ "List of Fellows". 
  6. ^ a b Russell, R. T. "A History of BBC BASIC". Retrieved 10 June 2007. 
  7. ^ a b Gelenbe 2009, p. 118.
  8. ^ a b c d Bidmead, Chris (2 May 2012). "Unsung Heroes of Tech : ARM creators Sophie Wilson and Steve Furber". The Register. Retrieved 9 November 2015. 
  9. ^ Gelenbe 2009, p. 119.
  10. ^ "BBC Micro ignites memories of revolution". BBC News. 21 March 2008. Retrieved 26 October 2015. 
  11. ^ Gelenbe 2009, p. 121.
  12. ^ Hohl & Hinds 2014, pp. 5-6.
  13. ^ "CU Computer Preservation Society 1998–1999". Cambridge University Computer Preservation Society. 29 August 2002. Retrieved 28 June 2011. On 20th October 1998, Sophie Wilson spoke to an audience of 22 about Acorn from the BBC to the ARM. 
  14. ^ Murry, Sarah. "Broadcom Engineer Sophie Wilson Named Computer History Museum 2012 Fellow". Broadcom. Retrieved 22 May 2012. 
  15. ^ Smotherman, Mark. "Which Machines Do Computer Architects Admire?". Retrieved 22 May 2012. 
  16. ^ Bouman, Amber (1 March 2011). "The 15 Most Important Women in Tech History". Maximum PC. Retrieved 12 March 2012. 
  17. ^ Sweet, Carina (19 January 2012). "The Computer History Museum Announces Its 2012 Fellow Award Honorees". MarketWatch. Retrieved 30 January 2012. today announced its 2012 Fellow Award honorees: [...] Steve Furber and Sophie Wilson, chief architects of the ARM processor architecture [...] 
  18. ^ "Fellow Awards - Sophie Wilson". Computer History Museum. Retrieved 30 January 2012. 
  19. ^ Williams, Alun (20 January 2012). "Four ARM cores for every person on earth – Furber, Wilson honoured". Electronics Weekly. Retrieved 7 March 2012. 
  20. ^ Murry, Sarah (19 January 2012). "Broadcom Engineer Sophie Wilson Named Computer History Museum 2012 Fellow". Broadcom. Retrieved 7 March 2012. 
  21. ^
  22. ^ "sufficiently advanced technology : the gathering". Need To Know. 25 January 2002. Retrieved 20 June 2010. 
  23. ^ a b Williams, Chris (8 October 2009). "BBC4's Micro Men: an interview and review". Drobe. Retrieved 20 June 2010. 


  • Hohl, William; Hinds, Christopher (2014). ARM Assembly Language: Fundamentals and Techniques, Second Edition. CRC Press. ISBN 978-1-482-22985-1. 
  • Gelenbe, Erol (2009). Fundamental Concepts in Computer Science. Imperial College Press. ISBN 978-1-848-16291-4. 

External links[edit]