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
Alma mater
Thesis A storage system for use with binary digital computing machines (1948)
Doctoral advisor Frederic Calland Williams[2][3]
Known for
Notable awards
Spouse Irene Marsden

Tom Kilburn CBE, FRS[5][6] (11 August 1921 – 17 January 2001) was an English engineer. With Freddie Williams he worked on the Williams-Kilburn Tube[7][8] and the world's first stored-program computer, the Small-Scale Experimental Machine (SSEM), while working at the University of Manchester.[9][10][11][12][13][14][15][16][17][18][19][20][21][22]

Education and Research[edit]

Kilburn was born in Dewsbury, Yorkshire, where he attended the Wheelwright Grammar School for Boys. He 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[citation needed] for unspecified secret work and found himself on a crash course in electronics before being posted to the Telecommunications Research Establishment (TRE) in Malvern to work on radar under Frederic Calland Williams.

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[23] including Atlas and MU5.

During Kilburn's 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).

Awards and Honours[edit]

The Kilburn building, home of the School of Computer Science at the University of Manchester is named in honour of Tom Kilburn.

Kilburn received numerous awards including:

His nomination for the Royal Society reads:

Personal life[edit]

In 1943 Kilburn married Irene Marsden and the couple went on to raise a son and a daughter.[citation needed]

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 retired in 1981 and 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. 
  2. ^ a b c Kilburn, Tom (1948). A storage system for use with binary digital computing machines (PhD thesis). University of Manchester. 
  3. ^ Kilburn, T.; Piggott, L. S. (1978). "Frederic Calland Williams. 26 June 1911-11 August 1977". Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society 24: 583. doi:10.1098/rsbm.1978.0020. 
  4. ^ Kilburn, T. (1961). "The Manchester University Atlas Operating System Part I: Internal Organization". The Computer Journal 4 (3): 222. doi:10.1093/comjnl/4.3.222. 
  5. ^ a b c d "Tom Kilburn EC/1965/18: Library and Archive Catalogue". London: The Royal Society. Archived from the original on 2014-04-29. 
  6. ^ a b 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. 
  7. ^ "Miscellaneous Notes". Retrieved 2014-08-16. 
  8. ^ 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 
  9. ^ Kilburn, T. (1949). "The University of Manchester Universal High-Speed Digital Computing Machine". Nature 164 (4173): 684–687. doi:10.1038/164684a0. PMID 15392930. 
  10. ^ Williams, Frederic; Kilburn, Tom (1948). "Electronic Digital Computers". Nature 162 (4117): 487. doi:10.1038/162487a0. 
  11. ^ 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. 
  12. ^ Anderson, David (2014). "Tom Kilburn: a tale of five computers". Communications of the ACM 57 (5): 35. doi:10.1145/2594290. 
  13. ^ "Tom Kilburn". Retrieved 2014-08-16. 
  14. ^ Hilary J Kahn. "Obituary: Tom Kilburn | News". The Guardian. Retrieved 2014-08-16. 
  15. ^ "Professor Tom Kilburn". Telegraph. Retrieved 2014-08-16. 
  16. ^ Kilburn, T.; Edwards, D. B. G.; Lanigan, M. J.; Sumner, F. H. (1962). "One-Level Storage System". IEEE Transactions on Electronic Computers (2): 223. doi:10.1109/TEC.1962.5219356. 
  17. ^ Anderson, D. P. (2009). "Interview An interview with Maurice Wilkes". Communications of the ACM 52 (9): 39. doi:10.1145/1562164.1562180. 
  18. ^ Haigh, T. (2014). "Actually, Turing did not invent the computer". Communications of the ACM 57: 36. doi:10.1145/2542504. 
  19. ^ Anderson, D. P. (2009). "Biographies: Tom Kilburn: A Pioneer of Computer Design". IEEE Annals of the History of Computing 31 (2): 82. doi:10.1109/MAHC.2009.32. 
  20. ^ Lavington, S. (2001). "Obituary: Tom Kilburn (1921–2001)". Nature 409 (6823): 996. doi:10.1038/35059201. PMID 11241994.  C1 control character in |title= at position 28 (help)
  21. ^ Kilburn, T. (1951). "The New Universal Digital Computing Machine at the University of Manchester". Nature 168 (4264): 95. doi:10.1038/168095a0. 
  22. ^ Historical Reflections Tom Kilburn: A Tale of Five Computers by David Anderson CACM. doi:doi:10.1145/2594290/
  23. ^ Shelburne, B. J.; Burton, C. P. (1998). "Early programs on the Manchester Mark I Prototype". IEEE Annals of the History of Computing 20 (3): 4. doi:10.1109/85.707570. 
  24. ^ CHM. "Tom Kilburn — CHM Fellow Award Winner". Retrieved March 30, 2015. [1]
Academic offices
Preceded by
Head of the School of Computer Science, University of Manchester
Succeeded by
Dai Edwards