Ewan Page

BCS President 1984/85

In 1949 I was a student taking Part 3 of the Mathematical Tripos at Cambridge when Maurice Wilkes (the first BCS President) offered a short non-examinable course on programming an electronic computer; that was before EDSAC was working and I was one of about two dozen who attended.

Three years later, after an interval for national service, I was doing research in Mathematical Statistics and needed a lot of calculating (for those days) to find the properties of some cumulative sum - cusum - schemes for detecting a change in the mean of a sequence of observations that I had proposed.

EDSAC was working, Maurice’s committee agreed that I might use it and so started my computing activities. A bit later I tried some Monte Carlo schemes, the first in Britain, I think, and produced a PhD thesis whose title embarrassed Durham University when it appointed me in 1954 to direct their new University Computing Laboratory, soon to be equipped with a Ferranti Pegasus machine. The experience of EDSAC was key to my appointment; there were very few people who had done any original work at all on a computer in 1954, fewer still who wanted to work in a university and even fewer that a university would want.

The Pegasus was the only machine in the North East and we started a regional group of the BCS. All the five staff of the lab (including Paul Samet, a future BCS President), some engineers from the shipbuilders, a few local authority finance people and a few others met about eight times a year, listening to ourselves and such visiting speakers as we could attract without cost - the BCS had no money to pay expenses so the visitors were mainly those coming to the University on its money or their own. We grew gradually and broadened our own knowledge bit by bit as new applications were made.

In the lab we did some trials of automatic typesetting, information retrieval (the MEDLARS medical retrieval system based in the USA), models of wild primrose spread, the processing of student registrations (a formidable task using just paper tape), representing terrain within the tiny storage available, forming school time-tables, as well as the normal, for that time, scientific calculations over a wide range of research areas. The lab started taking post-graduate students at once and later taught in the bachelor degrees with the first Computing Science students graduating in 1969. Many of those attended the BCS group meetings as visitors.

I remember attending BCS Council for several years as a Regional representative and on the Editorial Board of the Computer Journal , some years as its chairman.

Although the Computing Laboratory was financed independently of the other university departments it taught mainly in the Science Faculty and that resulted in me being drafted for a term as Dean and subsequently as Pro-Vice-Chancellor, then Acting VC on the death of the VC. That must have led to my going to Reading as VC in 1979 and then becoming  handily placed to serve as President of the BCS in 1984/5.

At that time the BCS was much smaller than it is now. I recall that its resources were always stretched and that it was essential that the membership be expanded if it ever were to be able to provide the support necessary over the range of the computing activities then current and, more importantly, in prospect . We always wanted to do more than we really had resources for, but with many energetic and enthusiastic volunteers there were more successes the failures.