Obituary - Frank Sumner

28 October 2013

Obituary - Frank Sumner

Past BCS President Professor Frank Sumner died on 7 October.

Frank Hall Sumner was born in Manchester, the son of a steam train driver. He was educated at the North Manchester High School and at the University of Manchester, from which he graduated in 1951 with a first-class degree in chemistry. He was awarded a Mercer scholarship and continued as a post-graduate at Manchester, working in Theoretical Chemistry under Professor Christopher Longuet-Higgins.

This involved a great deal of tedious computation, initially using a Marchant electro-mechanical desk calculator. Frank obtained his Ph.D. in 1954, the title of his thesis being The application of electronic computers to molecular orbital calculations. His progression from electro-mechanical to electronic calculators was later described by Frank as follows:

'Early in 1952 my supervisor said 'why don't you go and see Alan Turing - I think he has got some sort of computer over the other side of the campus'. I duly went, and said that Christopher sent me to discuss using the computer.

Turing's response was 'Here, read that', handing me a book. It was the Ferranti Mark I Programming Manual, which Turing had written himself. 'Then go and see Cicely Popplewell, who will give you some time on the machine, and start programming’. End of conversation.… all the example programs in this manual had slight errors in them and by the time you had worked out what the code should have been you had become quite a competent programmer.'

Between 1954 and 1956 Frank held an NRDC Fellowship in the Computing Machine Laboratory at Manchester. The next 18 months were spent as a Scientific Officer at AWRE Aldermaston, in lieu of National Service, after which he returned to the University of Manchester as a Research Assistant in the Department of Electrical Engineering and in due course joined the staff. 

Since the arrival of F C Williams and Tom Kilburn in January 1947, this Department had been the centre of computer design at Manchester. Frank worked on the computer recognition of hand-written characters and, for a short while, machine learning based on simulated neural networks (perceptrons). For this work he used the Ferranti Mark I and then, from mid-1958, the Ferranti Mercury computer.

In 1957 a decision had been made by Tom Kilburn's research group to design and build a fast computer with a target speed of a microsecond per instruction. The project was called MUSE, short for Musecond Engine. The aim was to make MUSE a hundred times faster than a Mercury - at the time an ambition that some thought completely unrealistic. By the end of 1958 Frank had joined the MUSE team, at which time Ferranti Ltd. also became involved and the project’s name was changed to Atlas.

Frank worked on the logical design of the Atlas central processing unit, where his major contribution was to devise a technique for the overlapping of instruction execution. He was also a member of the group that developed the implementation of Virtual Memory for Atlas.

He simulated the Atlas one-level store on Mercury and used this to develop the Drum Transfer Learning Progra, which optimised page movements. The seminal Atlas concept of Virtual Memory is today used in most computers. Frank was named as a co-inventor on the relevant patents.

Atlas was in service from 1963 and was rated as the world’s most powerful computer.  Within three years a programme of detailed performance evaluations had led Tom Kilburn’s group to propose a new high-speed computer called MU5. From 1966 to 1974 Frank was a central member of the MU5 design team.

At various points Frank was able to spend time with other computer research groups, notably three months at the University of Chicago (in 1963), three months at CERN (in 1973) and six months at the IBM Research Laboratories in San José, California (in 1977).

In 1964 a separate Department of Computer Science had been established at the University of Manchester under Tom Kilburn, with an undergraduate degree programme starting the following year. Frank became the department’s first Admissions Tutor, a post he held for several years.

Frank became deeply committed to the development of Computer Science as an undergraduate discipline and was a member of the UGC Mathematics and Computer Science Committee for four years. This involvement led to numerous appointments as External Examiner for undergraduate and post-graduate degree programmes at other universities.

Frank was promoted to Professor of Computing Science in November 1967 and was subsequently appointed as the Barclays Professor of Microprocessor Applications in 1980.

In 1983 Frank was appointed to the part-time post of Director of the University of Manchester Regional Computing Centre. Then from 1989 until 1995 he was Director of Computing Services at the University. 

In the wider world, Frank was invited to serve on many national and international committees. In the UK, he was a member of the Computer Board from 1974 to 1978 and was Chairman of the Computing Committee of the Agriculture and Food Council for eight years. He served on several SERC committees, including the Engineering Board. 

He had many responsibilities within the British Computer Society and was President in 1978/79. He was a member of several European Community committees and was a technical consultant to NATO. He was involved for several years on the program committee for successive IFIP World Congresses on Computing and was Chairman for the 1980 Congress.

Frank retired in 1995, though he continued to give courses and to collaborate with Manchester's Centre for Novel Computing for some years. In 1993 he had been active in forming the North West branch of the Computer Conservation Society and he served on the main CCS Committee from 1995 to 2000 until his health started to deteriorate.

Frank's interest in history led him to give strong support for the building of a working replica of the June 1948 'Baby' computer, known formally as the Small-Scale Experimental Machine (SSEM). Frank was a member of the Baby Replica Management Committee from 1995 until its completion in 1998. The replica was installed in the Manchester Museum of Science and Industry, where it remains as a working exhibit.

Frank was tall and powerfully-built – in 1954 he had been elected to the University’s prestigious XXI Club for his excellence at basketball. He has been described by a former student as 'an amiable sprawling giant'. He was a committed Manchester United supporter, he was a season ticket-holder for 50 years, and he also enjoyed ballet and opera.

A Ferranti colleague on the Atlas project has said that 'Frank was the most approachable chap one could ever imagine. This is borne out by the fact that colleagues within the Atlas project, whatever activities they were engaged in, and also many individuals in various parts of the University, all had a good word to say about him'. Certainly all who knew Frank held him in high regard, both personally and professionally.

Frank married Ellen Macfarlane in 1956. Ellen pre-deceased him but he is survived by his son Robert.