John Bennett AO (1921-2010), first professor of computing in Australia and founder of Sydney University’s Basser Department of Computer Science, died last month. The SMH obit, from which the lines below are taken, is here.
Emeritus Professor John Bennett AO was an internationally recognised Australian computing pioneer. Known variously as ”the Prof”, ”JMB” or ”Rusty”, he was a man with a voracious appetite for ideas, renowned for his eclectic interests, intellectual generosity, cosmopolitan hospitality and prodigious general knowledge.
As Australia’s first professor of computer science and foundation president of the Australian Computer Society, Bennett was an innovator, educator and mentor but at the end of his life he wished most to be remembered for his contribution to the construction of one of the world’s first computers, the Electronic Delay Storage Automatic Calculator (EDSAC). In 1947 at Cambridge University, as Maurice Wilkes’s first research student, he was responsible for the design, construction and testing of the main control unit and bootstrap facility for EDSAC and carried out the first structural engineering calculations on a computer as part of his PhD. Bennett’s work was critical to the success of EDSAC and was achieved with soldering irons and war-surplus valves in the old Cambridge anatomy dissecting rooms, still reeking of formalin.
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The importance of his work on EDSAC was recognised by many who followed. In Cambridge he also pioneered the use of digital computers for X-ray crystallography in collaboration with John Kendrew (later a Nobel Prize winner), one of many productive collaborations.
He was recruited from Cambridge by Ferranti Manchester in 1950 to work on the Mark 1*. Colleague G. E. ”Tommy” Thomas recalls that when Ferranti’s promise to provide a computer for the 1951 Festival of Britain could not be fulfilled, ”John suggested … a machine to play the game of Nim against all comers … [It] was a great success. The machine was named Nimrod and is the precursor of the vast electronic games industry we know today.”
In 1952, Bennett married Mary Elkington, a London School of Economics and Political Science graduate in economics, who was working in another section at Ferranti. Moving to Ferranti’s London Computer Laboratory in 1953, Bennett worked in a team led by Bill Elliott, alongside Charles Owen, whose plug-in components enabled design of complete computers by non-engineers. Owen went on to design the IBM 360/30. Bennett remembered of the time, ”Whatever we touched was new; it gives you a great lift. We weren’t fully aware of what we were pioneering. We knew we had the best way but we weren’t doing it to convert people – we were doing it because it was a new tool which should get used. We knew we were ploughing new ground.”
Bennett was proud of being Australian and strongly felt the debt he owed for his education. When Harry Messel’s School of Physics group asked him in 1956 to head operations on SILLIAC (the Sydney version of ILLIAC, the University of Illinois Automatic Computer – faster than any machine then commercially available), he declined a more lucrative offer he had accepted from IBM and moved his family to Sydney.
The University of Sydney acknowledged computer science as a discipline by creating a chair for Bennett, the professor of physics (electronic computing) in 1961. Later the title became professor of computer science and head of the Basser department of computer science. Fostering industry relationships and ensuring a flow of graduates was a cornerstone of his tenure.
Bennett was determined that Australia should be part of the world computing scene and devoted much time and effort to international professional organisations. This was sometimes a trial for his staff. Arthur Sale recalls, ”I quickly learnt that John going away was the precursor to him returning with a big new idea. After a period when we could catch up with our individual work, John would tell us about the new thing that we just had to work on. Once it was the ARPAnet [Advanced Research Projects Agency Network] and nothing would suffice until we started to try to communicate with the Aloha satellite over Hawaii that had run out of gas to establish a link to Los Angeles and ARPAnet and lo and behold, the internet had come to Australia in the 1970s.”
In 1983, Bennett was appointed as an officer of the Order of Australia. After his retirement in 1986, he remained active, attending PhD seminars and lectures to ”stay up to date and offer a little advice” while continuing to earn recognition for his contributions to computer science for more than half a century.
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