A place in
by DON SIMMONS
Tommy Thomas is one of the “brains” who helped build the world’s first
But he didn’t plan it that way.
He reckons he’s one of those blokes who happened to be in the right
place at the right time.
The year was 1945 and Tommy was 16.
He’d just finished secondary school and wanted to leave home to further
his education. (His father pictured a career for him in the Wales
He chose to study at Manchester University but he still doesn’t know
He had plenty of other choices - Oxford, Cambridge, Edinburgh. But for
some reason Manchester University appealed to him. At 16 - going on 17
- he felt a bit out of place when he fronted to enrol to study science.
Most of his fellow students were ex-servicemen and women, some of whom
were twice his age.
But, his discomfort was only temporary. He was billeted with a group of
them in an ex-brothel.
“The lady who ran it had become a bit too old for her former occupation
and she decided to take in student boarders,” he told me. “It made for
Manchester University at that stage was the place where ex Royal Air
Force “boffins” congregated.
“It was the best place to be in Britain,” Tommy said.
The “brains” who’d invented radar were there. And they were
experimenting with a machine with a memory.
By 1948 - after graduating with a first class honours degree in Physics
and Electronic Engineering - Tommy Thomas became one of that very
special scientific team. The rest is history.
He helped build the world’s first computer and that alone assured his
place in history.
In those days it was known as the Automatic Sequence-controlled
“That computer,” he remembers, “filled a very large room and didn’t
have a fraction of the brain of today’s sleek machines.”
“It was made with leftovers from RAF stores. If we wanted anything we’d
just phone the RAF and they’d send us a truckload.
“Some of the racks we used were made for radio and radar equipment.
Switches came from the control panels of Spitfires.”
After helping build the first computer Tommy Thomas set out to build
one of his own.
Soon he’d become a pioneer in the brave new world of computers and
Along the way he became Dr Tommy Thomas M.Sc. and Ph.D.
He left Manchester University in 1955 to found the Central Digital
Computing facility at Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI).
In 1966 he moved to Edinburgh University to set up the UK’s first
Regional Computing Centre. While there he helped develop a strategy to
support Britain’s first School of Information Technology. He moved to
Australia in 1985 as Foundation Chief at the CSIRO’s new Division of
In 1988 he was seconded to help Bond University establish a School of
Information Technology and Research Park.
In 1989 he took up the permanent joint post of foundation Professor of
Computing Science and
Co-ordinator of the Research Park. He retired from full-time work in
But that doesn’t mean he’s idle - far from it. Computers... and digital
technology... are still very much part of his life. These days he
lectures and is teaching old dogs new (computing) tricks at his
retirement village on the Central Coast of NSW. Rain hail or shine, he
spends a couple of hours every morning on the beach and in the surf.
Does he resent growing old?
“No,” he says, “I’ve had a pretty good life. Anyway, what’s the
Tommy Thomas’ modern-day lap-top and i-pod are a huge contrast to his
‘first’ computer (top).