A place in history





by DON SIMMONS

Tommy Thomas is one of the “brains” who helped build the world’s first computer.
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 Railways.)
He chose to study at Manchester University but he still doesn’t know why.
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 interesting times.”
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 Calculating Machine.
“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 digital technology.
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 Information Technology.
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 October 1990.
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 alternative?”

     




Tommy Thomas’ modern-day lap-top and i-pod are a huge contrast to his ‘first’ computer (top).


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