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3:39pm on Wednesday, 4th December, 2019:
I heard today that Tony Brooker died in late November.
Ralph Anthony "Tony" Brooker was the founding professor of the Department of Computer Science at Essex University )in 1967). He'll be remembered by generations of undergraduates, who will recall with fondness his witch-like hair and incoherent lecturing style, along with his occasional, well-concealed one-liners.
He was actually something of a visionary. A friend of Alan Turing's, it was he who insisted that Essex keep its AI group despite the withdrawal of Science Research Council funding for AI from UK universities following the publication of the Lighthill Report in 1973; only Edinborough and Sussex also held out. He invented the first high-level programming language, and wrote the first compiler-compiler. In any other academic field, Professor Brooker would have been Professor Sir Tony Brooker, but Computer Science isn't held in quite the same esteem as other disciplines so no honours came his way.
I remember in one lecture, he was in the middle of a discussion of the Lambda Calculus when suddenly he stopped, looked to his left, then wandered off. A minute passed and none of us knew what was going on, then he reappeared and said: "Well, I've just been told that apparently there's a bomb in the lecture theatre block. Personally, I take these things with a pinch of salt, but you're welcome to leave if you feel uncomfortable.". He then continued the sentence he was speaking when he was interrupted, like a computer program popping an interrupt off the stack. None of us did leave, either. Today, of course, hardly anyone would have been at the lecture in the first place.
Last time I spoke to him was at the university's 50th anniversary celebrations in 2014. I commented that I was roughly the same age then that he was when he was teaching me. He was still bounding up steps two at a time, even though he was 89 at the time.
Here's what he looked like after he'd had his hair cut: https://www.bl.uk/voices-of-science/interviewees/tony-brooker#
Here's what he sounded like, in a very long interview (part of an oral history of science), with his unique discursive style: https://sounds.bl.uk/Oral-history/Science/021M-C1379X0009XX-0001V0.
Despite, or perhaps because of, his unusual style, I can't think of anyone who disliked him. They may not have liked his lectures, but they liked the man.
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