In his Inaugural Lecture at University of Southampton in 1971 [PDF Transcript], Prof David W Barron (DWB) described himself as “only a second-generation computer man”, because those who taught him were the ones who had invented computers – he had worked with Maurice Wilkes, David Wheeler and Christopher Strachey. I guess that means the very many students who had the privilege of being taught by DWB are the third generation. And some of those (like yours truly) taught others who now teach, so we must be up to five or six now…
In 1963 DWB and colleagues published “The Main Features of CPL”. This was a key member of the rock family tree of programming languages: it led to BCPL (Basic CPL), and then B, and then C… one of the most widely used programming languages of all time. DWB’s books have also influenced generations, especially Recursive Techniques in Programming published in 1968 (and then again, and again, …)
My first lecture on my first day at University of Southampton in 1981 was given by DWB. Three years later he took me as a PhD student, and I also served my unix apprenticeship as we upgraded the PDP11/34 to seventh edition. Later we were to teach “CM300 Programming Language Design” together for several years. What I learned then I use to this day. My unix knowledge is used routinely (granted, my Mac is a bit more portable than the PDP11!), my research depends on the same scripting skills. And I hope I understand something about how to teach the next generation, perhaps even in DWB’s distinctively extempore style.
In fact we have to ask whether the world has really changed that much! DWB’s 1971 talk discussed computer science versus computer applications, a debate that persists to this day. It emphasised symbol-manipulation as well as number-crunching, and the importance of doing new things not just doing things faster, and it talked about the importance for arts-based students. All familiar. It also explained the case for the university to invest in a computer (citing £350k capital equipment and £100k running costs – even that sounds familiar today!)
The answer, I would suggest, is that there has been truly massive change, but that the groundwork done by generations 1 and 2 was pretty amazing – in fact, they literally defined the field.
I’ll give DWB the final word, from 1971:
We are only witnessing the beginning of the changes in Society that the wide-scale use of computers will bring. The changes are not going to be comfortable, but it is the job of those of us in the University to ensure, by education and research, that they are not catastrophic. That is why I am in the game. And, to be honest, it is great fun too.
It’s down to us now!
DDeR (only a third-generation computer man)
Professor David De Roure