David Barron was a staunch supporter of Number Watch and there are many references to his direct contributions in the archive (see, for example, the Number of the Month for July 2001), though there were far more that are unacknowledged.
He was master of his subject and was once disconcerted to be adversely criticised, during an assessment visitation by a lecturer from a former polytechnic, for lecturing without notes. Computer Science as a new university discipline could well have descended into organised charlatanry, as did some other subjects (e.g. sociology and epidemiology) but a small group of international academics kept it on the rails and turned it into a rigorous discipline. David was one of them. He was not a seeker after fame, which heightens the honour in which he is held by those who knew him and of his works.
What made David influential in the combining of the world’s first electronics department (and an acknowledged world leader) with a younger computer science department was his background as a physicist. Not just any old physicist, but one who had co-authored a notable paper on the ionosphere. Subsequently as a head of the new department he was able to talk to the engineers and physicists on equal terms. At Cambridge he had come under the influence of Maurice Wilkes, known as the father of British computing. The realisation then developed that there was a gaping hole in the state of computer technology, which was the non-existence of a science of programming. This could have reduced the inchoate technology to chaos, which is why David became one of that elite and influential international group who saved the day. He was one of a new breed – the software engineer.
He was also a man of principle and could be very stubborn if pressed to compromise those principles. For example, when that disastrous political folly known as the Research Assessment Exercise was launched, he shrugged off all pressure to join the “paper chase” and continued to produce his thoughtful books every few years. His chosen weapon, however, was the e-mail, issued copiously both locally and internationally. This was medium by which the sound academic discipline of Computer Science was established, from the time when relatively few people knew of its existence, as David’s memoir of Edsger Dijkstra demonstrates. Many of David’s e-mails have become collectors’ items, and I am devastated that I lost my personal collection of these in a recent catastrophic computer crash. They were succinct, witty and, when in attack mode, often acerbically to the point. It was typical of him that, though himself a life-long non-smoker, he fought to the bitter end to preserve a ghetto for the smokers, but this was after the going of Gordon Higginson and the tide of political correctness prevailed. Theirs was a generation for whom that much abused word “liberal” still retained the old meaning, before that definition was turned on its head.
How his contribution is missed in discussion of the most recent foolish proposal to come from the political class, that schools should teach computer programming! I have been programming longer than most, over half a century, and I would not even consider teaching it as a subject, for fear of passing on my bad habits. We engineers and physicists who came under David’s guidance were reluctantly obliged to accept that the computer scientists had a point about the importance of rigour.
It would be a foolish untruth to say that they do not make men like this any more, but perhaps true that they no longer rise to positions of influence.
- Professor John Brignell, a former colleague in the Department of Electronics and Computer Science