Tony Brooker, the mathematician and computer scientist who designed the programming language for the world’s first commercial computer, died Nov. 20 at a nursing home in Hexham, England. He was 94.
His death was confirmed by his son Stephen.
Brooker had been immersed in early computer research at the University of Cambridge when one day, on his way home from a mountain-climbing trip in North Wales, he stopped at the University of Manchester to tour its computer lab, which was among the first of its kind. Dropping in unannounced, he introduced himself to Alan Turing, a founding father of the computer age, who at the time was the lab’s deputy director.
When Brooker described his own research at the University of Cambridge, he later recalled, Turing said, “Well, we can always employ someone like you.” Soon they were colleagues.
Brooker joined the Manchester lab in October 1951, just after it installed a new machine called the Ferranti Mark 1. His job, he told the British Library in an interview in 2010, was to make the Mark 1 “usable.”
Turing had written a user’s manual, but it was far from intuitive. To program the machine, engineers had to write in binary code — patterns made up of 0s and 1s — and they had to write them backward, from right to left, because this was the way the hardware read them.
It was “extremely neat and very clever but pretty meaningless and very unfriendly,” Brooker said.
In the months that followed, Brooker wrote a language he called Autocode, based on ordinary numbers and letters. It allowed anyone to program the machine — not just the limited group of trained engineers who understood the hardware.
This marked the beginning of what were later called “high-level” programming languages — languages that provide increasingly simple and intuitive ways of giving commands to computers, from the IBM mainframes of the 1960s to the PCs of the 1980s to the iPhones of today.
“Tony Brooker stared at a bunch of metal and some wires and gave people a way of getting this to actually do something for them,” Tim Bergin, a professor emeritus at American University who specializes in the history of programming languages, said in a phone interview. “He realized that we don’t have to write code in 0s and 1s. We can use symbols and create whole languages for using computers.”
As the decades passed, this idea helped expand what computers were capable of. Without high-level languages there would be no App Store and no World Wide Web.
Ralph Anthony Brooker was born Sept, 22, 1925, in southwest London, the youngest son of Edwin Brooker, a civil servant, and Dorothy (Owen) Brooker, a homemaker. His grandfather Harry Brooker was a painter whose work was once exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts.
At the beginning of World War II, Tony was evacuated to Petersfield, a town halfway between London and the southern coast, but he returned to London just as the air raids began. (His grandfather died in a raid in 1940.)
In 1943 he won a scholarship to study mathematics at Imperial College London. His studies were accelerated because of the war, and he finished his degree in two years. He also served as a “firewatcher,” spending his nights on the roof of the university’s administration building spotting fires sparked by air raids.
After the war, he began working at the college and switched his focus to chemistry research. But he soon returned to the mathematics department, where he and two colleagues started experimenting with early computer technology and built a machine they called the Imperial College Computing Engine — “Icky” for short. In 1949 he moved to the University of Cambridge, where he first explored ways of making computers less difficult to use.
“It was a universal problem,” he said. “The early computers were hamstrung.”
In 1954, three years after moving to Manchester, the lab publicly released his Autocode language. It is believed to be the first commercially available high-level language.
Six years later, while working on a new machine called Atlas, Brooker realized another concept that would become seminal in the long history of computer programming. He built a “compiler-compiler” — a programming language for building other programming languages. Before this, engineers and mathematicians could not build a new language without feeding 1s and 0s into the machine.
In the mid-1960s, Brooker helped design Britain’s first computer science degree program, at the University of Manchester. In 1967, he built a similar degree program as the founding chairman of computer science at the University of Essex, where he worked until he retired in 1988.
In addition to his son Stephen, Brooker is survived by two other sons, Timothy and Richard, and seven grandchildren.
After Brooker designed Autocode, Ferranti, the company behind the Mark 1, started a team that wrote test programs using the new language. One programmer was Vera Hewison, whom he married in 1957. (She died in 2018.) Another was Mary Lee Woods, whose son, Tim Berners-Lee, would go on to invent the World Wide Web.