He was the working-class lad whose ground-breaking work helped shape the future of British computing.
It was June 1948 and 26-year-old Tom Kilburn was on his daily rail commute from Dewsbury to Manchester. He didn’t know it but he was about to co-invent the world’s first-ever stored-program electronic digital computer.
His astonishing achievements have been recognised in his home town via the unveiling of a blue plaque at Dewsbury Railway Station - alongside one in honour of Leslie Fox, a former schoolmate at Wheelwright Grammar School.
A ceremony attended by 50 family members, friends and colleagues heard about the impact both Dewsbury men had on the world of science and technology.
Born and raised in Dewsbury, both men went on to become leading figures in computer science. Kilburn (1921-2001) became Britain’s first Professor of Computer Science at Manchester University and Fox (1918-1992) became Oxford University’s first Professor of Numerical Analysis. He also set up the university’s first computing laboratory and played a leading role in forging links between universities and British industry to use computers to improve data analysis.
Among those who attended the ceremony on Tuesday were Professor Fox’s widow, Clemency, 80, and Professor Kilburn’s son, John, as well as alumni of the town’s grammar school, which closed in 1974.
The event was organised and introduced by Michael Heylings, 72, a retired schools inspector and past-pupil of the Wheelwright, who liaised with Kirklees Council to have the plaques erected. The £1,000 cost was met by the school’s Old Boys Association and some individual donors.
“I was lucky to meet Tom Kilburn three times,” recalled Mr Heylings. “Once as a child when I won a prize at school, then when I joined his department at Manchester as a post-graduate and many years later in the 1990s when he gave a speech to the Old Boys. His brain was as fertile then as it had been when he was younger.
“Tom built the first-ever electronic digital computer that worked. It took up the size of a hall, full of valves and wires. It was massive and he built it from scratch.
“The very first piece of software written for a digital computer was written at Dewsbury Station. And it worked. The Americans were hot on their heels but they came second.”
After the unveiling the group retired to the West Riding Refreshment Rooms at the station, where Professor Kilburn is said to have begun writing the first software program 69 years ago.