John Makepeace Bennett: computing pioneer and Australia’s first gamer

This week, The Warren Centre hosted the ACS’s John Makepeace Bennett memorial event, Beyond Binary: Quantum capabilities in Australia and Sydney. As a pioneer in building some of the earliest computers, inventing the first computer game, and in bringing supercomputing and the Internet to Sydney, we think Professor Bennett would have approved of Australia’s cutting-edge position in the dynamic new field of quantum computing.

John Makepeace Bennett was born in the southern Queensland town of Warwick on 31 July 1921. He was educated at The Southport School – a prestigious Anglican boarding school – and the University of Queensland, where he studied civil engineering. He later said, perhaps only half in jest, that the main reason he decided upon civil engineering was that his older brother Ron had done that course, and he could use all of Ron’s lecture notes.

Professor Bennett joined the Royal Australian Air Force in 1942, working in a radar unit on the remote Wessel Islands off Arnhem Land, which sparked his long interest in Aboriginal culture. After the war he returned to the University of Queensland where he studied mathematics and electrical and mechanical engineering. In the summer holidays of 1947-48 he did a stint at the Electrotechnology Division of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, which was to become the CSIRO. It was there he met Trevor Pearcey, who was to design and build the Mark 1 computer, later called CSIRAC, which was the first computer in Australia and only the third in the world.

Falling towards England

Professor Bennett’s interest in computing was further aroused in 1947 when he undertook a large number of very repetitive calculations for Brisbane’s post-war electricity network. He heard about the work on automatic computing being conducted in the UK, and he applied to join the National Physical Laboratory in London, which was developing the ACE (Automatic Computing Engine). He was accepted, and through good luck his application was passed through to Douglas Hartree, Chairman of Cambridge University’s Mathematical Laboratory.

When he arrived in England in late 1947 he became the first research student assigned to the Laboratory’s head, Maurice Wilkes. Wilkes was a visionary who had visited the US and seen ENIAC, the world’s first true computer. He was determined to build a better machine, which he called the EDSAC (Electronic Delay Storage Automatic Calculator) computer. Professor Bennett became a key player in the team that developed EDSAC, which was the most advanced computer in the world at that time and the first stored program computer in regular operational use.

“I was responsible for designing, constructing and testing the main control unit and decoding instructions extracting operands, initiating individual arithmetical and logical processes, and proceeding to the next instruction. I also designed, constructed and tested the bootstrap facility,” he later wrote. Professor Bennett’s work was critical to the success of EDSAC and was achieved with soldering irons and war-surplus valves in the old Cambridge anatomy dissecting rooms, still reeking of formalin.

First ever computer gamer

Professor Bennett performed the world’s first ever structural engineering calculations on EDSAC, using the work towards his PhD, which focused on sparse matrices. He was awarded his PhD by Cambridge University in 1952, which was the first PhD from the Cambridge Maths Lab. Professor Bennett had become one of the world’s first computer programmers. He stayed in England for nearly ten years, from his mid-20s to mid-30s. He held senior positions with leading British computer company Ferranti, designing the instruction set for the Ferranti Mark 1*, the world’s first computer to be sold commercially. Colleague G. E. ‘Tommy’ Thomas recalls that when Ferranti’s promise to provide a computer for the 1951 Festival of Britain could not be fulfilled, ‘’John suggested … a machine to play the game of Nim against all comers … [It] was a great success. The machine was named Nimrod and is the precursor of the vast electronic games industry we know today”. It was while at Ferranti that he met Mary Elkington, a London School of Economics graduate. They married in 1952 and went on to have four children.

Back with the SILLIAC

In February 1956, Professor Bennett gave up the offer of a high paying job with IBM to return to Australia to take up the position of Numerical Analyst in the Adolph Basser Laboratory at the University of Sydney. Even after a decade in England he considered himself a true Australian, and he saw an opportunity to contribute to the growth of computing in this country and region.

John Makepeace Bennett with the newly-installed SILLIAC

John Makepeace Bennett with the newly-installed SILLIAC.

Computing in Australia was developing quickly. Professor Bennett’s initial role was to develop software for SILLIAC, Sydney’s version of the University of Illinois’s ILLIAC computer, the first machine to be called a ‘supercomputer’. SILLIAC was a very advanced machine, but with no software, and Professor Bennett worked to a tight deadline to get the machine operational for its launch in July 1956 – beating the University of NSW’s UTECOM by one day.

At the University of Sydney he developed and taught Australia’s first ever academic courses in programming and computational theory, and in 1961 became Professor of Physics (Electronic Computing). It was the first such position in Australia, with the title later changed to Professor of Computing Science.

In 1959, Professor Bennett became the first Chairman of the Australian Committee on Computation and Automatic Control, and in 1965 he was the first President of the NSW Computer Society. When the state computer societies joined to become the Australian Computer Society on 1 January 1966, he became the national organisation’s first President.

Connecting Australia to the world

Professor Bennett was determined that Australia should be part of the world computing scene and devoted much time and effort to international professional organisations. This was sometimes a trial for his staff. Arthur Sale recalls, “I quickly learnt that John going away was the precursor to him returning with a big new idea. After a period when we could catch up with our individual work, John would tell us about the new thing that we just had to work on. Once it was the ARPAnet [Advanced Research Projects Agency Network] and nothing would suffice until we started to try to communicate with the Aloha satellite over Hawaii that had run out of gas to establish a link to Los Angeles and ARPAnet and lo and behold, the internet had come to Australia in the 1970s.”

Professor Bennett remained Professor of Computing Science at the University of Sydney until his retirement in 1987. Known for his enquiring mind and his wide range of interests, he remained an active member of the Australian and international IT community. He served on various boards of the ACS, IFIP (International Federation for Information Processing) and ICCC (International Conference on Computer Communication), helping establish the South East Asian computer industry. For all his achievements he regarded the greatest contribution as the education of two generations of young Australian computer professionals.

Professor Bennett was a true pioneer of Australian computing. He was made an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) in 1983, and was awarded the Centenary Medal in 2001 for services to Australian technology, and the Pearcey Medal in 2004. He died on Sydney’s Northern Beaches, aged 89, on 9 December 2010.

Find out more about The Warren Centre’s Machine Intelligence program, including the 2016 John Makepiece Bennett lecture.

Main image: detail from the memory drum of ILLIAC, SILLIAC’s sister machine. By Rama, CC-BY-SA 2.0