The University of Southampton

Professor David Barron 1935-2012, 'a founding father of computer science'

12 January 2012

Professor D W Barron, who died in Southampton on 2 January 2012, was the first Professor of Computation in the University of Southampton, and the Foundation Professor of Computer Science.

David Barron began his academic career in Cambridge, where his initial research in the Cavendish Laboratory involved some of the earliest work in computer applications. In the early 1960s he worked with Ferranti on the Titan project, and led Cambridge efforts to develop the Titan Supervisor (a multi-programming operating system) and the Combined Programming Language (CPL). CPL broke new ground in language design and application generality, and led eventually to B and then C – one of the most widely used programming languages of all time.

Professor Barron joined Southampton’s Mathematics Department in 1967 as the first Professor of Computation, and he combined this for a number of years with the Directorship of the University’s Computing Services department. In 1986, having written many of the key texts which helped shape the then-emerging subject of Computer Science, he was appointed the first Professor of Computer Science in the University, marking the establishment of the Department of Electronics and Computer Science. He was Head of ECS from 1989 to 1994.

Professor Barron’s many books include influential texts on Recursive Programming, Assemblers and Loaders, Operating Systems, Programming Languages, Pascal Implementation, Text Processing and Typesetting, and Scripting Languages. He was one of the founding editors of ‘Software – Practice and Experience’ and edited the journal for over 30 years from 1971. He also undertook pioneering work on radio wave propagation with Professor Henry Rishbeth, providing understanding of how radio waves were reflected at the ionospheric boundary.

His inaugural lecture, given 40 years ago in the University of Southampton, was entitled ‘The Computer, the University, and Society’, and extolled the benefits of computer programming as a discipline, in a way that has been echoed recently by governments and industry leaders (it also demonstrated his waspish sense of humour: “[C]omputer programming has all the educational benefits that were ever claimed for the study of Latin, and it is likely to come in useful, too.”

He concluded his lecture with a rousing and far-sighted statement of his belief in his subject which also provided a strong insight into his relish for his position as a university researcher and teacher: “If computers are to be used for good, then it is essential that everyone should understand what they are, and what they can do. Equally, those of us who are behind this technological revolution must gain a greater understanding of our tools, because out of understanding comes judgement. 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.”

Professor Dame Wendy Hall has described David Barron as “one of the founding fathers of computer science as an academic discipline”, attributing to him the strong foundations of Computer Science at Southampton which enabled the consequent development of ECS.

Professor Barron’s funeral is at Southampton Crematorium at 14:45 on Friday 20 January. All friends and colleagues are welcome to attend. Memories and tributes to David can be left on our webpage: David Barron: In Memory and Celebration.

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