School of Informatics

Pioneers of Informatics in Edinburgh

Biographies of early days pioneers who shaped the Informatics research in Edinburgh.

Sidney Michaelson

Sidney Michaelson (1925–1991) was the first director of the newly founded Computer Unit, and later became the first Chair of Computer Science.

He was born and brought up in the East End of London and gained his university education by winning a scholarship to Imperial College, London.  He graduated in 1946 with a 1st Class Honours Degree in Mathematics and then undertook a series of research jobs at Imperial College and at the Electrical Research Association Laboratories before taking up a Lectureship in Mathematics at Imperial College in 1949. There he worked on the design and construction of digital computers.

Sidney came to Edinburgh University in 1963 when the University appointed him Director of the newly founded Computer Unit.  In 1969 he was appointed Professor and Head of the Department of Computer Science.  He initiated a significant research activity to develop a multi-user operating system, common now but breaking new ground then. This system emerged in the early 1970s as the operating system (EMAS) on which the University's main computing service would be based for the next two decades.

In the 1980's, he turned his attention to VLSI and formed a new IFIP Working Group devoted to this topic.  This subsequently developed into one of IFIP's most active groups, regularly organising workshops and conferences. In 1986 he was presented with the IFIP "Silver Core" award in recognition of his contribution.

His own personal and enduring passion in his later years was stylometry (the scientific study of the usage of words in an attempt to resolve literary problems of authorship and chronology), in which his seminal work with Andrew Morton was particularly exciting and rewarding.

Professor Michaelson initiated a groundbreaking research project to develop a multi-user operating system, which emerged in the early 1970s as the Edinburgh Multi-Access System (EMAS), on which the University’s main computing services were based for the next two decades.

He remained Professor of Computer Science until his death in 1991, and was remembered as a lively character and generous teacher.

The Sidney Michaelson and Family Prize was established in 1991 in memory of Sidney Michaelson and is awarded to the most deserving student who has triumphed in their studies despite adverse circumstances.

Donald Michie

At the same time as the Computer Unit was being established, Donald Michie, Reader in Surgical Science, formed a small research group at in the field of Artificial Intelligence. Soon after, together with Richard Gregory and Christopher Longuet-Higgins Donald set up a new Department of Artificial Intelligence.

Donald Michie was born on 11 November 1923, and was educated at Rugby School and Balliol College, Oxford. He obtained the MA, DPhil, and DSc degrees from Oxford University for studies in biological sciences. For contributions to artificial intelligence he was elected a founding Fellow of the American Association of Artificial Intelligence. He has received honorary degrees from the UK's National Council of Academic Awards, from Salford University, Aberdeen University, the University of York and the University of Stirling.

During the Second World War, through his membership of Max Newman’s code-breaking group at Bletchley Park, and while working with Alan Turing, Professor Michie had been introduced to computing and had come to believe in the possibility of building machines that could think and learn.

In 1968 Professor Michie made the following prediction about computers: “Along with question-answering services, which will allow us to inquire about the restaurants in our locality or politics in Paraguay, will come the games opponent, the puzzle setter and the quiz master.”

Professor Michie was a founding Fellow of the American Association of Artificial Intelligence. His awards included the 1995 Achievement Medal of the Institution of Electrical Engineers for contributions to computing and control, and the 1996 Feigenbaum Medal of the World Congress on Expert Systems for his development of machine learning. In 2001 he received the IJCAI Award for Research Excellence.

Professor Michie was founder and Editor-in-Chief of the Machine Intelligence series, of which nineteen volumes were published. He was a Fellow of the British Computer Society, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Honorary Fellow of the American Academy of Sciences and of the Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Professor Emeritus of Machine Intelligence at the University of Edinburgh.

He was also founder and treasurer of the Human-Computer Learning Foundation, a charity registered in the UK.

Robin Popplestone

Robin John Popplestone was one of the early pioneers in Robotics and Computer Programming Languages.

Robin was born in Bristol in 1938. After the war his family moved to Belfast, where he grew up. He was educated at Queen's University Belfast, receiving an honours degree in mathematics in 1960. He first worked with computing while studying for a PhD initially at Manchester University and then at Leeds University. His project was to program a computer to prove logic theorems, but he instead used the University computer to design a boat, a very early example of computer aided design. He built the boat and set sail for the University of Edinburgh, where he had been offered a Research Fellowship. In the North Sea, a storm arose; Robin was taken aboard a passing ship but the boat, alas, went to the bottom. The legend has it that his PhD thesis drawn with it – a story he never corroborated.

When Robin arrived in Edinburgh in 1965 there was only a small Computer Unit and an Experimental Programming Unit, of which he became the fourth staff member. The University did not yet own a computer. Soon after Robin’s arrival the Unit acquired an Elliott computer. On this Robin designed and implemented a programming language, POP-2, for non-numerical work, together with its operating system. POP-2 was extremely expressive and used minimal computing resources. Although POP-2 never achieved international currency it was used elsewhere in the UK and gave a head start to Artificial Intelligence work at Edinburgh. It formed the basis for the UK’s second time-shared computer operating system, after Cambridge, enabling several users to share one computer from keyboards instead of queuing up with rolls of punched tape.

In 1972, Robin was a member of a small team at Edinburgh, which developed a hand-eye robotic device that could assemble some simple models, a toy boat and car, from a few pieces. The previous best was a computer at MIT, which managed to build a pile of bricks.

In 1985, Robin joined the faculty of the University of Massachusetts Amherst as a Professor of Computer Science and Director of the Laboratory for Perceptual Robotics.

In 1990, he was selected as a Founding Fellow of the American Association for Artificial Intelligence (AAAI) in recognition of his seminal contributions to AI. Due to illness, he retired in 2001 from the University of Massachusetts as an Emeritus Professor, returning to Glasgow, Scotland to be near his family and the sea.

He died on 14th April 2004 in Glasgow, Scotland, after a 10-year battle with prostate cancer.

Robin Milner

Robin Milner joined the University of Edinburgh in 1973, and he later co-founded the pioneering Laboratory for Foundations of Computer Science. His vision of a new science of information, broader than computer science, inspired the formation of the School of Informatics, and he chaired the international committee that recommended the School’s foundation.

During his time at Edinburgh, Professor Milner developed ML, a general-purpose functional programming language that is still used in various forms and has influenced the development of numerous other computer languages.

Unreliable software was a major issue in early computing, and ML helped programmers to verify, with mathematical rigour, that their programs were correct.

Later, ML was redefined as Standard ML, for which Professor Milner won the 1987 Technical Award from the British Computer Society.

During the 1970s, computing evolved from sequential machines, executing one program at a time, to concurrent systems, enabling several programs to be executed simultaneously. In 1980 Professor Milner published a mathematical method for understanding concurrent systems, called the Calculus for Communicating Systems (CCS).

ML and CCS were cited in Professor Milner’s 1991 ACM Turing Award, computer science’s highest honour.

Before Professor Milner left Edinburgh in 1998 to take the Chair of Computer Science at the University of Cambridge, he donated a sum of money to fund an annual lecture in Computer Science. Edinburgh’s annual Milner Lectures continue today.

Further Reading

Sidney Michaelson’s biography 

Donald Michie’s obituary

Robin Milner’s obituary

Robin Popplestone’s obituary