John Berry

Multi-talented computer programmer

Frederick John Berry, mathematician, computer programmer and historian of playing cards: born Kidderminster, Worcestershire 19 July 1929; computer programmer, Royal Armament Research and Development Establishment, Fort Halstead 1951-87; died Bromley, Kent 17 March 2004.

John Berry was a mathematician and pioneer computer programmer, who later became a historian of playing cards.

He was born at Kidderminster, Worcestershire, in 1929. His father, also John (but known as Jack), was a plumber; his mother, May (née Lucas), worked in the local carpet factory and in munitions during the Second World War. He had two brothers and a sister, all younger than himself.

From King Charles I Grammar School, Kidderminster, where he won the prize for mathematics, he went on in 1946 to Manchester University. The Reader in the Department of Mathematics was Alan Turing, the acknowledged "founder of computer science", now best remembered for his work on Enigma decryption. Berry graduated in 1949, but stayed on at Manchester as a research student, gaining an MSc in applied mathematics in 1950.

Recognising the likely difficulty of obtaining an extension to his grant for the third year necessary for a PhD and, in any case, feeling the urge to leave university life, in 1951 he entered the Civil Service by Open Competition and was posted to the Royal Armament Research and Development Establishment (RARDE) at Fort Halstead, Kent, where he remained for 36 years and 36 weeks, until he took early retirement in October 1987.

The attraction of RARDE was research into problems closely allied to his postgraduate studies at Manchester: fluid dynamics and the origins of blast waves from spherical explosions. But in 1954 RARDE obtained a digital computer - the first to be installed in a Research Establishment. Berry felt strongly attracted to programming, then something completely new, and the challenge of tackling the very wide range of problems arising from the establishment's work. Countering suggestions that he stayed in a narrow field, he later observed that "there seems little point in searching further afield when the problems on one's own doorstep present such variety".

Berry worked with, and was later deputy to, H.J. Gawlik. An authoritative history of early computers at Fort Halstead states that their arrival "heralded a 'golden age' of computing at the Fort". The computer language Mirfac was their "greatest legacy to computer science". The name was devised by Berry, having discovered that Algol was only the second brightest star in the constellation Perseus, the brightest being Mirfak - changed to Mirfac to allow the construction of the acronym "Mathematics In Recognisable Form Automatically Compiled".

Mirfac is believed to have been one of only three computer languages in the world designed to accept textbook mathematical notation without the need for transliteration of symbols. Its appearance is similar to Basic, which it predated by two years and was therefore well ahead of its time.

He worked with both digital and analogue systems, undertaking training in Brussels for the latter in 1959. Here and on other overseas visits he began collecting foreign playing cards, perhaps initially as mementoes. So it was that after his retirement he was "pitchforked" into editing the newsletter of the International Playing-Card Society, and continued to do so until 1996. He eventually served as Vice-President and in 2001 was made an Honorary Fellow of the society, in recognition of his distinguished contribution to playing-card scholarship over 25 years.

In 1995 he self-published his catalogue of the 1,100 items belonging to the Worshipful Company of Makers of Playing Cards (for which in 1997 he was made an Honorary Freeman), and at the time of his death had virtually completed the catalogue of the Waddington collection of old cards and some of their archives - all deposited at Guildhall Library in the City of London. He contributed programme notes for the 2001 Royal Opera House production of Tchaikovsky's The Queen of Spades, and took part in an interval talk during a relay from the Metropolitan Opera House, New York, broadcast on BBC Radio 3 last February.

Berry also compiled crosswords for The Listener, under the pseudonym "Fudge", and gave a radio talk on the subject on Woman's Hour. He attended a course on embroidery at the Ravensbourne College of Art and produced some fine and intricate examples of the craft, some of which were derived from early computer-aided designs. From an early age he had been interested in cooking and "took over the kitchen in anybody's house" - colleagues from Fort Halstead to Guildhall Library eagerly looked forward to his Christmas cakes. He loved music, particularly Beethoven and Brahms - and opera of all types, however obscure.

He later discovered the pleasures of home movies, which he played on his portable computer, marvelling that this had a greater capacity than the first computer, which filled three buildings.

Berry eschewed television, but eventually acquired a "wireless" (becoming a firm Archers addict) and a telephone, and each day meticulously wrote up his diary in his neat handwriting. The final entry is for the day before he died.

Garry Humphreys