Julian Bigelow

Computer engineer

Julian Himely Bigelow, mathematician and electrical engineer: born Nutley, New Jersey 19 March 1913; twice married (two sons, one daughter); died Princeton, New Jersey 17 February 2003.

Julian Bigelow was one of a very small number of electronic engineers who, in different institutions, took on their shoulders the task of implementing the first stored-program digital computers. Architecture, as we would now call it, of the early machines had evolved as a result of mathematicians' and engineers' putting their heads together in a fruitful collaboration, but the turning of the resulting designs into hardware was a task for engineers alone.

Of the half-dozen or so early projects, one was located at the Institute for Advanced Study, at Princeton, New Jersey, and was under the direction of John von Neumann, who in 1946, on the advice of the mathematician Norbert Wiener, appointed Bigelow as the chief engineer. Bigelow had studied electrical engineering and mathematics at MIT (the Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and had had some experience in electronics during the Second World War.

I first met Bigelow in July 1950, when I made Princeton my first port of call on an extended tour of US computer projects. I had been anxious to meet him, since a team of which I was the leader had built at Cambridge University a machine known as the Edsac (the Electronic Delay Storage Automatic Calculator). This, allowing for architectural differences, presented very comparable challenges to those faced by Bigelow.

Bigelow was a man of charm and he knew his stuff as an engineer. The major part of his machine was working, but he had had a setback when the memory he planned to use failed to materialise. He had decided to use instead the Cathode Ray Tube memory pioneered by F.C. Williams and T. Kilburn in Manchester, but the task of adapting it to a different architecture was providing some new challenges.

In the end, his careful engineering paid off, and the IAS machine was a great success. Fifteen computers based on it were built and gave good service.

Bigelow was not involved in further developments in computer design, but he participated in meetings of a group which included Norbert Wiener, Warren McCulloch, Gregory Bateson, Margaret Mead and von Neumann and drew its inspiration from Wiener's work on cybernetics.

Maurice Wilkes

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