The University of Kent, Canterbury, Kent, CT2 7NZ, T +44 (0)1227 764000
Tribute to Peter Brown
Authored by Tim Hopkins and Peter Linington
Published 5 June 2007
Professor Peter Brown can truly be said to have been a pioneer in computer science.
Peter was appointed to a lectureship in the Computing Laboratory at Kent after completing a pioneering thesis on macro processing in the University Mathematical Laboratory at Cambridge. He was promoted to professor in 1975.
Peter's early work looked at how to use macro-processors to improve software portability; this was before the days of programming language standards, when moving software from one system to another was often a costly and laborious job . A macro-processor language allows a user to transform text from one form to another via a complex set of rules. Peter's aim with ML/1 was to use it to produce programs that could be installed on a wide variety of different systems. ML/1 used its own features to make itself highly portable, and it has been implemented on well over 50 different systems and is still in use almost four decades after it first appeared (more details available).
In the mid 1980's Peter's interests moved to investigating how new graphical workstations that were then appearing would alter the way users interacted with the computer. This resulted in a research contract for the "University of Kent Software Tools Centre", which produced a suite of innovative tools, including an intelligent file viewer, a filesystem browser, a graphical debugger and run-time profiler and Peter's own "Guide", one of the earliest hypertext systems to be produced. "Guide" won Peter the British Computer Society's award for technical innovation in 1988 and was marketed as a commercial product first by Office Workstations (OWL) Ltd and later by InfoAccess.
Peter was also active in the area of throw-away compiling techniques where parts of a program are compiled dynamically as required. Although originally (1976) used as a way of addressing the time-space trade-offs while producing the BASIC implementation for ICL's 2900 series machines, the technique has since been re-invented to improve Java execution speed. It should be noted here that the money earned by writing ICL 2900 BASIC was used to fund annual lectures at Kent (with speakers including Ken Thompson, Brian Kernighan and Niklaus Wirth), as well as supporting numerous projects and pieces of equipment.
Peter was a superb communicator at all levels both as a writer and a lecturer. He wrote over 50 research papers and was the author of a number of books ranging from introductory programming texts to research monographs. His introductory books especially are full of down to earth advice accompanied by well thought out examples wrapped up with a great deal of humour. This, along with the famous dedications and acknowledgements to Heather, always made them compulsory reading!
Among his interests were football and cricket (both as a player and as a supporter), gardening, walking, bird-watching and stamp collecting. He was a founder member of the departmental 5-a-side team and was renowned for his youthful energy and no nonsense tackling (think of a cross between Ron "Chopper " Harris and Norman "Bites-Your-Legs" Hunter).
Peter had a wicked sense of humour, a healthy disregard for the extremes of political correctness, a bright outlook on the world and a conviction that things would always improve with time (well he did support Southampton football club).
In 1999 Peter and Heather retired and moved to Lustleigh in Devon and rapidly became prominent members of the local community. Peter died there on Friday 16 February 2007 after a long struggle with cancer. He will be sadly missed as a colleague and friend.