Memories of Bart Fossey 1927-2015

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The funeral of Bart Fossey, one of the earliest users of a computer, was held in his hometown of Newbury on Friday 21 August 2015. His life in computers started with bananas ...

Bart Fossey is well known to TNMOC as one of the first users of the Harwell Dekatron (later renamed the WITCH computer), but to his Newbury friends, this came as a perplexing surprise because they thought of him as something of a Luddite, never known to have a computer and always communicating by snail mail.

Bart came to computers via bananas. Having been called up to the armed services after the war, he was standing in line one day awaiting instructions when the sergeant major called out for volunteers to peel bananas. Thinking that this meant kitchen duty, the ranks shrank back, but someone pushed Bart forward to 'volunteer'. The 'banana peeling' duty turned out to be a posting to the West Indies to help in the resettlement of wartime veterans.

Once in the Caribbean, one of the highlights was frequent consignments of books for the troops. Among them Bart found and voraciously read a book on mathematics. His education had been limited, achieving an O-level equivalent in Maths, but Bart clearly had talent and an avid interest in the subject.

On Bart's return to the UK, he applied for a job at the Harwell atomic research centre. When asked about his interests, he mentioned mathematics and was probed by one of his interviewees, mathematician and computer scientist Jack Howlett. Bart spoke of a theorem in the book he had read and the rest of the interview focused on the theorem. It just so happened that Jack Howlett's colleague had authored the paper. Needless to say, Bart was offered the job.

Initially part of a team operating Facit calculators, the Harwell Dekatron came into action in 1951 and Bart was one of its first operators. It was at about this time that Bart's famous Man v Machine race was run. Bart always maintained that it wasn't a race, but rather that it was him checking the computer for possible rounding errors and discovering that he was working in synchronicity with the machine performing the same calculation. In November 2012, Bart gamely re-ran the race at the reboot of the Harwell Dekatron after its restoration at TNMOC. You can read the full story here.

The video of Bart re-running the race at the reboot event is here:

One of the eulogies at Bart's funeral spoke of a visit by a group of his friends to TNMOC a few years ago while the Harwell Dekatron was still being restored. A TNMOC Volunteer engineer was explaining the machine:

We were all hearing about the Harwell Dekatron, then under restoration, and Bart said to the restorer that the printer should be located over there to the left of the computer. ‘How do you know, sir? You seem to know something about this machine,’ asked the Volunteer. Bart replied: ‘I used to work on the machine. My name is Fossey.’ At which point the restorer got quite excited and shouted to another engineer behind the machine: ‘Come quick! Bart Fossey is here!”

A private man, Bart was very religious and a member of the Catenians, an organisation for which he did much charitable work. His fund-raising expertise benefited many of the groups and he was active in helping homeless people in Newbury.

Bart also had a great sense of humour. Once waiting a very long time for a rather bureaucratic and pedantic man to call his name for some ceremony, he was summoned as "Mr Fussy, please!". Bart immediately responded: "No, no. I'm Fossey, you're fussy!"

Bart's funeral was a celebration of his life and the church was packed with his many Newbury friends and by some Harwell veterans. A very independent man, Bart's sudden death at home while still living a very full life was a something of a comfort to his mourning family who knew that Bart would not have been happy if he had grown to be very dependent upon others.

TNMOC thanks Bart for his contribution to the accuracy of the restoration of the Harwell Dekatron and for giving such a superb demonstration of his "race" with the computer.

  • Edmund Bartholomew (Bart) Fossey, born 24 August 1927, died 1 August 2015.

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