Wit & wisdom of Sir Maurice Wilkes

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The late Sir Maurice Wilkes, father of British computing whose centenary was celebrated at TNMOC yesterday, had a renowned, but very dry sense of humour.

His son, Anthony Wilkes, was bequeathed a notebook by the great man. The first entry was in this very month 71 years ago and he updated it frequently over many decades. It contained quotes, anecdotes, stories and jokes -- often reflecting that very dry wit. Clergymen were not infrequently the butt of the jokes.

TNMOC Museum Director, Dr David Hartley, who was supervised by and later worked for Sir Maurice, recalled encounters with him at yesterday's Centenary event:

"Maurice would often appear somewhat ruthless when it came to managing staff and research students. He would always chose people with considerable care, but equally took great care when he decided that it was time for a particular person to move on, whether it was to another department, faculty or university, or even into a non-academic environment. It is not an easy task to persuade someone to move on in their own best interests and many found his advice difficult to take. But the advice was always in the best interests of the person concerned, and in the long run, most saw the wisdom in what appeared to be a hard decision at the time.

"Perhaps one of the most daunting of Maurice's management techniques was the direct and often prolonged stare. If there was some point that he wished to get across and which he knew there would be opposition and reaction, he had the ability to look one straight in the eye and say something like "you know you can't do that - don't you". At that stage it was risky to argue with him, because after time you knew that he would be right and opposition would be pointless. It is not that he bullied one, and you knew from experience that he was right and he would win. Occasionally you would be right, and after a little argument he would admit your position. Sadly, it was not easy to cultivate that same stare in retaliation."

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