Tony Brooker, Pioneer of Computer Programming, Dies at 94

As the decades passed, this idea helped expand what computers were capable of. Without high-level languages there would be no App Store, and no World Wide Web.

Ralph Anthony Brooker was born on Sept, 22, 1925, in southwest London, the youngest son of Edwin Brooker, a civil servant, and Dorothy (Owen) Brooker, a homemaker. His grandfather Harry Brooker was a painter whose work was once exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts.

At the beginning of World War II, Tony was evacuated to Petersfield, a town halfway between London and the southern coast, but he returned to London just as the air raids began. (His grandfather died in a raid in 1940.)

In 1943 he won a scholarship to study mathematics at Imperial College London. His studies were accelerated because of the war, and he finished his degree in two years. He also served as a “firewatcher,” spending his nights on the roof of the university’s administration building spotting fires sparked by air raids.

After the war, he began working at the college and switched his focus to chemistry research. But he soon returned to the mathematics department, where he and two colleagues started experimenting with early computer technology and built a machine they called the Imperial College Computing Engine — “Icky” for short. In 1949 he moved to the University of Cambridge, where he first explored ways of making computers less difficult to use.

“It was a universal problem,” he said. “The early computers were hamstrung.”

In 1954, three years after moving to Manchester, the lab publicly released his Autocode language. It is believed to be the first commercially available high-level language.

Six years later, while working on a new machine called Atlas, Mr. Brooker realized another concept that would become seminal in the long history of computer programming. He built a “compiler-compiler” — a programming language for building other programming languages. Before this, engineers and mathematicians could not build a new language without feeding 1s and 0s into the machine.