Sidney Michaelson 1925-1991

Photo of Sidney MichaelsonSIDNEY MICHAELSON, Professor of Computer Science at the University of Edinburgh died suddenly on 21st February 1991 at the age of 65.

Born on 5th December 1925 and brought up in the East End of London, Sidney Michaelson gained his university education by winning a scholarship to Imperial College, London and graduated in 1946 with a First Class Honours Degree in Mathematics. After a series of research jobs at Imperial College and at the Electrical Research Association Laboratories, he was appointed to a Lectureship in Mathematics at Imperial College in 1949.

Throughout the 1950s, he worked in Numerical Analysis. Soon, the inadequacy of the available calculating devices led him naturally to his second interest, the design and construction of digital computers; here he worked closely with K.D. Tocher. Although the only technology available to them was very elementary (Post Office relays and uniselectors), they built a working machine (ICCE1) based on a principle, subsequently known as microprogramming, which has become a cornerstone of the design of almost all digital computers.

Sidney Michaelson came to Edinburgh in 1963 when the University appointed him Director of its newly founded Computer Unit. Initially, there was no equipment in Edinburgh on which to run a computing service; instead he started a pioneering service based on the use of a land-line to the Manchester University Atlas computer.

From his early days in Edinburgh, he initiated a stream of new activities for the growing Computer Unit. Research students were recruited from 1963; a postgraduate diploma course was launched in 1964 and undergraduate classes began in 1965. His attention then turned to the development of systems software for computers. In 1966, he co-chaired an important international conference in Edinburgh on Man-Machine Interaction. At about the same time, he obtained funds for a major co-operative research project with English Electric Computers, to be led by Harry Whitfield of the Computer Unit. This was to design and implement a multi-user operating system - a common enough concept now, but breaking new ground at that time. The result was the Edinburgh Multi-Access System (EMAS), on which Edinburgh University's central computing services were to run for many years. Even though slowly superceded by Unix in the late 1980s, as long as it was available EMAS remained the preferred operating system for a significant number of Edinburgh users, including Sidney himself. The last machine running EMAS was finally switched off in 1992, the year after Sidney's death.

In 1966 the rapidly expanding activities of the Computer Unit were divided into teaching and research and the computing service. Sidney Michaelson was appointed Professor and Head of the Department of Computer Science, while Dr G.E. (Tommy) Thomas was appointed Director of the Edinburgh Regional Computing Centre. From relatively small beginnings, both organisations grew vastly in size and significance. Under Sidney's guidance, the Department became one of the largest in the UK and has earned a world-wide reputation for the quality of both its teaching and its research in fields as diverse as computational theory, parallel computing and VLSI design. His own knowledge of so many aspects of the subject earned him the respect of colleagues and students alike.

For a good number of years from the 1970s onwards, a major interest of his had been stylometry, in which his work with Andrew Morton had been particularly productive. This scientific study of the usage of words to resolve literary problems of authorship and chronology was used to cast light on the authorship of texts ranging from the Bible and the Iliad through Elizabethan and Jacobean drama to modern criminal confessions.

In the 1980s, the development of integrated circuit technology spurred Sidney to return to his earlier interest in computer hardware. In 1981, he was Organising Chairman for a highly successful initial conference on Very Large Scale Integration, VLSI 81. The next year he founded a new Working Group on VLSI for the International Federation for Information Processing; this has developed into one of IFIP's most active groups, regularly organising workshops and conferences. In 1986, he was presented with the IFIP Silver Core award in recognition of his contribution to the work of that organisation. At the time of his death he was an active member of the organising committee for the tenth anniversary conference, VLSI 91, to be held in Edinburgh later that year.

Sidney Michaelson had a widespread influence on so many aspects of Computer Science at Edinburgh. He enjoyed giving his time to individuals or groups embarking upon new projects, covering a remarkably wide range of topics. He was always particularly interested to advise and encourage non-scientists who hoped to apply computers to their own discipline for the first time.

Nationally and internationally, he also did considerable work on behalf of the British Computer Society, the Conference of Professors of Computer Science, the Engineering Professors Conference and the International Federation for Information Processing. He played a leading role in establishing and maintaining professionalism within the British Computer Society. He always believed that computing was essentially a practical subject and he was one of the dedicated band of computing professionals who worked hard to ensure that the British Computer Society became a recognised institution within the Engineering Council.

He was a Founding Fellow of the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts (London) and a Fellow of the British Computer Society.

Sidney Michaelson was a great character. He had a wicked sense of humour and it was sometimes difficult even in the most impassioned of arguments to know whether he was really serious. Though he could be outspoken when he felt that important professional issues were at stake, he was above all a kindly and considerate man. He and his wife Kitty were renowned for their generosity and hospitality. Kitty, herself well known in Edinburgh as a lecturer and art historian with interests in many areas (especially architecture), died in 1995. They are survived by their four children.

Sidney Michaelson has a number of memorials:

  • Sidney Michaelson Prize for the most deserving student in the final year of an undergraduate degree in Computer Science in the Department of Computer Science, University of Edinburgh. The prize may be awarded to a student who has overcome great obstacles to receive a degree.
  • Sidney Michaelson Medallion for the best professional project submitted in BCS examinations.
  • Michaelson Square named in his memory in Livingston, which is home to many computer based industries.

Based on material from Professor Roland Ibbett, David Rees and Peter Schofield.

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