Professor Tom Kilburn

Name:                        Professor Tom Kilburn CBE, FRS – 1921 to 2001

Achievements:          Developed the World’s first electronically stored computer program


Tom Kilburn a respected resident of Urmston for many years, was internationally known and acclaimed as one of the major pioneers of computing.

He wrote the world’s first electronically stored computer program which successfully ran on a machine designed and built by Tom and the late F C (Freddie) Williams. It was called the “Small Scale Experimental Machine”, but was soon nicknamed the “Baby”.

Early life and education
Tom was born, on 11th August 1921, the only son of John William Kilburn, a wool mill clerk and his wife Ivy Mortimer.

From 1932 to 1940 he attended the Wheelwright Grammar School for Boys in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire where the headmaster encouraged his aptitude for mathematics.

In 1940, he entered Sidney Sussex College Cambridge with a state scholarship, a county major scholarship, and a minor open scholarship where he studied mathematics. He graduated in 1942 with First Class Honors.

In 1943 he married Irene Marsden with whom he had a son and a daughter.

A computing pioneer
The Manchester Small-Scale Experimental Machine (SSEM), nicknamed Baby, was the world’s first stored-rogram computer. It was built at the Victoria University of Manchester, England, by Frederic C. Williams, Tom Kilburn and Geoff Tootill, and ran its first program on 21 June 1948.

As Tom Kilburn said in autumn 1992

“… the most exciting time was June 1948 when the first machine worked. Without question. Nothing could ever compare with that.”

After the ‘Baby’, Kilburn led a team that over the next 25 years produced a succession of pioneering computers.. He was made a professor in 1960 and was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1965. He retired in 1981.

Later life
He never owned a personal computer but in 1998 he unveiled a fully functional replica of “The Baby” now at the Manchester Museum of Science and Industry.(

Tom Kilburn habitually holidayed with his family in Blackpool but was always back in time for Manchester United’s first match of the football season. He claimed that watching the 1968 European cup at Wembley was the best day of his life.

He planned to take early retirement in 1981 to care for his ailing wife who was suffering from chronic bronchitis, but she died on 3rd August 1981, two weeks before his retirement.

For the last two decades of his life he lived alone in the same modest house in Urmston that he had lived in for 40 years.

On 17 January 2001, he died of pneumonia at Trafford General Hospital following abdominal surgery, Tom was nursed in the Intensive Care Unit at Trafford General Hospital for some time before he died.

One of the nurses who looked after him says that he liked to be addressed as “Professor” but she did not realise how influential he was until she saw his obituary in the Daily telegraph.


This blue plaque was installed at his house in Carlton Crescent, Urmston in 2002, a year after his death.



By:      Robin Giles – December 2016

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