News

Memorial for Em. Professor John Bennett AO (1921-2010)


8 February 2011

A memorial will be held in MacLaurin Hall on Thursday 24 February at 10.30am for Emeritus Professor John Bennett, a pioneering computer engineer who worked on SILLIAC. Please register with The Australian Computer Society directly at www.acs.org.au/JBennettMemorialService


John Bennett came to the School of Physics from London in February 1956. He had barely set foot in the School when he found out he had a looming deadline of the University's Open Day being held in March that year, in which SILLIAC was to be displayed to the world.


It was then announced SILLIAC would be fully operational by 4 July and officially launched on 12 September 1956. With a PhD in Computer Science from Cambridge University and degrees in mechanical and electrical engineering from the University of Queensland - along with four years of WWII radar experience - he rose to the challenge.


Barry de Ferranti worked with John on SILLIAC and recalled the time Professor Messel asked whether or not he had heard of Dr Bennett.


"Harry Messel came to me one day late 1955 (I was probably up a ladder testing the Williams tube store on SILLIAC) and said: "Do you know a fellow called John Bennett? He's applied for the senior analyst job and says he worked at Ferranti Limited".


Did I! John had given the final session of a course I was on at Imperial College London, supported by a young enthusiast, Dr Chris Wilson, just a few months earlier, when I was preparing to return to the engineering job Harry had offered. His lecture was to paint a picture of the future of computers in commerce and industry, as seen by him and Ferranti.


I had discovered then he was an 'Oz' had been one of the 'Bailey Boys' (taught by that remarkable University of Sydney Physics lecturer, V.A.Bailey, for Radar at the end of WWII), and had great vision of where computers could lead. What is more, his wife, the talented Mary, had been economist advising a senior director of the company.


I was delighted when they arrived and the rest as they say is history. Years later when I had left IBM Australia to set up Ferranti Computers in Melbourne, I was in London, when a young hopeful, one Peter Jones, came in looking for a job. When he saw me there, he exclaimed: "John Bennett gave me a list of possible employers in London, so I came to Ferranti."


In no time at all I had him meet the management, including Chris Wilson, and he was soon one of the team. John's network in UK was indeed formidable and we all knew he had made a great name for himself everywhere. It was only later that John told me that originally, before SILLIAC, he was considering joining IBM!


We must all have fond memories of John and many tales (some unpublishable) to tell of his exploits. I join those who knew John not only in mourning his passing but also in enjoying those memories."


John's first course taught at the School of Physics was the Industrial Use of Electronic Computers and was an outstanding success. His broad view of research recommended that the Adolph Basser Research Laboratory (eventually evolving into the University's School of Information Technology) should 'extend beyond the mere provision of a tool for nuclear research,' adding, 'In fact we consider that we have a prime duty to help members of the community who are likely to be affected by these new techniques.'


He went on to build KDF9, the next computer in Physics after SILLIAC, and enjoy a long and illustrious career in Physics and computer and information engineering. John Bennett died peacefully on Thursday 9 December 2010. He was well respected and much loved by those who knew him.



Contact: Alison Muir

Phone: 02 9036 5194

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