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Kiwi computing pioneer Prof Brian Cox passes away

Paul Matthews, ITP Chief Executive. 28 October 2016, 4:00 pm

We were very sorry to hear of the death of ITP Fellow and Professor Brian Cox from Dunedin earlier this month.

Brian was one of New Zealand's first Computer Scientists. He was originally a mathematician, having obtained his PhD from Cambridge and bringing back his knowledge of early computing when he took up a lecturing role in the Department of Mathematics at the University of Otago. In 1966 the University formed their Computing Centre and Brian was appointed as its head.

The IBM 360/30 that was initially installed had a whopping 16KB of RAM. Yes, that's a K. With no computer operators, anyone wanting to use it in those days had to figure out how it worked first then write their own programs using punch cards. This became popular and sometime later Brian was able to convince the University to double the ram to 32KB, resulting in significant celebration.

As reported on the Otago Uni history website, A transistor radio on top of the central processing unit would serve as notification when a program had finished running by "squawking horribly" whenever a programme finished, as it picked up changes in the radio waves generated by the processing unit.

Brian took a wider problem-solving focus to the role. One example involved the Bonus Bonds program he co-developed to check the Post Office Saving Bank's computer Elsie was generating truly random numbers for winners. The program discovered Elsie wasn't random at all and had started selecting far more zeros than it should, which sparked an investigation that discovered a live mouse had chewed through some wires. Those were the dangers of computing in those days.

For a number of years Computing at Otago was taught by the staff of the Computing Centre, however when the Department of Computer Science was formed in 1984, Brian was appointed as the founding Professor. He remained head of department for many years until his retirement in 2000. As with many others, I have very fond memories of Brian during the time I completed by BSc in Computer Science at Otago in the late 90s.

As well as being a Fellow, Brian was one of the early members of what was then the New Zealand Data Processing and Computer Society in the 1960s. When the first membership system came into place he was awarded membership number "2", and once joked to me he was very disappointed when, in a subsequent system change, a check digit was added making his number "27", far less distinguished :).

Having retired in 2000, Brian was one of the leaders of the heritage computing group in Dunedin and was still a regular at Dunedin ITP events right up until this year, at which he will be sorely missed.

Through his innovative and pioneering approach, Brian touched many people both in Dunedin and across New Zealand. He contributed to the education of thousands of computer scientists, techies and developers, and we're very sad to say goodbye to one of computing's great pioneers.

Rest in peace, Brian.


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Simon Ferrari 28 October 2016, 6:47 pm

A great man, pioneering computer scientist and role model for many. RIP Prof Cox

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