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John Makepeace Bennett (1921–2010)

by Jenny Edwards

John Bennett, n.d.

John Bennett, n.d.

John Makepeace Bennett (1921 – 2010), computing pioneer and numerical analyst, was born in Warwick, Queensland, on 31 July 1921, the son of Albert John Bennett and Elsie Winifred née Bourne.  Bennett attended the Southport School and then the University of Queensland, where he gained a BE (Civil). During World War II he used his technical bent to serve in the RAAF in radar units, but, following the war, he returned to the University of Queensland to study electrical and mechanical engineering and mathematics.  

Bennett joined the Brisbane City Electric Light Company where, inspired by a radio talk about the Automatic Computing Engine (ACE) being developed at the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington, he saw a possible solution to the repetitive calculations of his employer.  In 1947, he set sail for the Mathematical Laboratory, Cambridge, becoming Sir Maurice Wilke's first PhD student. (Wilke predeceased him by just two weeks.)  Here he was responsible for the design, construction and testing of part of the Electronic Delay Storage Automatic Calculator (EDSAC), one of the world's first computers.  He then carried out the first structural engineering calculations by computer as part of his PhD.  In Cambridge at the Mathematical Laboratory, he also pioneered the use of digital computers for X-ray crystallography in collaboration with John Kendrew (later a Nobel prize winner).  From Cambridge he moved in 1950 to Ferranti in Manchester to work on the Mark I*. A co-worker on this project at the University of Manchester was renowned computer scientist, Alan Turing. 

In 1952, he married Mary Elkington, an economist working at Ferranti, and in 1953 John moved to Ferranti's London Computer Laboratory, where he worked alongside Charles Owen who went on to design the IBM 360/30. 

In January 1956, Bennett started as Numerical Analyst in the Adolph Basser Laboratory at the University of Sydney to head operations on SILLIAC (Sydney ILLInois Automatic Computer), having been recruited by Professor Harry Messel, then head of physics at the university.  The computer, generously funded by Dr Basser, was needed for the calculations for theoretical and experimental physics.  Through the connections of Dr John Blatt in physics, the university was able to obtain all that was necessary to build the Sydney version of ILLIAC and the first calculations were performed in July 1956.  Short courses on computing were run in 1957 and 1958, and, in 1959, a Postgraduate Diploma in Numerical Analysis and Automatic Computing was instituted. The Laboratories became an ever-expanding centre for teaching computer science and for computing services for the university though the latter were split off in 1972 to become the University Computing Centre. 

A further generous donation by Dr and Mrs Cecil Green of Texas assisted with the purchase of an English Electric KDF9 in 1964.  In time, this was followed by the purchase of many further computers, linked by a revolutionary home-grown network and partially distributed operating system, Bassernet.  This was one of the world's first local area networks.  He set up a link from this to ARPANET (the forerunner of the internet) in Hawaii in the early 1970s. It is perhaps fitting that Bennett’s son Chris worked in streaming media via broadband over the internet. His colleague, Professor Arthur Sale (later at the University of Tasmania) similarly had a long-time interest in cheap access to broadband for the masses. 

In 1961, Bennett became Australia's first professor of computing with an initial title of Professor of Physics (Electronic Computing) though in 1982 this was changed to Professor of Computer Science and Head of the Basser Department of Computer Science, a position he held until his formal retirement in 1986.  From the time he arrived at Basser, with which his name became synonymous, John's enduring vision was to educate students, industry and government in the powers of computers – using whatever computers were available.  In particular, he expended considerable energy in demonstrating the use of computers for business and running courses for their staff.  

Bennett helped found the Research Foundation for Information Technology at the university in 1981.  He established the Australian Computing Society and was its first president.  He co-edited the history, Computing in AustraliaThe Development of a Profession (1994). He was awarded an AO in 1983 for his visionary contributions towards the development of computing in Australia. In 2001, he was awarded the Centenary Medal for service to Australian society in computer science and technology and in 2004, the Pearcey Medal, an annual award presented to a distinguished Australian for a lifetime and outstanding contribution to the ICT industry. 

At the time of his retirement, Bennett had over one hundred research articles, many written with collaborators.  Though formally retired for some 25 years, as emeritus professor he remained on top of the latest developments such as quantum computing.  For many years he continued to attend conferences and seminars asking his trademark penetrating questions. He was always an educator and visionary and an inspiration to all who came into contact with him.  

Sadly, Bennett’s final years were marred by increasing deafness.  He died at home in Balgowlah, Sydney, on 9 December 2010, survived by his wife Mary, son Christopher, daughters Ann, Sally and Jane and their families. 

Original Publication

Additional Resources

Citation details

Jenny Edwards, 'Bennett, John Makepeace (1921–2010)', People Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://peopleaustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/bennett-john-makepeace-33589/text42008, accessed 17 July 2024.

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