Pioneer of the hard drive
Brilliant scientist, former Lakehead president, invented original magnetic storage device
Andrew Donald Booth, a computer scientist who invented the ancestor of the modern computer hard drive, was mending fuses, much to his mother’s alarm, at the age of two.
It’s no surprise the precocious scientist is also credited with having left a“massive and pervasive” influence on modern personal computing, according to a colleague’s speech at his induction as a fellow at his alma mater, Birkbeck College,at the University of London.
The English-born Booth, who lived and worked in Canada from 1962 and retired in Sooke 31 years ago, was lauded as “one of the greatest and most influential of Birkbeck’s scientists.” He died Nov. 29, aged 91. “His work has in large part made possible the computing revolution that has transformed human history,” said the address.
The principle of magnetic storage that made possible his rotating memory drum— which was two inches long and two inches wide and capable of holding 10 bits per inch— is“the only remnant of original computing technology in use today,” said his university fellow.
Booth was born in Esher in the county of Surrey on Feb. 11, 1918, an only child to S.J. Booth, a ship’s chief engineer, one of a long line of Scottish engineers, and grew up in London, attending the prestigious Haberdashers’ Aske’s Boys’ School, which nurtured his love of mathematics and physics.
He later studied mathematics at Cambridge but “became increasingly unhappy with the abstract demands of puremathematics” and left without a degree.
In 1943, Booth worked on scholarship at Birmingham University for the British Rubber Producers Research Association, researching the crystal structure of explosives, which required intensive computational work. In those years, the word “computer” meant the person who did the calculations, using the most basic of mechanical aids.
Booth, like other mathematicians, loved the shape and power of the numerical relations, “not the processes required to manipulate them,” according to his colleague’s speech.
By 1947 Booth was studying at Princeton, where he worked on a computer being developed there, “taking with him a brilliant young mathematician called Kathleen Britten,” whom he married on Aug. 30, 1950, and who wrote a book herself on programming for “automatic digital calculators.”
Booth brought back with him a popular novelty device known as the “Mail-A-Voice” recorder, a 10inch paper disk coated with magnetic oxide, on which the sender could record a short message and then mail it to a friend. He had hoped to transform it into an early version of a floppy disk for storing information, but it flopped.
That led to his invention of the two-inch-diameter nickel-coated brass cylinder drum for memory storage in 1948, always included in the timeline of the history of the computer as the first magnetic storage device. A journalist dubbed the fully electronic version of the “automatic relay computer” with the storage device a“thinking machine” and excitedly predicted that equations that would take scientists 100 years to calculate could be done by the “robot brain” in a mere three weeks.
By 1952, Booth’s device was in full operation. Customized models were created and it eventually evolved into the HEC computer, Britain’s best-selling computer in the late 1950s.
Booth also headed up the world’s first computer science department at Birkbeck in 1957, the “department of numerical automation.”
He wrote in his memoirs, “I was completely fed up with the British socialist government,” and left for the University of Saskatchewan, where he helped turn its limping school of engineering intoamajor force in Canadian research and continued producing computers, one the size of a PC.
From 1972 to 1978 he served as president of Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ont., where he developed graduate programs to establish its research agenda.
Booth’s other major legacy is the “Booth multiplier,” which his Birkbeck fellow called an “arithmetical routine devised over egg and chips in the ABC tea shop in Southampton Row.” Invented in 1951 to improve computer performance, it is still used in Pentium processors today.
Booth and his wife raised two children, Amanda, a veterinarian, and Ian, a physicist. He kept his hand in computer science by providing software consulting to the likes of the Institute of Ocean Sciences and Royal Roads University.
He died of heart and kidney failure on Nov. 29 and is survived by his wife and children.