Professor John Byrne: The father of computing in Ireland

Obituary: ‘Without his vision and determination it is highly unlikely Ireland would have a software industry that employs over 24,000 people’

 

Prof John Byrne, who has died aged 82, was the father of computing in Ireland and responsible, directly or indirectly, for most of the extraordinary success of the Irish software sector.

In his five decades at Trinity College Dublin, during most of which he was head of its computer science department, he established many new courses and fostered leading-edge research, while lobbying and campaigning to make the nascent Irish software industry a priority for the government and its agencies. Without his vision and determination, it is highly unlikely that Ireland would now have a software industry that employs more than 24,000 people and generates €16 billion in exports.

John Gabriel Byrne was born in Dublin in 1933, and educated in Belvedere College before entering Trinity College in 1951. Having graduated in engineering in 1956, he then studied in Birmingham and in Imperial College London. He started his PhD under Prof Bill Wright in Trinity College engineering school, finding mathematically complex solutions for torsional stresses in hollow reinforced concrete beams.

For two summers he worked with Bernard Carré on the English Electric DEUCE computer at Stafford, programming numerical solutions to these mathematical equations. It was at English Electric that he first saw the immense potential for computer technology to transform industry, commerce and education.

Having completed his PhD by 1961, he commenced as a junior lecturer in Trinity engineering school and determined to put Ireland in the forefront of this impending technological and social revolution.

Stategic ally

In 1961 there were no more than a handful of computers in the country and very few people saw the need for any more. Within the engineering school, Byrne found a staunch strategic ally in the dean, Bill Wright, who persuaded TCD to buy an IBM 1620. This was a state-of-the-art machine that had 20,000 decimal digits of memory, a paper tape reader and punch, and an IBM electric typewriter. Immediately he set about providing forward-looking education and training for people who would work, or were already working, in the embryonic IT sector.

He ensured an engineering ethos permeated computer studies in Trinity, thereby sowing the seeds for the computerisation of Ireland’s public and private sectors and the emergence of today’s innovative software companies. A masters in computer applications was first offered in October 1963. It was taken by most of the leaders of commercial computing in Ireland at the time as well as by graduates in other disciplines who went on to make their names in commerce and research throughout Ireland and beyond. A computing option in the main engineering degree began in 1967 and a revolutionary evening BSc degree in 1973.

There followed a succession of innovative courses, short and long, at levels ranging from certificate to masters, and with many of them ground-breaking for Trinity and for Ireland.

Feminist

He recruited lecturers from many countries. As a lifelong feminist, he was especially keen to promote the engineering careers of young women in what was, and sadly still is, a very male-dominated profession.

When European research funding became available in the 1980s, Byrne facilitated young academics to obtain and to use effectively, substantial research grants. The scale and nature of the research – which was always in collaboration with major European corporations – made it challenging to fit within the traditional management of Irish universities. Byrne used all his charm and diplomacy to advise, support and, where necessary, protect his many eager protégés.

From these projects sprang numerous software companies such as Iona, Baltimore, Cape Clear, Generics and right up to more recent success stories such as Havoc and Xcelerit. During this period, the IDA would bring every prospective inward investor to Trinity’s computer science department where Byrne, with careful understatement, always made a lasting impression on the hi-tech visitors.

Neither was his influence confined to Trinity or even to Dublin. He gave generously of his time and that of his colleagues to assist the growth of computing education and research in the other universities and to the burgeoning Institutes of Technology. In all of these activities Byrne was an exemplary public servant. He did not seek to be financially incentivised in order to devote his life and considerable talents to the good of his country.

Personally, Byrne was a shy and exceptionally modest man who neither sought nor welcomed public recognition. Under the quiet exterior was a man passionate about many topics. He keenly followed, and shrewdly analysed, politics, horse-racing, and rugby. Over his entire life he gathered an impressive and invaluable collection of early computing books, documents, and instruments that now form the basis for the “John Gabriel Byrne Computer Science Collection” preserved in Trinity’s department of computer science.