• Dec 25, 1933
    (b.) -
    Nov 3, 2009


A software engineer who was respected in academia, industry, and government, John Buxton, who has died aged 75, gained world renown. He made fundamental scientific contributions to computer simulation, programming language design and software implementation technology. He was founding professor of computer science at both Warwick University and King's College London. He worked for the British and US governments, and spent many years in the computer industry. Buxton was born in Shipley, West Yorkshire, the eldest child of John and Laura Buxton. His father worked for the Yorkshire Evening Post and later became its London editor. After secondary education at Bradford grammar school, Buxton went to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he graduated in mathematics with physics in 1955. He then worked in the De Havilland aircraft company's guided weapons division. In 1958 he married Moira O'Brien, a programmer with IBM, who advised him to "try computers". He took her advice, and never looked back. The following year he joined the British Iron and Steel Research Association, where he developed a simulation program that enabled industrial processes to be modelled on a computer. In 1961 he moved to IBM, where he developed another simulation system, CSL (control and simulation language). This became a major product, and established Buxton's reputation as a software wunderkind. In 1962 he became a lecturer at the Institute of Computer Science at the University of London. There he collaborated with a team led by Christopher Strachey, at Cambridge University, to invent a language called CPL (combined programming language). In 1965 the project lost momentum when Strachey took up a chair in computer science at Oxford University. Strachey was notoriously reluctant to publish unfinished work and it was largely through Buxton's urging that the CPL Reference Manual was completed and published. Few modern programming languages do not have a strand of CPL in their DNA. A new term entered the computer lexicon – the "software crisis". After some celebrated disasters, programmers in academia and industry had lost confidence in their ability to write very large computer programs. In October 1968, the first international software engineering conference was held in Garmisch, southern Germany, under the auspices of the Nato science committee. Among more than 50 international delegates, Buxton's was a rare voice of calm. He counselled that "99% of computers work tolerably satisfactorily". This pragmatism was the hallmark of his career. After another spell in industry, he returned to academia to become the founding professor of computer science at the recently established Warwick University in 1968. At 34, he was the youngest in the country. He was not enamoured with "theoretical" computer science, but recognised its potential and made some key appointments. The department became a leading theoretical centre.