Monday, 29 June 2015

Eulogy for Donald Alcock

This was given at his funeral on 16th June 2015.


Dad often said: “The world outside will often enough treat children harshly and give them hard knocks, so I must love my children and soothe them to give them the strength to get through”.
Dad was born in Ceylon on 28th February 1930. He was born a month late, weighing 10lbs. Unfortunately, this was too heavy for his mother, who passed away 6 days later.
At six months, Dad returned to England and was loved and cared for by Aunty Jean, Grandfather Alfred and Uncle Arl. However, at four he was taken back to live with his affectionless father, also an Alf, and step-mother Lenore.
At six, his father dispatched him to Dora Russell’s boarding school where he figuratively learnt to stand on his own two feet. It was a progressive, creative, godless place but where Dad never quite felt at home.
When the Second World War broke out 3 years later, he joined thousands of children in the great evacuation. Alf dispatched him to South Africa – for the most part a terribly boring journey, but punctuated one night with extreme excitement when German U-boats broke into the convey and sunk many ships.
The last leg of the journey was to Grahamstown and St Andrew’s College, a school of rote learning and traditional beatings. He found friends and new family with the Grahams (of Grahamstown, no less), Malise and Nella, friendships that lasted his lifetime.
A born experimenter, Dad tinkered with electronics and cat’s whisker radio sets. With war rationing, the essential Galena crystal was in short supply. In several alchemical attempts to synthesize it, he accidentally burnt down the servants’ quarters and blew up a Great War veteran and his car.
Dad excelled at St Andrew’s, achieving Top Class and the winning the junior school Latin prize. He was admitted to read Engineering at Queens’ College, Cambridge in 1949 and achieved a First.
To dodge rationing and National Service, he found employment in East Africa where he built bridges in Southern Rhodesia, Nyasaland and Tanganyika. His crowning glory was his svelte cantilever bridge over the Nsesi river – one of the earliest, if not the first, pre-stressed concrete bridge in East Africa.
He returned to London in 1957 but soon left for Canada in the dead of winter. Some advice to the Singaporeans here today: Do not hang your wet socks outside your window overnight – they don’t dry, they harden.
Canada was not to his liking; in 1959 Dad moved to Columbia, Missouri and took a Masters in Civil Engineering. There, he met Bonner Mitchell. Dad and Bonner travelled the world over the next 4 decades, including Italy, Greece, Spain, South America and Antarctica. Dad was indeed a proud member of the exclusive 7-continent club.
In Columbia, Dad wrote one of the first papers on finite element analysis in civil engineering – ‘biaxial bending and thrust’. This was a seminal work in the new subject of computing engineering.
Dad returned to Britain in 1962. He quickly progressed up the management ladder in Ferranti (later, ICL), ate at expensive restaurants, and programmed the Pegasus 1 – an amazing beast with 56 40-bit words of nickel delay line memory, punched card readers, paper tapes and, in case of emergency, a small door into its bowels.
He met my mother, Euphemia Dibben, had a whirlwind romance and they married in March 1968; I was born just a year later. At about this time Dad met Brian Shearing and, together, won a £100,000 Government project called Genesys. This project was to create a single operating system for any civil engineering calculation.
My brother, Simon, was born in August 1971 just before the family moved to Mill Lawn Stables in Reigate.
Dad’s business grew through the seventies so much so that it needed an Accountant – Peter Golden – who has been a family friend every since. Dad also met Mike Ingham and they immediately found much in common: Both had grown up in Africa and both had worked their way across East Africa at the same time but they had never met.
Writing the manual for Genesys had laid the seed of Dad’s second career – that of Author.
Every computer program needs a manual to explain how to operate it – but manuals are generally poorly written, tedious and dull. Most manuals live their dreary lives on dusty shelves and long-forgotten drawers. Dad refuses this path: His manuals are cartoons, the wording is precise and terse, and bugs are, well, they’re bugs crawling over the page. He illustrates his subject.
His style quickly develops from Genesys on to MP/1, Nucleat and Mistress. Next Cambridge University Press invites him to write “Illustrating BASIC a simple programming language”, published in 1977. This is happening just as the personal computer becomes easily affordable, and computers such as the Commodore Pet, Apple II, Sinclair ZX-81 and Spectrum sell by the million. And these computers don’t do anything at all without a program.
Illustrating BASIC was the right book at the right time – hundreds of thousands of programmers from my generation learned hash maps, lists and loops from this book. That creative crucible forged my career.
But I am getting ahead of myself. In the late seventies, the British economy slowed and government work dried up. Eventually Alcock, Shearing and Partners was wound up.
However, Illustrating BASIC kept going. It gave him strength, paid the mortgage and Dad could send Simon and me to Reigate Grammar School.
Dad started a new business “Reigate Manual Writers”. He extended the Illustrating series with Illustrating FORTRAN, BBC BASIC, Pascal and C. He authored for many companies, especially those with connections to civil engineering or computing.
In the early nighties, Mum was diagnosed with advanced Parkinson’s disease. Dad was the model of a carer, spending a larger and larger portion of his day to assist her. A decade later, Mum eventually needed full-time care. He visited her every day until she passed away several years later. The burden was heavy but he bore it selflessly and without complaint.
Dad moved to Singapore in October 2011 to live with my family. He developed a close relationship with his Grandchildren, James and Sophie, during these final years. He enriched our lives with stories of growing up during the war, Africa and computing history.
Dad made a final trip, back to Blighty, in July 2014, travelling like a prince in First Class Suites. Ever the communicator, he quickly became a favorite at Eastridge Manor, finding fellow Spanish and Afrikaans-speakers amongst the staff and enjoying the sing-a-longs to music from the 40s and 50s.
Dad, you did love and sooth us, and through Illustrating, carried us over a frightening period of financial instability. You did give me strength to carry though.

No comments:

Post a Comment