Archive of Neil Ernest Wiseman, 1934-1995, computer scientist

Archive Collection

Scope and Content

This small archive is principally concerned with two periods of Wiseman’s career: the 1960s when he was Chief Engineer in the Mathematical Laboratory, University of Cambridge, and the late 1970s to early 1980s when was involved in a great range of computer consultancy work. It covers the period 1959-2002.

Biographical material is slight consisting solely of items printed from the web: photograph, appreciation by Peter Robinson at Neil Wiseman’s funeral on 26 June 1995, bibliography and 'Neil Wiseman Memorial Fund’. University Mathematical Laboratory (UML), Cambridge, papers comprise the largest component of the collection. They document Wiseman’s research and involvement in a range of UML activities including tunnel diode work, Titan computer project, computer stores, data-links, computer aided design, computer graphics, text editors, television camera for the PDP-7 mini-computer and Diploma course. The documentation includes correspondence, notes, drafts, programs, data, specifications, circuit diagrams, technical memoranda, reports, and product literature. Colleagues represented in correspondence and as authors of memoranda and reports include D.W. Barron, W.S. Elliott, D.F. Hartley, G.B. Herzog 'Visiting from R.C.A.’, R.M. Needham, C.R. Spooner, H.P.F. Swinnerton-Dyer, D.J. Wheeler and M.V. Wilkes. Companies involved in computer developments are also represented including Elliott Brothers Ltd, Ferranti Ltd and Plessey Company Ltd.

Records of Wiseman’s lectures and publications covers a period of just eleven years, 1963-1974 and, including only two publications, are hardly comprehensive in respect of the period covered. There are, however, notes of a small number of research talks given in Cambridge, 1963-1964, and a record of Wiseman’s contribution to a course on computer engineering at the Cambridge College of Arts and Technology, 1966-1967. Likewise, visits and conferences records cover a relatively short period, 1962-1967. Thirteen visits and conferences are documented including four visits to the USA and conferences in the UK organised by the Institution of Electrical Engineers and the Institution of Electronic and Radio Engineers.

Societies and organisations material is slight with documentation of just four organisations with which Wiseman was associated. The most substantial body of material, committee papers and reports, relates to the Radio Components Research and Development (RCRD) Sub-committee 15: computer elements, which he joined in 1961, and which was wound up in 1965. The sponsoring ministry appears to have been the Air Ministry while the committee secretary was based at the Royal Radar Establishment, Malvern, Worcestershire. Records of Wiseman’s consultancy activities comprise two components. The first provides some documentation, 1973-1978, of Wiseman’s association with Graphical Software Ltd run by W.S. Elliott, Professor of Computing at Imperial College and a former Cambridge colleague. The second, much more substantial component, documents Wiseman’s own company Fendragon Ltd from its foundation in 1977 to 1983. There are correspondence and papers relating to the founding and running of the company, client files and reports. Among the clients are small computer and electronics companies as well as major national organisations.

Wiseman’s correspondence is interesting though not extensive. It is the contents of an untitled folder, which comprised correspondence relating to career, research, patents, publications, equipment, speaking engagements, etc December 1959-1963 and documents relating to patents 1964 and 1969, found with the earlier correspondence.

Administrative / Biographical History

The following biographical notes make extensive use of the appreciation given at Wiseman’s funeral by his Cambridge colleague and former student Peter Robinson,

Neil Ernest Wiseman was born in Cowlinge near Newmarket, Suffolk on 19 May 1934. In 1950 he joined the Pye electronics company in Cambridge as an apprentice. He studied for a B.Sc. (Eng) degree in electrical engineering at Queen Mary College, University of London, 1954-1957. During this time he started working for the Mathematical Laboratory, Cambridge during the vacations, for example on the construction of a high speed photo-electric paper tape reader. His ability recognised, arrangements were made for him to spend two years at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign to study for a master’s degree in electrical engineering (awarded 1959). Here he worked as a research assistant in the Digital Computer Laboratory on the design of circuits for the new Illinois computer. On his return to Britain his call-up for National Service was deferred to enable him to take employment with Elliott Brothers (London) Ltd at Borehamwood, Hertfordshire - on behalf of the Ministry of Aviation. He worked for two years at Elliott Brothers as research engineer in charge of the advanced circuits and logical techniques group in the Data Processing Laboratory. It was here that he started working with tunnel diodes, which showed great promise as a high-speed technology.

In 1961 after ten years of intermittent contact Wiseman joined the staff of the University Mathematical Laboratory, Cambridge as Chief Engineer. He continued working with tunnel diodes and constructed a prototype store capable of running at 250 megahertz, a phenomenal speed for the time. The arrival of one of the world’s first mini-computers, the DEC PDP-7 and its type 340 vector display, presented new challenges. Wiseman designed a high-speed data-link to connect this to the main Titan computer, which probably counted as the world’s first distributed system. It proved a valuable research tool for work on computer aided design, both for mechanical components and for his own work on electronic circuits. The Rainbow integrated CAD system combined electronic design, computer graphics, data structures and the control of change in large bodies of data. He also began work on screen editors for text and later a television camera was connected to the PDP-7.

In 1970 Wiseman was approved for a Ph.D. through the submission of published work and was appointed to a University Lectureship. He was immediately seconded to the Cambridge University Press where he employed his experiences with PDP-7 display in a project to design and implement a computerised type-setting system. Returning to the Computer Laboratory in 1973 he resumed his work on the Rainbow integrated CAD system with the new PDP-11 computer and Vector General display. He attracted a great number of Ph.D. students who went on to academic posts around the world and in research laboratories in Britain and especially on the West coast of America. In the 1970s he collaborated with David Kindersley in the exploration of the mathematics underlying the aesthetics of lettering. Towards the end of 1977 he set up a consultancy company Fendragon Ltd with Kindersley and J. Harradine as directors (later joined by M.J. Jordan and P. Robinson), which operated in text processing and related areas.

Research in the Computer Laboratory developed with the Rainbow display project, which combined Wiseman’s interests in electronic design and computer graphics. He ran the Diploma course in computer science, looked after general graduate admissions and played a key role in the establishment of the hardware laboratory for undergraduate practical work. He declined offers of chairs at other universities, preferring to remain in Cambridge. In 1983 he became a Fellow of Wolfson College and in 1986 a personal Readership in Computer Graphics was created for him. He died of cancer on 13 June 1995 after a year’s illness.


By section as follows: Biographical, University Mathematical Laboratory, Lectures and publications, Visits and conferences, Societies and organisations, Consultancy, Correspondence. Index of correspondents.

Conditions Governing Access

Open. Contact the repository for details.

Other Finding Aids

Finding aids: Printed Catalogue of the papers and correspondence of: Neil Ernest Wiseman NCUACS catalogue no. 154/4/07, 57pp. Copies available from NCUACS, University of Bath.

Archivist's Note

Description submitted by Dr Tim Powell, NCUACS, January 2009

Custodial History

The papers were received for cataloguing from Cambridge University Library on 18 December 2006. Returned to CUL in 2007.