The Real Allan Bromley

Allan George Bromley (1947 to 2002) was a computer scientist and historian with a particular interest in mechanical computing. For more than 10 years he worked closely with Michael Wright to examine and understand the Antikythera mechanism. This collaboration is described in Jo Marchant's book Decoding the Heavens, in a section that contains many factual errors and a description of Allan that we found almost unrecognisable. We deal with the factual errors here. This page is about the real Allan Bromley.

Reactions to the book

Eulogies and Obituaries

Reactions to Decoding the Heavens

Anne Bromley

Anne Bromley is Allan's wife. She has never had any contact from Jo Marchant, and has no recollection of writing the letter to Michael Wright or of having the conversation with Allan from which the book allegedly quotes. She writes:

As Allan’s wife I had a wonderful experience observing him teach others, as well as me, and since his death I have had many people wanting to talk about their experiences with Allan as a student, resident at Wesley College, colleague and teacher at the University of Sydney.

I was impressed with Allan from the first time we met as someone with a sense of humour and a vast knowledge on a diverse range of topics with a wish to pass that information on to all and sundry.

Allan visited me regularly at my office in the University and would usually bring an object to tease my imagination and intellect. He would walk in asking what I thought this or that was, holding up a found object or a piece from his vast collection of objects. This would then start a discussion on the why and wherefore of the item. He would often leave the object with me to ponder until the next visit. This was part of Allan’s courtship of me.

I often watched and listened to Allan when people asked questions of him. He always tried to gauge the level of knowledge of the person and then pitch the answer at the appropriate level – he didn’t make anyone feel inadequate because of their lack of learning or understanding. Allan was a born teacher.

Allan was working with a PHD student Stephen Jones until three weeks prior to his death. Stephen wasn’t Allan’s student, but Allan was willing to help with anything he could and he lent Stephen materials that would help with his research.

Allan and his illness was a fascinating study. Allan learnt as much about his cancer and the treatments and then would describe in detail to family, friends and colleagues the statistics on recovery from the illness, the symptoms, the treatments required and the chance of survival.

Whenever I visit Wesley College and there are other visitors who were Allan’s contemporaries I always find they are wanting to talk to me about Allan and their wonderful experiences in college with him in the 1970’s. Often Allan’s teaching and tutoring ability is discussed and his willingness to help academically whenever asked. There are many former students of Allan’s on campus even now and they will comment on attending Allan’s classes and his teaching style.

This is just a part of who the person was that I knew and loved, a teacher to the last, and a person who willingly shared knowledge and nurtured enquiring minds.

For me the items in the book – knowledge as currency etc are particularly abhorrent and certainly are not related the person I knew.


Norman Foo

Norman Foo was one of Allan's academic colleagues and a close friend. He gave one of the eulogies at Allan's funeral. After reading this section of Decoding the Heavens he wrote:

Aspersions have been cast on [Allan Bromley's] character that are quite extraordinary, including these traits: self-serving, unwilling to share knowledge, unwilling to acknowledge assistance from colleagues, unprofessional conduct, ego centric. That is NOT the Allan Bromley I knew and loved.

The Allan I knew was the one below.

He nurtured students and cared deeply for them, imparting his scholarship eagerly. His scientific approach was impeccable. His integrity was unquestioned. He once walked out of a staff meeting in protest against a measure that our Professor wanted to introduce but Allan perceived to be pandering to lowered standards. He was a loyal friend, had a self-deprecating sense of humor. He was emotionally very sensitive and empathetic. He drew out students' potential, often from students who were not aware they had it, or who were diffident.


Jeff Kingston

Jeff Kingston was a Ph.D. students who became a friend. When he heard about the description of Allan in Decoding the Heavens, he wrote:

You asked for something from me about Allan's character. I don't feel well qualified, compared with you, but here are some recollections for what they are worth.

You say He nurtured students and cared deeply for them. He was a wonderful PhD supervisor to me. Six months into my PhD I changed topic from something central to his interests (computer hardware) to something less so (analysis of algorithms). We talked it over very openly - there were, I thought, insuperable problems with the hardware project - and I remember gratefully how he entered into my point of view and supported the new plan.

You say he had a self-deprecating sense of humor and was emotionally very sensitive and empathetic. His sense of humour is one of the things I remember best about Allan - or perhaps I should say, rather, the lightness of touch in his conversation. I always enjoyed visiting his office, and seeing the latest additions to the clutter. We talked freely about his work, about my work, and about many other things. Sometimes we would talk for an hour. I remember laughing with him over his stories about Charles Babbage. I certainly felt an empathy between us.

You say His integrity was unquestioned. This appeared in many ways, one very documentable one being the amount of work he did for his department, in curriculum design, the move to Madsen, etc. No-one who went through his logic labs will ever forget them: he found a way for students to build a working computer from the ground up. He must have put a huge amount of work into them; nothing could be less self-serving.

I can't specifically refute charges like unwilling to acknowledge assistance from colleagues because our relationship didn't go in those kinds of directions; but the general picture painted by the characteristics that you say have been attributed to Allan does not correspond with his character as I remember it.


Sandra Oates

Sandra Oates (formerly Charker) was a fascinated observer of Allan's work with clockmaker Frank Percival to build a reconstruction of the Antikythera mechanism in the late 1980s, and followed Allan's work on and frustrations with the device for many years. She recalls:

I met Allan in about 1985. Our friendship covered almost exactly the period of his work on the Antikythera mechanism, and his investigations and speculations were a frequent topic in our conversations. I had no background in Hellenistic astronomy, clockwork, or the mathematics and manufacture of gear trains. Allan and his friend and co-worker Frank Percival were endlessly patient with my ignorance and interest, to the extent that my first piece of published writing was an article about their first reconstruction for a long-defunct personal computing magazine.

My 1988 magazine article was the first step on my way to the happiest period of my working life, a 15 year career as a technical writer. When I met Allan I was working as an analyst-programmer in business applications, having fluked on-the-job training in COBOL from an administrative job with a life insurance company. These were the early days of desktop computing, which instantly appealed to me although I never did understand the fascination of hardware tinkering or the operating system wars. It's hard to imagine a computing background less like Allan's, yet we talked at enormous length about my work as well as his. He was generous with explanations and generous with helping me sort out my own thoughts and identify gaps in my understanding. He also provided candid criticism and consistent encouragement as I struggled to find work I really wanted to do. Over time I saw him provide the same practical encouragement for many people. It was a reflection of his respect for independent thinking and open debate.

I was never part of Allan's academic life, but I met him at his office one day while an exam he had set was in progress. It was a revelation to me. I had never thought that teachers might actually want students to do well, and I was astonished to find that Allan was as jumpy as the proverbial cat on hot bricks. When the papers were delivered to him for marking he immediately opened them and checked the first few papers for one particular question. His first comment was “Ahhh. So that's what the good students made of it.” Another very frequent topic of conversation was our respective working environments. I heard a lot about the changing ethos of the Science Museum in London and also about the very similar changes in Allan's department and university. They were typical of the times: a shift to market orientation, deep cuts in public funding, and accountant-driven attempts to do more with less. I think Allan was even more unhappy with this new world than Michael was, because his perspective on it was less personal but its antagonism to what he regarded as good work was just as great.

Allan struggled, as most academics did, under the ever-increasing teaching load, especially because he would not (probably could not) compromise his commitment to providing his students with an opportunity to learn both deep principles that they could apply far beyond their first jobs and also that they had the capacity to learn for themselves. I remember him watching a post-grad testing an early robotic arm which was not performing as expected. He was amused at the student's struggles, but his comment was a confident “He'll get it.”

I worked in the software industry throughout this period, and it seemed to me that the university's management fad of the moment was consistently about 10 years behind the management fad that was confronting me. By the 4th or 5th corporate restructure, refocus or revision I had grown tired and stale, and I was grateful when in 2000 I was retrenched for the second time and able to leave the vastly changed software industry I had once loved so much. Allan's trials with reorganisations, restructurings, departmental politics, budget cuts and so on were worse than mine and were compounded by his health problems.

But his delight in discovery, his generosity with time and interest, and his commitment to honest, systematic and open research never changed. They were bone deep.


Eulogies and obituaries

Norman Foo gave this eulogy at Allan's funeral in August, 2002.

Obituary by Graeme Philipson published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 27 August 2002

Text of the obituary by Jeff Kingston published in the Sydney Morning Herald, on 11 September 2002

Eulogy given by Norman Foo

It is my privilege to deliver this eulogy to Allan Bromley.

I joined the Basser Department of Computer Science at Sydney University in mid 1975. Allan was already a lecturer there, and I soon discovered that I had in him not only a professional colleague but a friend who shared my rather old-fashioned views on research, science, education and politics. To my great joy I had found a comrade in scholarship, whose love of learning beyond the pragmatics of our discipline of computer science matched, indeed even exceeded, mine. Together we designed a first-year course on discrete structures which so challenged the best students that many in the leading tutorial classes went on to complete their PhDs. Allan introduced algorithms via game theory, an approach that today, 25 years later, is recognized to be an ingenious way to insinuate deep ideas in the theory of algorithms to the brightest students. Characteristically, he did not think it was all that novel an approach simply because almost all his research and educational innovations seem to be logical unfoldings of his highly methodical and disciplined mind. Unfortunately, this intellectual gift for organization did not extend to his office, which often achieved maximal entropy. In my numerous conversations with him there, books, devices, paintings, and various assorted arcana had to be moved so that I could find an empty chair somewhere. Our conversations ranged from physics, mathematics and computing on the one hand to history, political science, biology and economics on the other. We had so many opinions in common that often our conversations would sound cryptic to third parties. It was sometimes sufficient for Allan, or me, to mention merely a word or two, and our minds would complete the ellipses. He was an Australian patriot. He loved his country deeply, and hated the cultural and political cringe that we still see today. I learned from Allan much of the Australian history I know. Like me, he held classical Greece in awe, and for the same reasons -- that it was the mainspring of the Western intellectual tradition that we were both steeped in. It was fitting that a piece of his research, on the Antikythera mechanism, is about an ancient Greek instrument raised from the depths of the Aegean Sea. His reconstruction of the mechanism using only the techniques available to the engineers of antiquity was a masterpiece of scientific deduction and induction. However, this is but one chapter in his research career.

I would like to read you a citation by Matthew Connell, IT Curator of the Powerhouse Museum, in his nomination of Allan for the Distinguished Service Award. This citation summarizes the international regard for Allan's professional and scientific contributions to our community of scholars.

Allan Bromley is a computer scientist and historian of technology and one of Australia's foremost computer historians. He has been on the editorial board of the IEEE journal, Annals of The History of Computing and the Charles Babbage Institute Reprint Series for the History of Computing.

He is the world authority on Charles Babbage's calculating engines and the Antikythera mechanism.

Allan has been an advisor to the museum for over twenty years, particularly to the curators and conservators responsible for the computing and calculator collection. Allan acts as an advisor and mentor to the current Curators of Information technology in their research, collecting, and exhibition work. He has also been the external representative on selection panels for new staff in the IT section.

Allan has donated 14 artefacts to the museums collection including analogue computers, parts of Silliac (Australia's second computer), calculators and sliderules. He has also presented a number of books and papers to the library and the curatorial research files. He has a number of other important items that he has bequeathed to the museum.

His most significant recent contribution was with the acquisition and subsequent conservation assessment of the specimen piece of Babbage's Difference Engine No. 1 Allan advice was sought on the significance and authenticity of the piece when it came up for auction. He also provided with a very astute assessment of the market and a bidding strategy for the museum which was undoubtedly crucial to our winning the bidding.

After the museum purchased the specimen, Allan worked with Carey Ward (Conservator) in disassembling the machine and measuring all the components. Data gathered from this assessment is being incorporated in new material that Allan in is preparing for publication. (A photograph of Allan working with the Babbage's part appeared on the cover of the 1996 annual report).

Allan has spoken on a number of occasions at the museum including an excellent public lecture on Babbage's engines on behalf of the Australian Computer society, and speaking to the museum's collection of sliderules at a meeting of sliderule collectors organised by the museum.

Allan's contribution as a scholar and historian of computing was recently recognised when Volume 22 Number 4 October to December 2000 edition of IEEE Annals of the History of Computing was dedicated to him.

Allan's contribution to the museum, the legacy of his scholarship, generosity and links to the computing community, can be seen in our unique collection, our award winning exhibition and in the high standard of enquiry and research for which the museum is now recognised.

If you did not already know it, Allan was the foremost international authority on the work of Charles Babbage. To read Allan's analyses and reconstruction of Babbage's computing engines is to have revealed before one a magnificent and elegant piece of scientific detection. Few would have had the courage, insight or ability to do it.

Allan was an inspired teacher. His philosophy was in many ways more suited to the contemplative style of the Oxbridge tradition, clearly at odds with the market-driven ethos of today. I shared his dismay at much of the economic rationalism that has infected our profession. He did what he could to protect his students against it, and to instill in them a sense of the great scientific enterprise that he so loved. Jeff Kingston, until recently Associate Professor at Basser, was his doctoral student. Allan's influence is seen in Jeff's research methodology of careful attention to detail. Joe Thurbon was one of Allan's numerous honours students. Joe affectionately recounted the story of how Allan persuaded him that he had the potential to achieve beyond expectations. You see, when Joe started his honours research with Allan, he had by his own admission "only a mediocre undergraduate record", and was diffident. Allan advised him, "When the pond is big enough, the size of the fish does not matter." Joe collected a first class honours, and recently completed a doctoral degree under my supervision.

Allan's wit was subtle and he was fond of puns. He was also a big tease, and so was I. As we had confessed to each other so much of our past, the mutual teasing that interspersed much of our conversation relied on the peculiarly English habit of making merry with our embarrassments. He would rib me mercilessly about my poor ability in arithmetic, and I would respond by accusing him of expecting all his students to teach themselves like he did in physics and chemistry in high school. You see, he went to a country school where there were no physics or chemistry teachers, but he matriculated with today's equivalent of the highest honours in the HSC in these subjects. That he also took highest honours in mathematics would have surprised nobody. Many things came easily to his sharp mind. His record at the University of Sydney was a series of triumphs: BSc with first class honours in physics in 1967, PhD in theoretical physics in 1971, Associate Professor of Computer Science in 1987. Just for the heck of it, he was also active in the social life of Wesley College too.

I would like to read you Allan's abstract for his doctoral thesis: My PhD thesis dealt with maser emission from interstellar gas clouds from which stars are condensing. It provides a possible explanation for the very high degree of polarisation, particularly circular polarisation, frequently observed for this microwave emission. A computer system for algebraic manipulation of polynomials in many variables was developed for this research. A method for considerably expanding this algebraic approach using numerical computing techniques was developed later.

The approach in his thesis foreshadowed Allan's later research that won him his enviable international reputation. One cannot help but note the characteristic features in this work: the invention of a persuasive theory to account for observations, the construction of special purpose devices and software for this purpose, and the vision for future generalization of the framework. This is an exemplary fulfillment of the scientific method.

His many friends and admirers will miss him dreadfully. We have lost a dear friend. Allan Bromley -- patriot, scientist, historian, scholar, teacher, comrade -- we salute you.


Obituary by Jeff Kingston

The computer scientist, historian and collector Allan Bromley; who has died aged 55, devoted his life to the history of computing -a history that began thousands of years before the PC.

It was Bromley who revealed the full achievement of Charles Babbage, the 19th-century mathematician who designed and almost built the first general- purpose computer.

Bromley's other work included study of the earliest known geared mechanism, many other mechanical devices and the creation of the modern computer. His childhood at Freemans Reach and Windsor, outside Sydney; with secondary schooling at Richmond High, was followed by study at the University of Sydney. Bromley completed a PhD in physics in 1971. His doctoral work on maser emission from interstellar gas clouds required extensive computation with high-order polynomials, and awakened his interest in computing.

A lectureship followed in the Basser Department of Computer Science within the School of Physics at the university under the pioneering computer scientist Professor John Bennett.

Bromley worked on several projects during the 1970s, becoming an expert on the design of computer circuitry. His first marriage, to Jann Makepeace, was during this time. These were also the years in which he did his most innovative curriculum design and teaching work.

With colleague and friend Norman Foo, now professor of computer science at the University of NSW, he introduced first year students to the profound mathematical structures of computer science. He taught computer internals to intermediate students, and senior students built computers in the memorable logic laboratory he created.

But he was best in one-on-one conversation, and his students remember his clear, analytical intelligence, his benevolent interest, and above all his endlessly fresh scientific curiosity.

Eyebrows were raised when, after several years in the conventional track, Bromley decided on a change of direction. Most computer scientists knew that 100 years before the modern computer, an English mathematician called Charles Babbage had designed a general-purpose computer, to be built from gear wheels like a clock and driven by steam. Bromley was of the view that Babbage, though celebrated, was not understood. He became aware that a mountain of Babbage's personal papers, plans, and notebooks lay in the Science Museum in London.

Beginning with a sabbatical in 1979, Bromley became a regular visitor to London. Between these visits he worked from enormous photocopies of Babbage's plans, brought back to his increasingly cluttered office in Sydney. Over the next 15 years, as he rose in rank -becoming associate professor in 1987 -a stream of catalogues and papers appeared, documenting Babbage's astonishing prescience.

Others had pointed out that Babbage's designs had the central processing unit, memory, printers, and punched cards (borrowed from the Jacquard loom) of the modern computer. Bromley's flair for intricate mechanism took him deeper, to reveal the detail of how the machines were intended to work, as Babbage worked through revision after revision in search of unattainable mechanical perfection.

In addition to his papers, published in the Annals of Computing journal, which honoured him with a special edition in 2000, Bromley worked with museums in Sydney and London to preserve the Babbage heritage. At his instigation, the Science Museum in London built a working machine to one of Babbage's designs, disproving the accepted idea that Babbage's machines were beyond the reach of the engineering of his day.

In the 1980s, Bromley became interested in the oldest geared instrument in the world. The Antikythera Mechanism, recovered from an ancient shipwreck dated to about 50 BC, is kept in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. An earlier study; relying on radiographs to reveal a complicated arrangement of about 30 small gears within the corroded mass, described it as a "calendar computer", in which pointers moved round dials to show the positions of the sun and moon in the sky.

Bromley worked through his doubts about this reconstruction by designing a revised version. His long-time friend and colleague, Sydney clockmaker Frank Percival, applied his intricate machining skills to help construct a working model.

Bromley made repeated visits to Athens to see the original. He collaborated on new radiographs using the technique of linear tomography that produces a series of images allowing the depth of each wheel inside the mass to be measured. This painstaking examination led to new insights, some yet to be published. It also showed that the mechanism was more poorly preserved than had been suspected, so that a full reconstruction of it necessarily remains elusive.

Bromley was a dedicated collector of computing equipment, gradually filling his office, several small unused spaces nearby; and even a purpose-built extension of his home, with slide rules, mechanical calculators, military sighting equipment, analog computers, and fragments of Silliac (Australia's second computer, built at Sydney University).

Many of the pieces are unique and have found a permanent home at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, where he was an honorary associate and received the museum's Distinguished Service Award last year.

About 10 years ago, Bromley suffered the first of a series of illnesses that sapped his energy. He was diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease five years ago and, although his strength gradually declined, he devoted much of his time to organising his collection.

He died peacefully at home on August 16. He is survived by his wife Anne, his mother Molly; and his sisters, Joy Elliott and Leigh Mortimer.