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Recognition for Computer Pioneer

Submitted by seladmin on 21 April 2016

Selwyn is delighted to welcome Sophie Wilson as its latest Honorary Fellow. Ms Wilson, a Selwyn alumna who began her university studies in 1975, has had a remarkable career as a computer scientist and software engineer; and she was installed into the Honorary Fellowship at a ceremony in Chapel on Thursday April 21st. These are her achievements:

Sophie Wilson began building microprocessors when fifteen years old. During her pre-university gap year, she designed and built systems counting translucent drops of liquid and detecting spun fibre machinery breakdowns; in her first vacation she developed a cow-feeder which released personalised amounts read from electronic tags; and immediately after graduating she launched the first of her personal computer and microprocessor designs. She designed the Acorn System 1, she personally coded the operating system in binary before designing and implementing Acorn Assembler, Acorn BASIC and Atom BASIC (which eventually led to BBC BASIC).

She and Steve Furber took less than a week to design and implement the prototype of the BBC Microcomputer, Acorn thereby clinching the contract for the world-leading Computer Literacy Project. They refined it over the same summer, with Sophie designing the operating system and writing the BBC BASIC interpreter and over the next fifteen years she designed and implemented BBC BASIC versions 1 to 6 for a succession of chips, including the 6502, NS32016 and ARM. The BBC project succeeded beyond its begetters' wildest dreams: the ensuing decade saw over a million BBC micros sold and used in thousands of UK schools.

She and Furber co-designed the 32-bit RISC Machine processor powering Acorn's A series and the first Apple Personal Digital Assistant and virtually every mobile phone and tablet in the world today. She designed the ARM RISC instruction set with a view to making software developers’ lives easier and supported it with high speed instruction set simulators, thereby significantly influencing the subsequent cumulative 20 billion sales. She single-handedly designed and implemented the ARM second processor operating system; and co-designed the ARM3, ARM610 and ARM 700 processors and the ARM7500FE single chip computer. In 1990, she created Acorn Replay, Archimedes software-only multimedia realisation. This was in several aspects superior to Apple’s Quicktime, and in 1992 brought her the International Learning Person of the Year Award. She led the customisation of Acorn designs to provide the Network Computer which Oracle commissioned.

By 1999, Sophie Wilson had developed the basis of a SIMD LIW processor which became known as Firepath. To exploit this in the emerging ADSL wired broadband market, she and six others successfully launched Element 14 as an Acorn management buy-out. Sophie lead the design of the instruction set for Firepath, wrote the entire Architecture Guide and assisted with the development of superfast, flexible signal processing software. Within two years, Broadcom bought Element 14 for $450m and went on to win 75% of the world’s Central Office digital subscriber exchange business. Broadcom currently ship Firepath processors in DSL and other applications. Sophie is now a Senior Director, Fellow and Distinguished Engineer at Broadcom and continues to develop the Firepath processor.

Sophie is a Fellow of the Royal Society, a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering, a Fellow of the British Computer Society and a Fellow of the Women’s Engineering Society. She is also an honorary fellow of the Computer History Museum and was a finalist in the 2013 European Inventor of the Year in the lifetime achievement category.

We congratulate her on adding an Honorary Fellowship at Selwyn to this impressive list.