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Obituary for Dr. Philip Mayne Woodward DSc

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Dr. Philip Mayne Woodward  - Applied mathematician who coined the term ‘artificial intelligence’

Philip Mayne Woodward, who has died aged 98, was a British mathematician, pioneering radar engineer and world renowned horologist.  

Woodward was born on 6 September 1919 and educated at Blundell’s School.  He won a scholarship to study mathematics at Wadham College Oxford in 1938.  While there he was appointed the college organist.  His undergraduate course was interrupted when he was drafted in 1941 to the Telecommunications Research Establishment (TRE), the original home of radar research for the RAF.  This was the entry into the world of science for which he craved and led to a career in the Scientific Civil Service which spanned four decades.

It was then that he met Alice Robertson, newly graduated from the University of St Andrews, and they married in 1942.  Just after the war they travelled to Europe in Woodward's MG and must have been the focus of great interest in the tiny Swiss hamlet of Fionnay after which their house was named.

Woodward describes this time as ‘real research with a real purpose’.  Animated by Claude Shannon’s Theory of communication, Woodward pioneered in 1950 a new approach to the problem of radar signal detection in the presence of random noise to eliminate all but the wanted information the echoes might contain.  His analysis, based on Bayesian probability theory, is now seen as being many years ahead of its time.  All of Woodward’s research had strictly practical aims, whether in numerical methods, diffraction theory, wave propagation, antenna design, computer programming or documentation.  In1953 he wrote Probability and Information Theory, with Applications to Radar.  This work introduced a mathematical technique for the design of coherent radar systems based on Woodward’s Ambiguity Function which over six decades later continues to be used for satellite work.

His publications in the field of random processes led to being invited in 1956 by the Nobel Prize-winning physicist John H Van Vleck to take up a visiting lectureship at Harvard University.  One day in that year, Oliver Selfridge and Marvin Minsky called at the Cruft laboratory to discuss the programming of computers to exhibit quasi-intelligent behaviour, an emerging field at the time.  Woodward recalled a snappy title was needed, if only to oust the anthropomorphic phrase ‘electronic brain’.  The word ‘intelligence’ had already been agreed when Woodward suggested prefacing it with ‘artificial’ to suggest the mimicking of mental processes.  In five minutes, the now familiar term ‘artificial intelligence’ had been coined.

Whilst in the US, Woodward played the recorder in a weekly consort meeting at the home of Oliver Straus, on Beacon Hill, Boston.  Straus was the grandson of Isadore Straus of Macy’s store in New York and his wife Ida, the courageous couple who chose to go down in the Titanic.  One Sunday morning, Woodward was puzzled to be asked to go over the bravura harpsichord part of Bach’s fifth Brandenburg Concerto.  As a farewell gift and to baptise his new harpsichord, Straus had secretly hired a section of the Boston Symphony Orchestra to come that afternoon to play the ripieno with him.

Returning to his research base in Malvern, at the Royal Signals and Radar Establishment (RSRE) of the British Ministry of Defence (MoD) now part of the QinetiQ Company, Woodward gathered a mathematical team of exceptional talent to develop techniques for efficient computer usage in scientific work.  In the 1960s this hinged largely on the availability of high-level programming languages.  The implementation of any new language calls for software of the highest calibre for which purpose a member of the team devised a syntactic technique which proved uniquely labour saving.  Higher authority at the MoD headquarters found it difficult to monitor work of this nature and felt obliged to call in a leading American software house for independent assessment.  The emissary, remembered by the examinees for his theatrical arrival in a white Porsche, reported that in Malvern the MoD had a ‘crack team using software techniques in advance of any to be found in private industry in the US’.

Nobel Prize-winner Denis Gabor at Imperial College was supportive of Woodward’s work and was influential in sponsoring him for an individual merit post as Deputy Chief Scientific Officer.  With this added authority, Woodward was able to steer the MoD to accept a programming language designed by his own team as an inter-service standard for small military computers of the 1960s.

A new internationally defined language, Algol 68, appeared on the computing scene and was put to use by the team at Malvern so quickly that a conference which was set to be held in Munich to discuss plans for its implementation was taken aback by the news that the job had already been done by this UK team.  The formal language definition of the International Federation for Information Processing was so unaccommodating that widespread curiosity about the language was frustrated until a narrative guide compiled by Woodward and a perspicacious colleague was put on sale by HM Stationery Office and sold all of its 17,000 copies.

Woodward retired from his role of Deputy Chief Scientific Officer in 1980.  Retirement meant that he could return to his interest in horology.  He threw himself heart and soul into this ‘hobby’ and achieved notable success in this field, contributing dozens of articles to horological periodicals over more than 30 years.

From his experience as a mathematician and analyst of complex systems, he has made major contributions to scientific horology, including the definitive analysis of balance springs and much work on the properties of pendulums.  His principal contribution to the horological literature is My Own Right Time in 1995, a record of his passion for horology and the design of a series of four mechanical clocks made at his home, largely by hand.  On his acorn computer Woodward evaluated accurately for the first time the nonlinear behaviour of spiral hairsprings, and analysed the influence of lunar and solar tides on historic pendulum clocks.  

The culmination of his efforts is his masterpiece W5.  W5 was built with the simplest of tools, but displays an elegance of concept and design rarely seen in the history of the science. Woodward even built the case, assembling it with intricate but invisible secret mitre joints.  It was acclaimed by Jonathan Betts, the Senior Curator of Horology at the Royal Observatory Greenwich as "the nearest approach to perfection by any mechanical timekeeper not employing a vacuum chamber".  The eminent horologist Anthony Randall carried out a long series of timekeeping trials of W5, showing unprecedented accuracy over periods of more than 100 days.  

Woodward’s clocks have been copied by numerous model engineers.  W5 has since been replicated, ranging from a version made out of Lego to several deluxe versions having been made on commission for private clients by David Walter in California.

Woodward became a Fellow of the British Horological Institute (BHI) and in 1994 he was awarded the Barrett silver medal of the BHI.  In 2006 the British Horological Institute published a hard-cover collection of 63 articles with new notes by Woodward. The collection was titled Woodward on Time.

W5 has acquired a unique status among amateur and professional clockmakers alike and in 2017 Woodward was delighted to be informed that W5 had been accepted into the Collection of the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers as an outstanding example of 20th century horology.  The Collection is on public display in the Clockmakers Museum at the Science Museum, South Kensington.

Woodward has received many honours for his work in both radar and horology.  

  • Two decades after he retired the diversity of his work for the MoD was recognised when in 2000 a new building for information technology was named after him on the site of the former RSRE.
  • Royal Academy of Engineering gave Woodward in 2005 its first Lifetime Achievement Award, recognizing him as an outstanding pioneer of Radar and for his work in precision mechanical horology.  
  • In 2009 he received the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), Denis J Picard Medal for Radar Technologies and Applications for ‘pioneering work of fundamental importance in radar waveform design including the Woodward Ambiguity Function’.  
  • He was awarded the Tompion Gold Medal in 2009 from the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers, for services to precision mechanical horology.

For ten years Woodward held an honorary professorship in Electrical Engineering at the University of Birmingham and for a further ten years was a visiting Professor in Cybernetics at the University of Reading.

In person Woodward was a kind and generous man with boundless enthusiasm for everything he did. It took only a few minutes of conversation for the power of his intellect to become apparent. He had a rare combination of charisma and intelligence which remained undimmed to the last.

His wife Alice pre-deceased him after a marriage of 57 years.

Philip Mayne Woodward DSc was born on 6 September 1919 and died 30 January 2018.

Photo credit: The Horological Journal

Field of Interest

“The field of interest shall be the organization, systems engineering, design, development, integration, and operation of complex systems for space, air, ocean, or ground environments. These systems include but are not limited to navigation, avionics, mobile electric power and electronics, radar, sonar, telemetry, military, law-enforcement, automatic test, simulators, and command and control."


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