Memorial discourse honours Father of Computing in Ireland, Professor John Byrne

Professor John Byrne, the founder and long-time head of Trinity’s Department of Computer Science, was recently honoured with a memorial discourse delivered by Professor Jane Grimson, Fellow Emeritus and Pro Chancellor on Trinity Monday.

Professor Byrne was a distinguished computer scientist, dedicated public servant and Senior Fellow at Trinity. Such was the impact of his career, he is known by many as the “Father of Computing in Ireland”.

Speaking at the discourse, Pro-Chancellor at Trinity, Professor Jane Grimson, said: “John Byrne with the support and encouragement of my father, William Wright, Professor of Engineering in Trinity from 1957 to 1985, led the development of Computer Science as an academic discipline in Ireland.”

“Under his leadership, the Department of Computer Science introduced numerous full- and part-time programmes, aimed at building a base of skilled professionals. Many of them subsequently went on to play a major role in the public sector in Ireland, in attracting Foreign Direct Investment and in developing the indigenous ICT sector.”

Professor Byrne was awarded an Imperial Chemical Industries Research Fellowship in Trinity in 1960 and conferred with a PhD the following year. He was appointed to a Junior Lectureship in 1963, initially funded by the Graduate School of Engineering Studies, and then as an established Lecturer in the School of Engineering from 1965. He was elected a Fellow in 1969 and appointed to the first Chair of Computer Science in 1973.

The Department of Computer Science was established in 1969 with Professor Byrne as its head — a position he held until two years before his retirement in 2003, apart from a period of three years when he served as Dean of the then Faculty of Engineering and Systems Sciences at the end of the 1980s. During his period as Head, the Department grew from three academic staff in 1969, to 22 a decade later, to 40 in 1989, with more than 60 today within the wider School of Computer Science and Statistics.

Professor Byrne helped make the proposal to purchase Trinity’s first computer in 1962, and the IBM 1620 was delivered on 16th June, 1962. It had to be lifted by crane, with the help – it is said – of John’s guiding hand, through the window of 21 Lincoln Place – now the location of the Dental School.

The first undergraduate programme in Computing was introduced by Professor Byrne in 1966 when a Computer Engineering stream was added to the BAI in addition to the existing streams in Civil, Mechanical and Electrical Engineering, while 1970 saw yet another major educational innovation with the introduction of an evening degree, a BSc, in Computer Science. From then on, the Department went from strength to strength and established itself as a leader in computer science education.

Given that the Department under John’s leadership was very much at the forefront of computing, it is perhaps not surprising that some of the earliest campus companies spun out from the Department. The best known spin-out was Iona Technologies created by Chris Horn and colleagues in 1991 and at its peak in 2001 employed 1,200 people with 22 offices worldwide. It was acquired by Progress Software for about $162 million in 2008. Another successful company was Havok, a leading provider of computer game technologies, founded by Hugh Reynolds and Steven Collins in 1998. It was bought by Intel in 2007 and then sold to Microsoft for an undisclosed sum in 2015.

Professor John Byrne was affectionately known as the Father of Computing in Ireland.

Professor Byrne’s contribution to laying the foundations for the development of Ireland as a major European – if not global – centre for ICT cannot be overstated either. One of the rate-limiting steps for the emerging technology sector globally was and remains the lack of an appropriately skilled workforce.

By his foresight and intuition, John developed the educational programmes which built a base of skilled professionals, thereby playing a major part in attracting ICT businesses to Ireland from the early 1970s to the present day. The courses which John established also helped to build capacity within Irish businesses and the public sector allowing them to transform and modernise through the use of ICT.  They also played a key role both directly and indirectly in supporting the development of the indigenous ICT sector in the country.

Computer Science: Then and Now

In honour of Professor Byrne’s contribution, Professor Carol O’Sullivan, current Head of the School of Computer Science and Statistics invites alumni, staff and friends of the School to a special event on Tuesday June 19, entitled: Computer Science: Then and Now.

The evening will formally open with a tribute to Professor John Byrne by Professor Jane Grimson. The second part of the evening will be an address from Professor Carol O’Sullivan who will highlight the exciting activities within the School and the cutting-edge research and associated spin-offs. She will also look at the future of computing and ways that Alumni can get involved in shaping that future. 

To find out more, and register, see here.

To watch the full discourse on Trinity Monday 2018, see here.

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