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Sunday, November 27, 2022

Catalogue of the archive of Queen Mary University of London Academic Peter Landin available at Bodleian Library at Oxford University – QMUL

Located at 10 Godward Square, E1 4FZ, Queen Mary’s Peter Landin Building may seem like your average 1970s style building and home to computer science students, research labs and offices. But do you know the complex history of the person who the building is named after? 
Peter Landin was a larger-than-life character: an outstanding academic computer scientist, a political radical, and a bisexual gay-rights campaigner. His work laid the foundations for the software that runs the laptop, desktop PCs and the internet of today.  
His archives are also now available at the Bodleian Library in Oxford. Dating from 1953 to 2006, they span 22.35 linear metres (148 physical shelf marks) and are written in English, French, German, Hebrew, Polish and Russian. With the bulk of his papers dating from the 1960s to1970s, papers from these years chart Landin’s peak creative pioneering contributions to the discipline of computer science, specifically computer programming languages, and then gradual waning of enthusiasm for, and cynicism towards, computer science. A stereotypical eccentric academic, much of the collection has been kept and written on the back of ephemeral material, such as posters, leaflets, pamphlets and correspondence from charities and organisations he supported. These fragments chart the path of a true scientific innovator.  
His son Daniel Landin said: “I’m so glad the archive is accessible and appreciated! When my father died his house remained a crammed monument to his brain, every wall had by then had a bookshelf built onto it, and in front of many of those bookshelves, were in some cases other book shelves, at times on wheels (cannibalised supermarket trolley bases!).  It posed a huge challenge as to how to preserve such an intense and personal archive, and when the Bodleian asked to preserve it, my sister Louise, my mother Hanne and myself were very grateful.”  
“In the early days of computing, software written for one make of machine would not run on any other. Computer scientists wanted to define “programming languages” that could be universally understood. That this is normal today – the software of the internet, for example, can run on every kind of computer – is a consequence of Peter’s insight that the meaning of a computer program could be pinpointed in mathematical logic and liberated from the control of the manufacturer” wrote Richard Bornat, a former Professor of Computer Science at Queen Mary University of London, in Peter’s obituary for The Guardian.  
As Bornat notes, Peter was far from a bookish and prudish academic, and famously included jokes in the presentation of his ideas. For example, early programming languages had names derived from acronyms and shortened phrases that sounded very technical and machine-like: such as Fortran (short for FORmula TRANslation) and Algol (short for ALGOrithmic Language), so, when Peter first introduced a programming language, he called it ISWIM, for “If You See What I Mean.”, because a key innovation was that it had a logical definition, which precisely defined what each programming construct meant. His joke was a genuine technical breakthrough and his computer language ideas form the foundations of many subsequent developments in programming languages, including the Java and Javascript applications that form the basis of many web pages.  
After a spell as a researcher in New York and an academic at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he returned in 1967 to Britain and to a chair at Queen Mary College in London, now Queen Mary University of London, where he remained for the rest of his academic career, latterly as emeritus professor of theoretical computation. He taught enthusiastically to both, students and the colleagues who he worked with as research assistants.  
However, as Richard Bornat, notes in Peter’s obituary: “Towards the end of his life, Peter became convinced that computing had, perhaps, been a bad idea, giving support to profit-taking corporate interests and a surveillance state, and that he had wasted his energies in promoting it. But whether he liked it or not, his ideas underpin developments to this day. “   
Professor Of Computer Science Paul Curzon said: “Having Peter’s archives housed at the Bodleian leaves a wonderful, lasting, legacy, and is very appropriate given his achievements. It reflects his huge stature and massive accomplishment in the field of computer science as well as in his grassroots activism for social rights especially as an important gay rights campaigner. It will give historians of both computer science and the LGBTQ+ rights movement a unique insight into his research and the campaigns he was involved with. Our research students working in the Peter Landin building should be proud of his role as a ‘founding father’ for a significant part of computer science and as a campaigner for social rights.” 
Professor of Computer Science Edmund Robinson said: “The curation of Peter’s archives at the Bodleian is a fitting legacy for one of the country’s pioneering Computer Scientists. having worked with him at the end of his career here, I suspect he would have made fun of this establishment tribute while also being secretly delighted. Peter was a truly inspirational figure, embodying all we think best of Queen Mary: a great scientist with a real social conscience and concern for diversity. 
The catalogue at the Bodleian Library of the Archive of Peter Landin (1939-2009) computer scientist, academic and gay rights campaigner, is now online. See: 
For media information, contact:
Queen Mary University of London
Mile End Road
London E1 4NS
+44 (0) 20 7882 5555


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