The archives of Professor Emeritus of Queen Mary Theoretical Calculations, Peter Landin, are now available at Oxford University’s Bodleian Library. A larger-than-life character: an academic computer scientist preeminence, a political radical, and a bisexual gay rights activist, his work laid the foundation for the software that powers today’s laptops, desktops, and Internet.
They date from the years 1953 to 2006, cover 22.35 running meters (148 physical signatures) and are written in English, French, German, Hebrew, Polish and Russian. As the bulk of his papers date from the 1960s to 1970s, papers from those years chronicle Landin’s creative pioneering contributions to the discipline of computer science, particularly computer programming languages, and then the gradual waning of enthusiasm for and cynicism towards computer science.
A stereotypical eccentric academic, much of the collection was preserved and written on the back of short-lived material such as posters, leaflets, pamphlets and correspondence from charities and organizations he supported. These fragments chart the path of a true scientific innovator.
His son Daniel Landin said: “I am so glad that the archive is accessible and appreciated! When my father died his house remained a crammed monument to his brain, every wall had had a bookshelf by then and in front of many of those bookshelves were in some cases other bookshelves, sometimes on wheels (cannibalized shopping cart bottoms!) It presented a great challenge to preserve such an intense and personal archive, and when the Bodleian asked for it to be preserved, my sister Louise, my mother Hanne and I were very grateful.”
Queen Mary’s Computer Science Building at 10 Godward Square, E1 4FZ is named after him.
“In the early days of computing, software written for one brand of machine would not run on any other. Computer scientists wanted to define generally understandable “programming languages”. That this is normal today – the software of the Internet, for example, can run on all kinds of computers – is a consequence of Peter’s insight that the meaning of a computer program could be fixed in mathematical logic and out of the manufacturer’s control,” wrote Richard Bornat, a former professor of computer science at Queen Mary University of London, in Peter’s obituary for The Guardian.
After a stint as a researcher in New York and as an academic at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he returned to Britain in 1967 and took up a chair at Queen Mary College, London, now Queen Mary University of London, where he remained for the remainder of his academic career , most recently as professor emeritus for theoretical calculations. He enthusiastically taught both students and the colleagues with whom he worked as research associates.
However, as Richard Bornat notes in Peter’s obituary: “Towards the end of his life, Peter became convinced that computers might have been a bad idea to support lucrative corporate interests and a surveillance state, and that he had squandered his energies promoting it.” . But whether he liked it or not, his ideas drive the development to this day. ”
Computer Science Professor Paul Curzon said: “The fact that Peter’s archives are housed in the Bodleian leaves a wonderful, enduring legacy and is very fitting given his achievements. It reflects his enormous size and achievements in the field of computing, as well as in his grassroots social rights activism, particularly as a major gay rights activist. 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 in. 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 a campaigner for social rights.”
Professor of Computer Science Edmund Robinson said: “The maintenance of Peter’s archives at the Bodleian is a fitting legacy for one of the country’s pioneering computer scientists. Having worked with him here at the end of his career, I suspect he would have ridiculed this homage to the establishment while secretly enjoying it. Peter was a truly inspirational figure who embodied what we think best of Queen Mary: a great scientist with a genuine social conscience and concern for diversity.”
The Bodleian Library catalog of the archives of Peter Landin (1939-2009), computer scientist, academic and gay rights activist is now online. Please visit:
About Queen Mary
Queen Mary University of London is a leading research-intensive university with a difference – one that opens doors to opportunity for anyone with the potential to succeed. Ranked 117th in the world and 1st in England for social mobility, the university has over 32,000 enrolled students and around 5,000 staff. We are a truly global university: over 170 nationalities are represented across our five campuses in London, and we also have offices in Malta, Paris, Singapore and China.
Disclaimer: AAAS and EurekAlert! are not responsible for the accuracy of the press releases published on EurekAlert! by contributing institutions or for the use of information about the EurekAlert system.