Degree Speeches
Sum mer 2001

Professor Roger M Needham, DSc, FRS, FREng

Public Orator, Professor Kalawsky, presented the Honorary Graduand at the Degree Congregation held on the morning of Friday 13 July 2001


Chancellor, Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen, New graduates of Loughborough.

It is my pleasure to present before you a highly respected scholar who in the course of his career has made a significant contribution to the field of computing.

Roger Needham was born 1935, educated at Doncaster Grammar School and won a scholarship to Cambridge University to study mathematics. Roger graduated from University of Cambridge in Mathematics and Philosophy in 1956, and then took the Diploma in Numerical Analysis and Automatic Computing in 1957.

Whilst studying for his PhD Roger lived in a caravan with his wife who was also studying for her PhD. The reason behind this was that he undertook the challenge of building his own house. Two years were spent balancing the requirements of PhD study and building his house.

Roger completed his PhD at Cambridge on the application of digital computers to problems of classification and grouping in 1961 and joined what is now known as the Computer Laboratory in 1962.

Over the next 20 years Roger championed Cambridge projects in operating systems, time sharing systems, memory protection, local area networks and distributed systems involving satellites.

He spent about 5-6 weeks per year (between 1977 to 1997) in Silicon Valley. Being at the heart of the computing industry he witnessed many amazing changes.

In 1980 he became Head of the Computer Laboratory at Cambridge, a position he held until 1995. During this period he was promoted Professor in 1981, elected to the Royal Society in 1985 and the Royal Academy of Engineering in 1993. He was appointed Pro-Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge from 1996 to 1998.

In 1996 at the age of 61 you would naturally assume that Prof Needham would be preparing for retirement -No such thing.

Prof Needham was invited by Microsoft to form the UK based Microsoft Research Labs by bringing together some of the best computer scientists. Founded in 1997 Microsoft Research Labs (Cambridge) currently employs over 65 people.

Interestingly, in 1997 the then Number 2 at Microsoft Research Labs bought the house Roger and his wife lovingly built. He then demolished it and built an even larger house. This is prime example of the computer industry’s desire to bring out newer and bigger products. Almost nothing is untouched. However, I assure you we do have the original Roger Needham here today.

When asked about his greatest challenge, Roger admits that being Head of the Computer Lab for 15 years was certainly an interesting experience. Everyone I have spoken to describes Roger as a people person who willingly gives his time. Indeed, he is renowned as a great conversationalist.

We were delighted hear that Professor Needham was justly recognised in the Queen’s birthday honours list and is to be awarded a CBE for his contribution to computing.

Roger was once the Chairman of the local Parish Council and in that role he once had to visit an elderly lady of some 80 years of age -her stepladder had fallen through the rotten floor of her council house while she was papering the ceiling, and she was too deaf to be able to complain on the phone. Other activities included chairing many meetings to discuss the upgrade of a wooden shack known passionately as the ‘Pavilion’. I can only presume that the shack required a major upgrade and of course the latest windows.

During his private time when Roger does manage to escape from work I have it on good authority that there are a pair of walking boots and daypack stored in a secret location somewhere in California -ready for action.

Roger enjoys sailing and is the proud owner of an 1872 Gaff Cutter. During the winter months Roger is frequently seen sanding and varnishing his boat with loving care.

I was also surprised to learn that the Needham’s household has only just had a computer in the home for the last year. I did not dare to ask whether he ran Linux or Microsoft Windows.

I would like to take this opportunity to remind all our graduands to talk a leaf out of Roger Needham’s book :

The key to a good and happy life is to ensure that you live to work and not work to live.

Roger Needham has made an outstanding contribution to Computer Science for over 40 years in this country, and, in doing so, has reached the highest levels of excellence, an achievement that is recognised by all who have had the good fortune to work with him. Therefore, Chancellor, I present to you and the University, Professor Roger Needham, for the award of the Doctor of Science, honoris causa.


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  H.D.McCullam@lboro.ac.uk, January 2002

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