David Wheeler (computer scientist)

David John Wheeler FRS (9 February 1927 – 13 December 2004)[9][10][11] was a computer scientist and professor of computer science at the University of Cambridge.[12][13][14][15]

David Wheeler FRS
David John Wheeler

(1927-02-09)9 February 1927[1]
Birmingham, England
Died13 December 2004(2004-12-13) (aged 77)
Alma materUniversity of Cambridge (MA, PhD)
Known forBurrows–Wheeler transform (BWT)[2]
Tiny Encryption Algorithm (TEA)[3]
Wheeler Jump[4]
AwardsFellow of the Royal Society (1981)
Computer Pioneer Award (1985)
Scientific career
FieldsComputer Science
InstitutionsUniversity of Cambridge
Computer Lab, Cambridge
Darwin College, Cambridge
ThesisAutomatic Computing With EDSAC (1951)
Doctoral advisorMaurice Wilkes[6]
Doctoral students


Wheeler was born in Birmingham, England, the second of the three children of (Agnes) Marjorie, née Gudgeon, and Arthur Wheeler, a press tool maker, engineer, and proprietor of a small shopfitting firm.[16] He was educated at a local primary school in Birmingham and then went on to King Edward VI Camp Hill School after winning a scholarship in 1938. His education was disrupted by World War II, and he completed his sixth form studies at Hanley High School.[16] In 1945 he gained a scholarship to study the Cambridge Mathematical Tripos at Trinity College, Cambridge, graduating in 1948.[17] He was awarded the world's first PhD in computer science in 1951.[18]


Wheeler's contributions to the field included work on the Electronic delay storage automatic calculator (EDSAC)[19] and the Burrows–Wheeler transform (BWT). Along with Maurice Wilkes and Stanley Gill he is credited with the invention of the subroutine (which they referred to as the closed subroutine), and gave the first explanation of how to design software libraries;[4] as a result, the jump to subroutine instruction was often called a Wheeler Jump. Wilkes published a paper in 1953 discussing relative addressing to facilitate the use of subroutines.[20]

He was responsible for the implementation of the CAP computer, the first to be based on security capabilities. In cryptography, he was the designer of WAKE and the co-designer of the TEA and XTEA encryption algorithms together with Roger Needham. In 1950, along with Maurice Wilkes, he used EDSAC to solve a differential equation relating to gene frequencies in a paper by Ronald Fisher.[21] This represents the first use of a computer for a problem in the field of biology.

Wheeler married Joyce Blackler in August 1957, who used EDSAC for her own mathematical investigations as a research student from 1955. He became a Fellow of Darwin College, Cambridge in 1964 and formally retired in 1994, although he continued to be an active member of the University of Cambridge Computer Laboratory until his death. In 1994 he was inducted as a Fellow of the Association for Computing Machinery. In 2003, he was named a Computer History Museum Fellow Award recipient "for his invention of the closed subroutine, and for his architectural contributions to ILLIAC, the Cambridge Ring, and computer testing."[22] The Computer Laboratory at the University of Cambridge annually holds the "Wheeler Lecture", a series of distinguished lectures named after him.[23]

Personal life

On 24 August 1957 Wheeler married astrophysics research student, Joyce Margaret Blackler. Together they had two daughters and a son. He died of a heart attack on 13 December 2004 while cycling home from the Computer Laboratory.[16]


Wheeler is often quoted as saying "All problems in computer science can be solved by another level of indirection."[24] Another quotation attributed to him is "Compatibility means deliberately repeating other people's mistakes."[25]

Another quote of him saying at the famous Cambridge Computer Lab Coffee Room — "Published Papers in the Shelves Collecting Dust" to Ph.D. students — signifying that research must have impact, and not about papers or number of publications.


  1. Campbell-Kelly, Martin (2004). "Wheeler, David John (1927–2004)". The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 1. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/94633.
  2. Burrows, Michael; Wheeler, David J. (1994), A block sorting lossless data compression algorithm, Technical Report 124, Digital Equipment Corporation
  3. Wheeler, D. J.; Needham, R. M. (1995). "TEA, a tiny encryption algorithm". Fast Software Encryption. Lecture Notes in Computer Science. 1008. p. 363. doi:10.1007/3-540-60590-8_29. ISBN 978-3-540-60590-4.
  4. Wheeler, D. J. (1952). "The use of sub-routines in programmes". Proceedings of the 1952 ACM national meeting (Pittsburgh) on - ACM '52. p. 235. doi:10.1145/609784.609816. Archived from the original on 28 June 2015.
  5. Wheeler, D. J. (1992). "The EDSAC programming systems". IEEE Annals of the History of Computing. 14 (4): 34–40. doi:10.1109/85.194053.
  6. David Wheeler at the Mathematics Genealogy Project
  7. Li, Gong; Wheeler, David J. (1990). "A matrix key-distribution scheme". Journal of Cryptology. 2 (1): 51–59. CiteSeerX doi:10.1007/bf02252869.
  8. Hopper, Andy (1978). Local Area Computer Communication Networks (PhD thesis). University of Cambridge.
  9. Campbell-Kelly, M. (2006). "David John Wheeler. 9 February 1927 -- 13 December 2004: Elected FRS 1981". Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society. 52: 437–453. doi:10.1098/rsbm.2006.0030.
  10. "David Wheeler, 1927–2004". Obituaries. Cambridge Computer Laboratory. Retrieved 21 July 2011.
  11. "Professor David Wheeler". Obituaries. The Independent. London. 22 December 2004. Retrieved 21 July 2011.
  12. List of publications from Microsoft Academic
  13. Wheeler, D. J. (1994). "A bulk data encryption algorithm". Fast Software Encryption. Lecture Notes in Computer Science. 809. pp. 127–134. doi:10.1007/3-540-58108-1_16. ISBN 978-3-540-58108-6.
  14. Hopper, A.; Wheeler, J. (October 1979). "Binary Routing Networks". IEEE Transactions on Computers. C-28 (10): 699–703. doi:10.1109/tc.1979.1675237. ISSN 0018-9340.
  15. Hopper, A.; Wheeler, D. (April 1979). "Maintenance of Ring Communication Systems". IEEE Transactions on Communications. 27 (4): 760–761. doi:10.1109/tcom.1979.1094451. ISSN 0090-6778.
  16. Campbell-Kelly, Martin (3 January 2008). Wheeler, David John (1927–2004), computer scientist. 1. Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/94633.
  17. David J. Wheeler at DBLP Bibliography Server
  18. The Preparation of Programs for an Electronic Digital Computer by Maurice Wilkes, David Wheeler, and Stanley Gill; (original 1951); reprinted with new introduction by Martin Campbell-Kelly; 198 pp.; illus; biblio; bios; index; ISBN 0-262-23118-2
  19. Wilkes, M.V.; Renwick, W.; Wheeler, D.J. (1958). "The design of the control unit of an electronic digital computer". Proceedings of the IEE - Part B: Radio and Electronic Engineering. 105 (20): 121–128. doi:10.1049/pi-b-1.1958.0267 via ResearchGate.
  20. Proceedings of the Cambridge Philosphical Society, Vol 49, Pt 1, pgs 84-9
  21. Fisher, R. A. (December 1950). "Gene Frequencies in a Cline Determined by Selection and Diffusion" (PDF). Biometrics. 6 (4): 353–361. doi:10.2307/3001780. JSTOR 3001780.
  22. CHM. "David Wheeler — CHM Fellow Award Winner". Archived from the original on 3 April 2015. Retrieved 30 March 2015.
  23. "Computer Laboratory:Wheeler Lectures". Retrieved 15 October 2013.
  24. Spinellis, Diomidis (2007). "Another level of indirection". In Oram, Andy; Wilson, Greg (eds.). Beautiful code. Sebastopol, CA: O'Reilly. ISBN 978-0-596-51004-6.
  25. Cofta, Piotr (27 September 2007). Trust, Complexity and Control: Confidence in a Convergent World. John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 9780470517840.

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