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Peter Landin was a larger-than-life figure: an outstanding academic computer scientist, political radical, and bisexual gay rights activist. His work laid the foundation for the software that runs today’s laptops, desktops and the Internet.
His archive is also now available at the Bodleian Library in Oxford. Dating from 1953 to 2006, they cover 22.35 linear meters (148 physical dimensions) and are written in English, French, German, Hebrew, Polish and Russian. With the bulk of his papers dating from the 1960s to the 1970s, papers from those years trace Landin’s creative pioneering contributions to the discipline of computer science, particularly computer programming languages, and then the gradual decline of enthusiasm and cynicism towards computing. A stereotypical eccentric academic, much of the collection was preserved and written on the back of ephemera, such as posters, leaflets, brochures and correspondence from charities and organizations he supported. These fragments trace the path of a true scientific innovator.
His son Daniel Landin said: “I’m so glad the archives are accessible and appreciated! When my father died, his house remained a heaped monument to his brain, each wall then had a shelf built on it, and in front of many of these shelves, were in some cases other book shelves, sometimes on wheels (cannibalized supermarket trolley bases!) This posed a huge challenge as to how to preserve such an intense and personal archive, and when the Bodléien asked to keep it, my sister Louise, my mother Hanne and I were very grateful.”
“In the early days of computing, software written for one brand of machine didn’t work on any other. Computer scientists wanted to define “programming languages” that could be universally understood. That this is normal today – Internet software, for example, can run on all types of computers – is a consequence of Peter’s insight that the meaning of a computer program could be identified in logic mathematical and freed from the control of the manufacturer. writes Richard Bornat, former Professor of Computing at Queen Mary University of London, in Peter’s obituary for The Guardian.
After a stint as a researcher in New York and an academic at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he returned to Great Britain in 1967 and held a chair at Queen Mary College London, now Queen Mary University of London, where he remained for the rest of his academic career, most recently as Professor Emeritus of Theoretical Calculus. He enthusiastically taught students and colleagues with whom he worked as research assistants.
However, as Richard Bornat notes in Peter’s obituary: “Towards the end of his life, Peter became convinced that computing might have been a bad idea, supporting for-profit commercial interests and a surveillance state. , and that he had wasted his energies promoting it. But whether he likes it or not, his ideas underpin developments to this day. ”
Computing professor Paul Curzon said: “Having Peter’s archive housed at the Bodleian leaves a wonderful and lasting legacy, and is very appropriate given his achievements. This reflects his enormous stature and massive accomplishments in the IT field as well as his grassroots social rights activism, particularly as a prominent gay rights activist. This will give historians of IT and the LGBTQ+ rights movement 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 the ‘founding father’ of an important part of computing and an activist for social rights.
Computer science professor Edmund Robinson said: “Holding Peter’s archive 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 scoffed at this establishment tribute while secretly delighted. Peter was a truly inspirational figure, embodying everything we think best of Queen Mary: a great scientist with a real social conscience and concern for diversity.
The catalog of the Bodleian Library of the Archive of Peter Landin (1939-2009), computer scientist, academic and gay rights advocate, is now online. See: